At a crowded conference of human rights lawyers and activists held recently at the University of Essex to celebrate the memory of Professor Kevin Boyle, a remarkable advocate of human rights, I was struck by a great disparity between his energy and confidence and the mood of the gathering.
Kevin made the case for freedom of conscience and religion across the world; appeared before the European Court of Human Rights to defend Kurdish citizens in Turkey from state oppression; set up the Human Rights Centre at Essex University and Article 19 in the UK; contributed to the first years of Democratic Audit; and as adviser to Mary Robinson, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, set a strong and committed course of action and argument against the War on Terror.
Those of us who had worked with Kevin spoke warmly and with nostalgia of the experience. But I was surprised by an atmosphere of present foreboding. It seemed that everyone feared that the mood of the times was shifting against the very idea of human rights here in the UK – and that the future even of the Human Rights Act was in grave danger under a coalition government divided between relentless hostility towards the Act among the Tories and support for it from the Liberal Democrats. Edward Mortimer, the writer and journalist who became a high-level official at the United Nations, delivered an eloquent speech calling on all of us there to rally to the cause of human rights.
Leading civil society organisations in the UK have now done so. Some 43 organisations have issued a call to political party leaders to protect the Human Rights Act in an open letter to mark international Human Rights Day on 10 December, published in The Times. The organisations are of all sizes and cover a diverse range of issues and concerns. Among them are, for example, the Royal College of Nursing, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mind, Unicef UK, Age UK, Mencap, Citizens Advice, Equality South West, the National AIDS Trust and the Down’s Syndrome Association, alongside the main human rights organisations in Britain.
Stephen Bowen, Director of the British Institute of Human Rights said: “Many voices are coming together to speak with one voice to defend the Human Rights Act. We hold a common belief in the common good of the Human Rights Act.”