Human rights don’t protect our liberty

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

Last night, following three successive ISIS-inspired attacks, Tory prime minister Theresa May hinted that Britain will tear up some clauses of the Human Rights Act in order to deal more effectively with terror suspects. This would breach the European Convention on Human Rights, on which the act is founded.

This comes after May’s speech after the London attack, in which she called for greater police powers and limits to civil liberties. At best, this is empty symbolism. At worst, it is an attack on the very thing that is at stake: the democratic and liberal order that the ISIS wannabes hate.

But people are naïve to put their faith in the Human Rights Act, and the European Convention on Human Rights, to protect our liberties. Those legal measures are not really there to defend our rights, but to put a gloss on state repression.

It is not because the police had too few powers that the London Bridge and Manchester attackers were able to hurt people. On the contrary, the police have extensive powers of surveillance and detention. Their immediate problem is that they have too much intelligence to act on. Witness the fact that many of the attackers were already known to the security services.

Calls for more policing and longer periods of detention before trial appeal to a lot of people who feel helpless after terror attacks. But these measures will not work. Instead, we need greater civic action, more social cohesion, and a society that has something positive to offer to alienated young people.

Labour’s Keir Starmer has said that the European Convention on Human Rights is the civilisation that we are defending. This is deluded. The ECHR is not a liberal document. It sets out basic human rights in its first few clauses, but then adds many qualifications. It offers no real protection to liberty.

The ECHR did not stop the secret services in Europe waging war against organised labour in the Sixties and Seventies, nor did it prevent the British government’s repressive policing measures in Northern Ireland in the Eighties. It has not stopped European governments ripping up migrants’ civil rights.

In truth, it was never meant to defend people’s rights. It was written to justify the Allied Powers’ suppression of the rights of German people under their postwar occupation.

In 1998, Britain adopted the Human Rights Act, incorporating the ECHR into British law. But since then it has offered no defence against onerous public-order laws and state attacks on migrant labour. More recently, it has been invoked in an attempt to try to derail the Brexit vote.

Neither more police powers nor the ECHR can defend our liberties. Only we can do that.

James Heartfield’s new book, The Equal Opportunities Revolution, is published by Repeater.

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Topics Politics


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