There is a pressing need to mark human rights day in the United Kingdom because human rights are under constant attack. Politicians and sections of the press peddle lies and distortions about the European Convention on Human Rights, the Strasbourg Court and the Human Rights Act. They allege that the system distorts justice, preventing evil people from getting their just deserts. They complain that it hampers governments in tackling terrorism and serious crime. They decry rulings preventing deportation to a country where there is a risk of torture or the death penalty. They object when a court rules that bed and breakfast owners must not refuse to accommodate a gay couple. They blame the Human Rights Act when our soldiers are made to account for complicity in torture. They accuse the Strasbourg Court of undermining democracy by being too activist and overriding our sovereign Parliament. The phrase 'human rights' has become a buzzword used to attack judges and the rule of law here and in Europe. It has weakened public confidence in the system that protects our basic rights and freedoms - as well as public confidence in our judges, who cannot answer back.
Last week The Times ran an editorial calling on Parliament to "end the absurdities of the Human Rights Act". It argued that the Human Rights Act is redundant because "the country of Locke and Blackstone already had an unmatched body of law to protect the truly vulnerable". That is surprising given the many cases where our law failed to do just that. As a barrister, I have represented newspapers on many occasions using the Human Rights Act and the Convention to vindicate free speech and freedom of the press - including when the government sought to prevent The Times from reporting on a public health tragedy. European oversight also protected the rights of gay servicemen and women at a time when Britain expelled them from armed forces solely because of their sexuality. It has protected the rights of parents and children, including when a Local Authority sought to end a mother's access to her child. We rely on the Human Rights Act, the Convention and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to protect everyone, popular and reviled, against abuses of public power. They are the bedrock of a democracy based on the rule of law and our common humanity and dignity.
In comparison to his predecessor, Michael Gove is a welcome improvement as Justice Secretary. He has promised Parliament that he would not withdraw from the oversight of the Convention system, nor weaken human rights protection. He even promised to legislate for an additional right to trial by jury. But his assurances are at best uncertain because of his attachment to parliamentary sovereignty and his refusal to abide by the final judgment of the Strasbourg Court on prisoner voting. Gove delayed the introduction of a so-called "British Bill of Rights" to give him time to seek out ways to turn the UK Supreme Court into a 'constitutional longstop', with new powers to override judgments of the two European Courts with which it disagrees. He has many friends in the Conservative party who prefer the bad old days when power was delightful and absolute power was absolutely delightful.
Human rights NGOs warn that any attempt to replace the Human Rights Act with a British restatement of civil and political rights and liberties is fraught with danger. They fear that a British Bill of Rights might be used as a way to deprive victims of the right to seek redress from Strasbourg. Their fears are not fanciful - especially given Britain's uncertain future in or outside the European Union and the way Ministers play cat and mouse with the public. A homegrown Bill of Rights would make sense only as part of a new constitutional settlement - and only if its protections were at least as strong as they are now. The Justice Secretary has the benefit of the Bill of Rights Commission's report. We consulted all four corners of the UK and were clear in our report that "any future debate on a UK Bill of Rights must be acutely sensitive to issues of devolution and, in the case of Scotland, to possible independence, and it must involve the devolved administrations." To endure, constitutional reform must be undertaken slowly and with wide consensus. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Lord Anthony Lester QC is a Lib Dem peer and human rights lawyer