The UK’s prime minister is said to be prepared to break with the European convention on human rights, co-drafted by British lawyers in the wake of the second world war, if the Strasbourg-based court refuses to accept proposals to ‘scrap’ the Human Rights Act 1998. In this blog post, Dr Damien Short, director of the School’s Human Rights Consortium, argues that universal human rights are not a privilege or within the gift of governments; they are the basic minimum guarantees that every person should have in order to lead a minimally good life.

With the Nazi Holocaust the world witnessed what can happen when governments select those worthy of rights. Alongside six million Jewish people the Nazis deemed many other groups unworthy based on their race, beliefs or how they behaved.

The victims encompassed gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, black people and resistance fighters.

It was against this back-drop that the world community decided that universal human rights were necessary to draw a moral line in the sand. A line which said ‘never again’ will any government have the power to say who is worthy and who isn’t. Universal human rights are not a privilege or within the gift of governments; they are the basic minimum guarantees that every person should have in order to lead a minimally good life. They are universal guarantees which governments are responsible for upholding.

In the UK this vital history is being, at best, conveniently forgotten or, at worst, shamefully erased. Human rights are being rhetorically reconstructed by politicians and sections of the media as dangerous protections for those who wish to do ‘us’ harm. The waves of anti-human rights propaganda seem designed to ease the new Justice Secretary’s task of ‘scrapping’ the Human Rights Act. It is truly tragic, and indeed dangerous, when universal human rights become a political football.

We need to be clear on where human rights came from, what human rights are and how they work; the fundamental crucial details intentionally omitted from current political discourse. The Human Rights Act enshrines the 16 freedoms the UK helped draft in the European convention on human rights after the Holocaust and horrors of World War II.

The Act protects everyone’s rights to life, to liberty, to not be treated inhumanely, to freedom of expression and fair trial; it places firm legal duties on national and local public authorities to respect human rights in their decisions and actions, which assists public officials deliver fair and better laws, policies and services and crucially empowers us all to ensure we are in fact treated fairly, and with dignity and respect. Such protections can, for example, assist victims of sexual violence get justice for failures in police investigations, protect older people, or stop drastic cuts to care packages for disabled people.

The government has first outlined its somewhat vague proposals in a 2014 policy paper, and then in the Conservative manifesto. In a nutshell the plans entail, ‘scrapping’ the Human Rights Act, curtailing the role of the European Court of Human Rights and passing a ‘British Bill of Rights’.

How this will eventually play out is a matter of legitimate debate. However, there seems to be an assumption that the government would ‘consult’ on the new bill of rights, and then pass it in order to effectively replace the Human Rights Act, which would follow the normal pattern for legislative changes. But, the Human Rights Act could be repealed with the promise to consult on a future new Bill of Rights – leaving people with recourse to the European Court so long as it is not immediately effected.

There is a long way to go before any of this can happen, and there will be much political and legal wrangling. The detail will be important, but it will be vital to avoid playing into the hands of those who wish to curtail our universal protections and freedoms and avoid getting bogged down in micro-detail technical debates when the bigger picture is more important.

Ultimately, universal human rights are challenging for some, especially when politicians and the media distort the logic behind certain court decisions to further their own ends. Even so, as the British Institute of Human Rights argue:

‘You don’t have to like human rights, you can be annoyed about the kinds of decisions the law throws up, safe in the knowledge that your freedom of belief and expression is protected. Universal means everyone, and that includes people who are liked and not liked. That’s why human rights are not simply about being nice, or treating people how you’d like to be treated, and we need to be honest about that. Human rights are about more, they are the cornerstone of a democratic and fair society, a safety-net for us all, a rule book for our Government.’

Our government’s proposals seek to move us into very dangerous territory. Their proposals, if enacted, will necessarily reduce our protections and take us away from the international commitment to universality made post Holocaust and World War II. At risk is our ability to ensure our government exercises the power we give them in a manner that ensures everyone is treated with fairness, dignity and respect no matter who we are, or what religion or ethnic group we belong to.

Dr Damien Short is director of the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) and a Reader in Human Rights, who has spent his entire professional career working in the field of human rights, both as a scholar and human rights advocate. He has researched and published extensively in the areas of indigenous peoples’ rights, genocide studies, reconciliation projects and environmental human rights, and is currently researching the human rights impacts of extreme energy processes (e.g. tar sands and fracking – see the designated website). Dr Short is a regular contributor to the United Nation’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an academic consultant for the Ethical Trade Task Force of the Soil Association, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Human Rights and the Journal of Human Rights in the Commonwealth.

Image: ‘UN General Assembly hall’ by Patrick Gruban via Wikimedia Commons