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15 Reasons to Celebrate the Human Rights Act on Its 15th Birthday

01/10/2015 17:19 BST | Updated 01/10/2016 10:12 BST

Happy birthday to the Human Rights Act!

In its 15 years, this simple law has already secured justice for countless ordinary people - soldiers, journalists, campaigners, bereaved families, survivors of rape, domestic violence and slavery.

It's also suffered a barrage of toxic spin - and the Conservative Government is intent on scrapping it. Ministers couch their proposals in reasonable-sounding rhetoric of "modernising reforms" and "common sense".

But plans to replace our HRA with a 'British Bill of Rights' are neither. They will take away our most effective tool for protecting our rights here at home, rights too important to be denigrated in an ideological war waged with aggressive misinformation - to life, to freedom of expression, to not be tortured or enslaved.

Here are 15 ways the HRA has made life better for everyone in the UK - and 15 reasons the Government mustn't succeed in making this anniversary its last:

1) It's given proper legal protection to our rights

"The UK has a proud tradition of respect for human rights which long pre-dates the Human Rights Act" said a Ministry of Justice spokesperson last week.

We do. But while it's easy for politicians to wax lyrical on Magna Carta, there's nothing in it, or other historic legislation, to help ordinary people guard against tyranny. The Common Law offers no real recourse if our rights are undermined by the powerful - it does not offer the same protection as the HRA, and can be overridden by Government legislation at any time. Lip service to human rights is all very well - but if we can't enforce them in courts, it's useless.

2) It protects innocent victims' dignity

"Criminals' charter" looks good in newsprint - but the HRA is anything but. Time after time, it's been the only route to justice for crime victims and their families.

After Naomi Bryant was murdered by convicted sex offender Anthony Rice in 2005 while he was on licence from prison, his release was wrongly blamed on the HRA. What the Act did do was secure an inquest into Naomi's death, exposing a catalogue of institutional failings:

When Liberty's client wanted to stop police returning intimate photos of her young daughters to the man convicted of sexual offences against one of the girls, police refused - because the archaic, Victorian law of property told them they had to do so. He owned the items on which the photos were stored, end of story. We stepped in and, using the HRA, showed his victim's rights were more important.

3) It lets us challenge police neglect

People often believe police have a legal obligation to investigate crimes. In fact, only the HRA imposes a duty to properly investigate serious offences - police cannot be sued for negligence when things go wrong.

So the victims of taxi driver John Worboys - who raped and sexually assaulted more than 100 women - could only take action against bungling police using the HRA. And after police failed to investigate the rapist of a 17-year-old girl because they were too busy falsely accusing her of lying - driving her to self-harm and attempted suicide - she could only seek compensation using the Act.

4) It's forced our public bodies to up their game

The HRA requires bodies to actively protect our rights - not breaching them isn't enough. New laws must be created with our rights in mind.

Take Patience Asuquo, forced to work without pay or time off and abused by her "employer" for three years:

The law was subsequently changed to criminalise modern slavery. The HRA didn't just achieve justice for Patience - it helped secure greater protections for everybody.

5) It gives voice to the voiceless

The Convention on Human Rights, which our HRA enshrines into UK law, was our continent's answer to the Holocaust - a pledge that rights would never again be rationed on a whim, based on race, nationality, sex, religion or political opinion.

It means authorities can't get away with abusing or neglecting those whose voices are too often ignored - domestic violence victims, asylum seekers, BAME communities, people with disabilities, care home residents, victims of discriminatory stop and search, mental health patients. Take the case of Melanie Rabone:

6) It's a shield for journalistic freedom

When Scotland Yard threatened legal action against The Guardian, in a bid to force it to reveal its confidential phone hacking sources, it was the threat of HRA litigation that made them back down. The HRA has protected reporters' sources and defended investigative journalism - both The Sun and Sun on Sunday, those most vociferous of HRA critics, have turned to it in recent months.

7) It protects our troops

The Government believes human rights law shouldn't apply to British Armed Forces overseas - but the Act protects our troops, as well as rightly holding them to account.

It's our HRA that secured a fresh inquest into the death of Cheryl James - one of four young recruits who died in mysterious circumstances at Deepcut Barracks - and of military police officer Anne-Marie Ellement:

The Government later announced the creation of a Service Complaints Ombudsman to independently investigate the substance of complaints - a perfect example of our HRA prompting a domino effect of positive change.

8) It's helped challenge state snooping

Liberty has used the HRA to successfully challenge unlawful mass surveillance - but it's not just the security services it's kept in check.

When Poole Council saw fit to initiate a James Bond-esque spying regime on Jenny Paton's family, the HRA let her take them to task:

9) It's protected our right to protest

The HRA means we have a right to speak out - even when the mighty would rather not listen. It's been used by campaigners to challenge police who kept their photographs, prevented demonstrations and refused to facilitate peaceful protest.

Given the Government's approach to freedom of assembly illustrated in the odious Trade Union Bill, can we really trust them to preserve that right in their British Bill?

10) It lets families discover the truth about the treatment of their loved ones at the hands of the State

The HRA makes it much harder for injustices to be swept conveniently under the carpet. Article 2, the right to life, requires an effective and proper investigation into all deaths caused by the State - giving bereaved families the chance to fight for the answers they deserve. Without this law, families in the past have struggled to uncover facts about authorities' involvement in their loved ones' deaths.

Reflecting on the deplorable failure of the police and other authorities to tell the truth about historical disasters such as Hillsborough and Orgreave, Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham neatly summed it up at the Labour conference: "Had the Human Rights Act been in place in the 1980s, it would have empowered the Hillsborough families".

11) It's the cost-effective, common-sense approach

Before the HRA, Brits had to go to Strasbourg to seek justice. Repealing the HRA would take us back to bad-old days of longer delays and sky-high costs, and give less of a role to UK courts.

As Scotland's First Minister put it: "If you weaken human rights protections, you're not striking a blow at judges in Strasbourg, lawyers in London or politicians in Scotland. You're striking instead at the poor, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed."

12) And all this while protecting Parliamentary sovereignty...

...not ceding it, as some would have you believe. Unlike most Bills of Rights, the HRA doesn't give courts any power to strike down legislation. If a court finds a law incompatible, it can say so - Parliament decides how to respond.

13) It means ALL our rights matter

Human rights belong to everyone - young, old, rich, poor. This principle has driven civil rights movements from Selma to Soweto. It's the lesson of history from the Gulag to Guantanamo.

We can all fall out of favour with the Government. If we allow them to rebrand human rights as citizens' privileges - as the scant "British Bill" plans we've seen propose - we give them the keys to deciding when our freedoms should apply, and to whom. Can we trust the political elite with that decision?

14) It's made us a beacon

People elsewhere continue to fight and die for the rights enshrined in our HRA. To see the British Government take this massive backward step will have despots rubbing their hands with glee.

Earlier this year, a group of South Africa's most prominent anti-apartheid activists, politicians, artist, lawyers and academics called on our Prime Minister to reconsider. As former Archbishop of Cape Town and Robben Island prisoner Archbishop Njongo Ndungane said: "History shows that terrible things can happen when their universality is not enshrined explicitly into law."

15) It's OURS

To quote Owen Jones this week, the HRA is a rare example of those with authority giving up power voluntarily - one of very few laws that let us hold the mighty to account over neglect and abuse. It's not surprising the Government wants to take that away.

The Government consultation is around the corner. Make it clear we know what we stand to lose. There's a fight ahead - but we can win it.

Mairi Clare Rodgers is campaigns co-ordinator at Liberty