Labour must never turn its back on human rights

The left should highlight the ways human rights help ordinary people on a daily basis.

The left should highlight the ways human rights help ordinary people on a daily basis

Defending human rights must be a key priority for Labour. This week the Labour Campaign for Human Rights (LCHR) has launched a pamphlet that identifies the most effective arguments to achieve this, against the backdrop of Conservative threats to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA).

Our pamphlet also examines the question of reform. It is intended to open up discussion, rather than present a single solution.  However, one point is non-negotiable: Labour’s commitment to the universal standards of human rights must be unyielding.

Just over half (51 per cent) of respondents to a 2011 YouGov poll believed that human rights were bad for British justice. Given the media misrepresentation of the issue, perhaps that figure is not altogether surprising.

As our pamphlet argues, to push back against negative perceptions and defend human rights we must speak about the example Britain sets to the rest of the world with its human rights record, remembering how difficult it would be to act on the world stage regarding human rights abuses abroad if we do not uphold the same principles here.

We should emphasise that although the ECHR is the European Convention on Human Rights, it is in fact based on a rich tradition of British legal history and was largely drafted by a (Conservative) Briton.

Most importantly, let us celebrate the myriad of ways human rights help ordinary people on a daily basis. The HRA and ECHR can be used to compel authorities to tackle abuse of the elderly in care, or ensure police investigate rape claims.

Alongside other laws, they can help stop discrimination in the workplace and ensure the mentally ill are treated with dignity.

These are in addition to the rights we so often take for granted, such as freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial and the prohibition of slavery and torture.

It’s also important that Labour engages with the dissatisfaction of some voters surrounding human rights. Of course, LCHR believes the priority should be to defend the existing framework. But if reform is seen as unavoidable, we believe there are options that could strengthen rather than undermine human rights.

The question of a Bill of Rights is perhaps the most contentious reform issue. For some, the idea of a ‘British Bill of Rights’ as advocated by the Tories would undermine the universal character of human rights and be used as an excuse to strip rights away. LCHR strongly rejects any reform that would serve these purposes.

But there is also a view that Labour could pull the rug from under the feet of the Tories by creating its own Bill of Rights, different in substance to what the Tories are proposing. It could be dually advantageous in both acknowledging public concern on the issue and enabling us to improve the HRA.

These opportunities, however, must be carefully weighed against the risks outlined above.

New rights could also be added to our human rights framework. Ideas range from including trial by jury, a free-standing right to equality, incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, digital rights and economic and social rights.

This last point is particularly salient. Adding access to healthcare and education, the right to shelter, and the right to a living wage to the HRA could be ground-breaking, taking human rights into a recognisable everyday context. It would also complement Labour’s core message of being on the side of ordinary working people.

Another option for reform would be to define ‘public authority’ as including private companies that perform public services. Given that this is increasingly the case, people face human rights abuses at the hands of private companies as much as they do at the hands of the state.

Extending the coverage of the HRA in this way would create more of a deterrent against abuse of power.

A Tory ‘British Bill of Rights’ would no doubt focus on its disdain for Europe. Some suggest reforming the Strasbourg court as an answer to this.

However, since UK courts already have considerable leeway in interpreting Strasbourg judgments and the European Court of Human Rights is obliged to respect national differences, it is hard to see what more can be done.

Any reform would of course require forensic examination into all associated risks – state liability in regard to adding social and economic rights to the HRA being one example.

But it’s important we weigh up all options carefully. The threat posed to human rights is not arbitrary: under the coalition, the cuts to legal aid and the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees have already marked a regressive step for human rights in the UK.

Labour must be the party that will never turn its back on human rights. We hope our pamphlet will act as a useful tool in helping the party to mount the strongest possible defence of the HRA and the ECHR, while prompting careful thought on the tough reform choices ahead.

Charlotte Thomas is a campaigns officer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

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