by Jo Hayes on 20 July, 2015
This is a letter from me that the local press declined to publish.
On 27th June I was in Colchester High Street with colleagues to raise public awareness of the new Government’s threat to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. I was shocked by the hostility and sheer ignorance exposed by some of the comments made.
“What about OUR human rights?” was a favourite response. What indeed? They are in good shape at the moment, because you, I and everyone else in Colchester have the same right as the 700 million people who live in member states of the Council of Europe, to take our government or other public authority to court in Strasbourg as a defence against government action that infringes fundamental rights. It is the Government’s goal of taking us out of the Strasbourg court’s jurisdiction that threatens to interfere with that.
These rights we take as a given, and surveys show that a huge majority of British people agree with them: life, free speech, a fair trial etc. In a world where travel between countries is commonplace, it is in all our interests that standards of public authorities’ behaviour and of justice in other countries we may find ourselves are of a decent standard.
In too many places people like us are treated with contempt or even killed by public authorities with impunity. The right-wing press have whipped up fervour about the supposed inability of the UK to deport people we don’t want. But they overlook that rulings by the Strasbourg Court help to implement UK foreign policy to promote human rights and freedoms abroad. For example, its rulings delayed the deportation of Abu Qatada in 2012, and on the way helped ensure much-needed reforms to the Jordanian criminal justice system that everyone must welcome, as some day we or a loved one may find ourselves affected by it. And in the end Abu Qatada was deported.
Viewed in this way, rulings by the Strasbourg Court are a cost-effective way of implementing government foreign policy.
Similarly, in the vast majority of cases decisions by our own highest courts are usually accepted by the Strasbourg Court. Abu Hamza failed to get his conviction for soliciting to murder overturned, and failed to prevent his later extradition to the United States.
Over the years several treaties the UK has signed have dealt not just with inter-state relations but standards of behaviour between a State and those over whom it exercises power. That is the essence of the value of the Strasbourg court. The issue is not us against foreigners, but us against unaccountable abuses of power.
Perhaps I need do no more than quote Dominic Grieve, who was Attorney General for four years until last year. As Mr Grieve has warned, a Bill of Rights that places us outside the European Convention on Human Rights would be reputationally disastrous for this country and would have very serious consequences for the survival of the Convention itself.
The Human Rights Act 1998 also underpins devolution settlements to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. How will those be unpicked?”