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We'll 'fix Broken Britain' through more emphasis on human rights, not less

After England's riots, the Prime Minister has pledged to replace the Human Rights Act with "our own British bill of rights". But the HRA is already quintessentially British, and the rights it enshrines are needed more than ever if we are to heal 'Broken Britain'
Irene Khan
14 September 2011

Half of a duo on Rights and Riots: see Geoffrey Bindman's piece

A month has passed since England's riots, and the Prime Minister is feeling the pressure to make good on his plan to fix Britain’s 'broken society'. The plan is wide-ranging and includes turning around 'problem' families, tackling criminal gangs, enforcing tougher policing and implementing greater discipline in schools. 

It also features prominently the repeal of the Human Rights Act (HRA) and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights. Earlier this year the government set up an independent Commission to look into this issue. The Prime Minister indicated that the new Bill would tackle “the twisting and misrepresenting of rights in a way that undermined personal responsibility.”

Juxtaposing responsibilities with rights is what autocratic regimes in Asia and Africa often do. In a democratic society, rights and responsibilities are not diametrical opposites but intrinsically linked. Human rights empower citizens and make state and society more accountable – and in that process impose rights and duties on all sides.

The Prime Minister also promised to use the UK’s presidency of the Council to Europe to bring about “important operational changes” to the European Convention of Human Rights, which is the Council’s creation. It is the Convention that has been incorporated into British law by the 1998 Human Rights Act and it still seems to be important to remind the British media that the Council is quite distinct from the EU.  

David Cameron’s pledge has pleased the hardliners in his Conservative Party but not the Liberal Democrats, the government’s coalition partner. They are staunch supporters of the Convention and insist that a UK Bill of Rights must be based on it.

In the aftermath of the riots, it is now more important than ever to support their view.

Problematising human rights is not the best way to go about building a morally vibrant society. At a time when the country is searching for shared values to bring together different cultures and communities, what could have stronger appeal than the universality of human rights?  

The Prime Minister claims that the HRA deters public bodies from acting sensibly. Yet the HRA confers no new rights that UK citizens have not enjoyed since 1954 when the UK ratified the European Convention on Human Rights.  

Before the HRA came into being in 2000, people had to resort to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. What the HRA has done is to allow British courts to apply those rights directly. Rights are now interpreted by the courts in their local context, which surely is an improvement, not a detriment.

Which right would the Prime Minister want to discard or change? Surely he would not want to restrict the right to life or fair trial or equality, the right not to be arbitrarily detained or tortured, freedom of expression, assembly or association, family life and privacy.

If these rights did not exist in the European Convention, the police could have shut down social media, turned the water cannons on – or taken an extreme measure and even executed a few London rioters. Autocratic regimes regularly use such tactics to put down riots very successfully, but they are not concerned about morality. 

There is a dangerous nationalistic undertone in Mr. Cameron’s statement that HRA will be replaced by “our own British” Bill of Rights. Human rights are not alien to British culture; they are an intrinsic part of what makes Britain a distinctive and a desirable society.

The European Convention on Human Rights is quintessentially British – not only because the document was drafted primarily by British lawyers, but also because it enshrines freedoms that have long existed in English common law. That is why UK was among the first to ratify the Convention.

The Council of Europe extends from Ireland to Russia, from Estonia to Turkey. For the UK to use its presidency of the Council to water down the Convention, as the Prime Minister seems to imply, would do little to fix British social values and much to harm the struggle for democracy and freedom in some other parts of Europe.

The real problem with human rights in the UK is that they are yet to permeate institutional culture or social values in a meaningful way. The government needs to invest more, not less, in human rights education of young people and communities and to embed human rights in local institutions.  

Injecting human rights in the efforts to correct the UK’s moral collapse may bring some much needed values of justice, equality and fair treatment to the fore. So-called 'feral kids' are the product of injustice, inequality and alienation as much as addiction and absentee fathers.

Currently there is not much talk about improving race relations, although the incident that sparked the riots was race-related. Also missing is an attempt to address deprivation, even though the riots raged in some of the poorest parts of London, greater Manchester and Birmingham. Nor are there proposals to reduce youth unemployment. Yet one in five persons aged 16 - 24 in Britain today is jobless, and many of the rioters came from that age group.

Replacing existing human rights law with another more British version is not the answer to these injustices. The real challenge is to reduce the growing social inequities and build a more secure society in which no one is left behind.

That’s what human rights are really about.  They must be seen as an instrument for transformative social change, not a luxury for good times.  

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