Life & Culture

History shows why we need a Human Rights Act


The government will shortly announce a public consultation on its plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. This may seem like dry semantics, of interest only to legal and constitutional techies, but nothing could be further from the truth.

What is proposed has profound implications both for the UK and for human rights worldwide. This is an issue in which the Jewish community has a particular stake and I would encourage readers to participate in the consultation. Your voice matters.

A Jewish response to the government's proposals will have particular resonance. Why? Because the Human Rights Act is a legacy of the Holocaust.

International human-rights law developed in response to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis; a practical expression of the necessity to ensure that tyrannical nations would never again be allowed to oppress their own citizens.

The United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 but many, including the British Conservative lawyer-politician David Maxwell-Fyfe felt that the UN document did not go far enough. Maxwell-Fyfe had been deeply shaken by his experience as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials - he successfully pushed for a European treaty, which, crucially, included a mechanism for adjudicating human-rights claims and providing redress for victims. Hence the European Convention on Human Rights, and its associated European Court in Strasbourg, were born with a strong lineage dating back through the English Common Law to the 1689 Bill of Rights and Magna Carta.

The final link in the chain came in 1998, when the Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention into UK law. The Act, in the parlance of the time, ''brought rights home''. No longer would litigants have to face the time and expense of pursuing claims through the Strasbourg court. For the first time, UK courts would adjudicate cases with reference to Convention rights.

A further, little-known benefit of the Act was that all public authorities underwent an extensive appraisal of their policies and procedures to ensure they were compatible with the Convention. This has undoubtedly led to a greatly more ''human-rights friendly'' public sector in the UK.

So why has the Act so fallen out of favour that the government wants to repeal it? The Act has been the victim of mischievous tabloid myth-making over the years. Alongside these myths, a more serious charge levelled at the Act is that it undermines the sovereignty of parliament. This is untrue - instead, it allows courts to point out that legislation is incompatible with Convention rights and invite parliament to reconsider.

I don't claim that the situation is perfect. Courts are human constructs; they occasionally make mistakes, and they certainly make decisions with which it is possible to disagree. But often their controversial judgments - such as the 1981 Strasbourg decision in Dudgeon vs the UK, which outlawed the criminalisation of homosexual acts in private in Northern Ireland - turn out to be wise, humane and forward-looking.

Even where systemic problems do arise, the best solution is constructive dialogue rather than disengagement. In 2012, Ken Clarke and I negotiated significant improvements in the procedures of the Strasbourg court, including, crucially, persuading the court to show greater deference to the legal and political traditions of individual nations like the UK. I would extend this ''glass half full'' philosophy to the controversial case of Abu Qatada, whose extradition from the UK was blocked by the Strasbourg court on the grounds that Jordanian courts allowed evidence obtained by torture.

We solved this impasse by getting Jordan to reform its justice system - a win-win situation.

So I would argue that the current system works. The onus is on those who want to change it to be open about the benefits and costs of doing so. Whereas any benefits seem insignificant, the potential costs are enormous. In various ways, the Human Rights Act and European Convention are bound into the devolution settlements of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Outside England, there is little appetite for the government's proposals, which can only fuel further secessionist sentiment.

Beyond encouraging the break-up of the United Kingdom, the international costs of the government's plans are already being paid in Russia, Venezuela and Kenya - whose governments have cited the UK's ambivalence in defence of their own decisions to backtrack on human rights.

In conclusion, I believe this is an argument that supporters of the Human Rights Act can win. There is a growing realisation that the costs and complications of repeal far outweigh any benefit.

But we will not win by default. When the government launches its consultation, the Act will need informed and determined advocates.

With the Act's roots in the Holocaust, I can think of no more powerful voice than that of the Jewish community, which is why I welcomed René Cassin's invitation to speak at JW3 last week.

I urge you to get involved.

Dominic Grieve is MP for Beaconsfield. He was Attorney-General from 2010-14. Last Thursday evening (January 21) in an event organised by Jewish human-rights charity, René Cassin, he outlined to Rabbi Julia Neuberger his opposition to the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act.

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