A new British bill of rights? Hopefully not
We can’t trust our illiberal leaders to protect our freedoms.
Seventy years ago today, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco, ushering in the era of human rights. But in Britain, there are increasing calls to eliminate the existing human-rights framework and create a new bill of rights. And I can understand why. In the past few years, there have been countless stories of faux human-rights claims – enough to arouse suspicion among many human-rights activists. Is it really a human right for prisoners to vote in elections? Or a human right for life sentences to include the possibility of release?
The UK government’s concern with these types of cases may be legitimate, but what is troubling about the debate is the idea that our current political leaders can come up with something better.
All of the substantive rights and freedoms in the Human Rights Act (1998) are taken word for word from the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). This was based on other core human-rights documents that were being drafted at the time, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
These earlier documents were drafted in the wake of the Second World War. Europe had witnessed unspeakable horrors, and in the following years, through the Nuremberg trials, countless atrocities against humankind were brought to light.
The international human-rights treaties debated and drafted during the Nuremberg years were designed to limit the role of the state. They were to make it clear that there are some fundamental freedoms that are inherent to the human person. These rights are not given by the state and cannot be taken away. That is why the Universal Declaration deliberately begins by recognising the ‘inherent dignity’ of all members of the human family. Though they are far from perfect – owed mostly to the fact that a significant voting bloc sat behind the Iron Curtain – these human-rights treaties promote human freedom far more than our current leaders are prepared to.
Seventy years ago, the United Kingdom and other Western countries consistently rejected the arguments of the Communist-led nations. For example, during one negotiation, British delegate Lady Gaitskell defended freedom of speech as ‘the foundation stone on which many of the other human rights were built’.
When the Soviet Union attempted to insert the clause that, ‘All societies, unions and other organisations of a fascist or anti-democratic nature, as well as their activity in any form’ should be ‘forbidden by law under pain of punishment’, the West responded. The Belgian representative said that despite ‘hating fascism as intensely as did the USSR’, tolerance should mean tolerating even the intolerant.
Accordingly, the UK vigorously defended the right of all organisations, ‘even fascist and communist ones’, to exist and to make their views known, even though those organisations held views that the majority of the population repudiated.
Fast forward to today. UK government officials fought hard (and failed) to maintain a criminal prohibition on ‘insulting words’ under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. There are plans to push through a ‘snoopers’ charter’ in an attempt to criminalise ‘extremism’ on the internet. Home secretary Theresa May is desperate to ban groups who ‘stay just within the law but spread poisonous hatred’. All of this in pursuit of ‘British values’ – a phrase that the state gets to define (and redefine) at its pleasure.
While the Universal Declaration recognised the vital role of the family, declaring that it is the ‘natural and fundamental group unit of society’, the Scottish government is eagerly trying to implement its ‘named person‘ scheme, which is designed to make the state a co-parent with extraordinary powers to meddle in the private and family life of its citizens. The law would allow state monitoring and intervention to protect every child’s wellbeing in Scotland, regardless of the parents’ wishes. The child’s wellbeing would be defined by the state without the slightest consideration for the right to privacy and family life. As the list of state-enhancing, freedom-diminishing initiatives increases, why does anyone think a new bill of rights would make things better and not worse?
Although the core human-rights treaties we have today are flawed, they largely achieve their aim: some valid limitations on the state’s reach and a recognition that rights are inherent not state-granted. Nothing in the current political climate suggests we can achieve the same today.
Let’s have a debate about the hijacking of human-rights language, but let’s not pretend a British bill of rights drafted by our current leaders is the solution.
Paul Coleman serves as senior legal counsel for ADF International. He is a solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales and has represented many clients before the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies.