This article was originally published in the 2015 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.
Taking the Rights Path – The Human Rights Act
We must stand together to ensure our human rights are protected in this country for now and our future generations writes Naomi McAuliffe of Amnesty International
In the aftermath of the devastation of two World Wars, our human rights were enshrined in law to ensure that these atrocities would never be repeated. The UK was instrumental in establishing the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to protect us from human rights abuses by our own governments.
The Human Rights Act came into force in the UK in 2000, bringing most of the rights contained in the ECHR into British law so that individuals could take their cases to domestic courts for protection, instead of having to wait for the slow wheels of justice to turn at the overstretched European Court of Human Rights.
The Conservative Party made the scrapping of the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights a manifesto commitment at the General Election in May. We have yet to hear what changes in law this would mean as Michael Gove has yet to announce a consultation on the proposed Bill but we believe that removal of the HRA will undoubtedly lead to a lowering of human rights standards in the UK and an impact on the UK’s international reputation on human rights.
Amnesty International UK is currently campaigning to Save the Human Rights Act by resisting repeal of the legislation itself and changing the conversation around human rights in this country. The threat to the HRA presents us with an opportunity – to tell the positive story of human rights and how they are relevant to everyone in Scotland. Human rights are not an abstract concept; they can be applied in our interactions with healthcare, education, local authorities and all organs of the State.
We need the Human Rights Act to protect the most vulnerable in our society:
Protecting us at vulnerable times
Mr and Mrs Driscoll had lived together for over 65 years. Unable to walk unaided, Mr Driscoll relied on his wife to help him move around. She was blind and relied on her husband as her eyes. When Mr Driscoll was moved into a residential care home, Mrs Driscoll wanted to move to the home with her husband but was told she didn’t meet the criteria. The couple were, understandably, very distressed by this decision.
This was a clear breach of the couple’s right to a family life as protected by the Human Rights Act, and a public campaign was launched to encourage social services to think again. As a result, Mrs Driscoll’s needs were re-assessed and the couple were reunited – setting a precedent for elderly couples to be kept together in the same care home.
This is one example of why the Human Rights Act places public authorities in the UK – including hospitals and social services – under an obligation to treat everyone with fairness, equality and dignity.
Protecting domestic violence victims and keeping families together
The obligations in the Human Rights Act helped a woman and her children find a safe home after leaving an abusive husband. Her husband continually traced them, forcing them to move around constantly.
When she arrived in London the local social services department told her she was an unfit parent because she was making the family intentionally homeless by moving without justification and her children would be taken into foster care. With help from an advice worker, she argued the department was violating her rights under the Human Rights Act. At that point, they agreed – and the family stayed together.
Allowing the UK to take a stand for human rights everywhere
We’re rightly proud of our tough stance around the world on human rights. The UK will not extradite to a country where the death penalty is used. UK politicians have called for Guantanamo to be closed and laws criminalising homosexuality in Africa and elsewhere to be overturned.
We recently published results of a poll we commissioned on attitudes to human rights found strong support for rights in Scotland and little appetite to repeal the Human Rights Act among the public. Just 3% of people said that repealing the Human Rights Act should be the top priority for the government, with only 11% even listing it in their top three concerns.
The founding principle of human rights is their universality – that they apply to everyone equally just by virtue of everyone being human. Reassuring, then, that 78% of people agreed that rights need to apply to everybody equally in order to work at all. That includes people whose views or actions we might profoundly disagree with of course.
One of the other key findings of the research was that 67% of people said that politicians should not be allowed to pick and choose which rights we are entitled too. Indeed they should not – it should not be up to the government of the day to redraft or remove human rights protections. It took a long time to win these rights over previous generations and we should not allow politicians to take them away with the stroke of a pen.
We cannot hope to make the world a better place if we turn our back on human rights, and the European convention and court that we helped put into place to make all of our lives more secure.
Below: Illustrations from a new book from Amnesty International about The Human Rights Act by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell.
16 sketches encapsulate the freedoms and protections people enjoy every day, but never notice. They are simplified as: life, protection, freedom, safety, fairness, justice, family, belief, thought, togetherness, love, solidarity, ownership, knowledge, hope and mercy.
As well as being an ideal gift for children to treasure, the book also raises awareness of the fact that the Human Rights Act is currently under threat, with the government saying it intends to repeal it.
Illustrations credit: Chris Riddell/Amnesty
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