On Sunday afternoon, after reading about Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act - plans which could end up with us possibly pulling out of the Council of Europe - I posted a comment on Facebook criticising the move. The response was immediate, with tens of thousands of views, hundreds of shares and dozens of messages from my constituents. It was particularly striking that, despite the regular and inaccurate demonising of the Act in the press, the vast majority of these messages expressed concern about the plans. At the same time, it was very clear that there is much misinformation and misunderstanding about what the Human Rights Act does, and how it relates to the EU.
This is not surprising, given the legally illiterate proposals the Tories announced before they were re-elected, described by their own former Attorney General as "almost puerile", "unworkable" and damaging to the UK's international reputation. Incredibly, the Government seems to be going ahead with these plans despite the fact that many of the reforms they have sought to make to the European Convention on Human Rights are already going through, and that the Court in Strasbourg is bending over backwards to avoid the UK leaving. It is clear that they are not interested in having a proper informed debate about human rights - this is all about posturing and party politics.
What is clear is that the plans they have published so far are vague and incoherent. They amount to an 8-page document published last October (which also got mauled by many non-political academic commentators) and a manifesto promise to scrap the Human Rights Act and instead introduce a British Bill of Rights. These documents don't explain what will go into the Bill of Rights nor, crucially, how it will change the UK's relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Previous attempts to come up with a coherent, cross-party response have floundered on this point, as it was clear that leaving the ECHR altogether would be the end game for some of the Conservatives involved, and the short policy paper from October makes it clear that this is a real possibility.
So to start with, it is important to get some facts straight. The ECHR is overseen by the Council of Europe. The ECHR and Council of Europe are separate to the EU, but signing up to the ECHR is a requirement for new members to join the EU. We expect states to abide by these basic rights if they want to be part of our common European project. There are also many non-EU signatories to the ECHR, including Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, amongst others, and none of these countries have talked of leaving, despite many having significantly worse human rights records than the UK (which, despite the misreporting is actually very good). The only country in Europe not to be signed up is Belarus, a state which has no respect for basic freedoms. Let's be clear - it is very possible that these proposals would result in us joining a club of two members - the UK and the most repressive and authoritarian state in Europe. A country where, according to the US State Department, government and security forces commit human rights abuses with impunity, including violence against women, children and minorities.
By contrast, the ECHR and the Human Rights Act have given legal protection to everyone in our society. Detained individuals with severe mental health conditions have won basic rights, and because of the ECHR, when innocent people are arrested and released by the police, their DNA is not retained. In this week of international anti-homophobia awareness, it is worth remembering that it was a court decision relying on the Human Rights Act which gave equal tenancy rights to same sex couples.
Pulling out of this international treaty would be devastating for our international reputation, and although it is unclear what would actually be done under the current plans, it is likely that replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights would significantly reduce the scope of our basic civil liberties. This would leave us all less free, less protected, and all the poorer as a society. Of course there will be disagreements about individual cases, and of course there will be political differences about the proper interpretation of particular rights, like the right to property or the right to free expression or association. But human rights should not be a political football, and if we are going to have a debate about rights, it should be carried out based on accurate information and with clarity about the consequences of our actions. At the moment, it seems that media misreporting of cases, combined with ill-judged and uninformed political rhetoric and nonsense about cats drown out any proper debate, and might result in us sleepwalking away from some of our most precious civic rights and out of the community of reasonable, responsible nations.
We cannot allow this to happen. We all need to get organising on a local level, to sign petitions, to get in touch with MPs and to raise the level of debate (see rights.info, a new impartial website about human rights). Amnesty and Liberty have issued calls to action, and I urge everyone to respond.
Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England