A British Bill of Rights Is a Threat to the Absolute Ban on Torture

18/05/2016 16:37 | Updated 18 May 2016

As the government sounds the starter pistol on a consultation about a British Bill of Rights, we should beware silver-tongued ministers promising to uphold our cherished civil liberties while leading them to the firing squad.

After more than a year of false starts the Queen's speech heralds government "proposals" to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. In view of the rocky road ahead, the Prime Minister was wise not to commit to legislation at this stage.

The Queen's speech left hanging the question of whether the UK will stay within the European Convention on Human Rights and the court in Strasbourg. While Home Secretary Theresa May raised eyebrows recently by calling for us to quit the system altogether, the government has privately briefed against that position ever since.

Clarity on this fundamental issue is unlikely to come until proposals are published sometime after the EU referendum, but by then the political calculus, and the Cabinet, may look very different.

It is just as well then that, as befits the deep constitutional significance of these matters, the Justice Secretary Michael Gove has committed in Parliament to "consult widely". This is only possible if sufficient time is allowed to engage with torture survivors and other 'hard to reach' groups whose rights are likely to be on the line.

There is much to worry about in the meantime. In stark contrast to debates about Bills of Rights elsewhere in the world, it is well known that this government has an agenda to roll back human rights, even if formidable opposition from civil society, each of the devolved administrations, other political parties and even within the Conservative Party's own ranks means it has to act through subterfuge.

As a new pledge by more than 130 organisations makes clear, the very idea of a British Bill of Rights is an affront to the foundational principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the notion that human rights apply to everyone "without distinction of any kind".

In the words of a member of Survivors Speak OUT, an activist network supported by Freedom from Torture, "a 'British' Bill of Rights suggests that the government gets to decide human rights. It takes away the universality of rights. It takes away the human".

Talk to any therapist at Freedom from Torture and you will understand quickly the dangers in this approach. On a psychological level, most torture and other grave human rights abuses happen because the perpetrator has learned to distinguish 'us' who deserve rights from 'them' who do not.

The Holocaust, which our founder Helen Bamber witnessed firsthand, is a lesson writ large about where this thinking can end if it becomes part of a successful political ideology.

Michael Gove has tried to play down these perils by hinting that re-packaging human rights as 'fundamental British rights' will tackle their "bad name in the public square". But this is no semantic exercise. From the start, the Conservative Party's proposals have been driven by an ambition to reduce human rights protections for non-citizens and other groups deemed 'less worthy' of protections that are a birthright.

A stealthy assault on the torture ban is at the heart of the plan. Before the general election, the Conservative Party published a greatly derided pamphlet indicating an intention to overturn decades of international law against the forced removal of anyone to a country where they face a real risk of torture. A 'clearer test' was promised, but this must mean a different, and likely weaker, test, since nothing could be clearer than the absolute nature of the current rule which is also enshrined in other treaties to which the UK is a party, including the UN Convention Against Torture.

Conservative MP Dominic Grieve QC, speaking recently at the launch of a new human rights project by the liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue, described this idea as a 'mistake' that would 'run a coach and horses' through the European Convention on Human Rights.

Other shifty ideas mooted to chip away at the torture ban include new barriers making it harder for people to challenge ill-treatment in British courts and suspension of any British Bill of Rights for conduct of our armed forces abroad.

Ministers have sought to justify an end to the extraterritorial application of human rights laws as in the interests of British troops, at once insulting them by implying that they cannot comply with rules against torture and other abuse and misleading them by failing to explain that this move would also remove their own legal recourse if they are sent into combat without sufficient protection.

In the face of growing opposition to its plans, the government has begun to signal that any British Bill of Rights would not significantly alter human rights protection in the UK which begs the question, as a cross-party committee of peers hinted earlier this month, of whether it is better to abandon the enterprise.

The Queen's speech suggests that the government is sticking to its plan, in which case we must remain vigilant to stop any backsliding on the absolute ban on torture and other universal rights through political sleights of hand.

Follow Sonya Sceats on Twitter at @SonyaSceats and at @FreefromTorture