22 March 2018

Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, discusses the importance of human rights, and particularly our Human Rights Act, to ensure justice and accountability for women experiencing violence.

“There can be no justice without accountability”.

At Southall Black Sisters, we have fought for the rights of BME (black and minority ethnic) women and girls facing gender-based violence for almost 40 years. Our job is to help them obtain effective protection and assert their fundamental human rights to equality and freedom.

Women who attend SBS have to challenge – on a daily basis – violent, abusive and degrading practices. This can include domestic and sexual violence, FGM, forced marriage, honour killings, polygamy, and many others, exacerbated by an institutional failure to address such crimes.

So, when the state lets these women down when the state puts them at further risk of violence and abuse; when the state produces laws and policies that look good on paper yet never properly implements or applies them – then our job is to ensure that those state agencies are held accountable for their failures.

We have seen the police failing repeatedly when investigating crimes against women and girls – failures which are too many, too frequent and too basic and sometimes catastrophic. In 2014, SBS raised concerns with the body responsible for inspecting police services (HMIC) as part of the review on police responses to domestic violence and abuse. We detailed a catalogue of failures, including flawed investigations into crimes of violence against women. We said at the time, that the issue was not about the lack of policies and laws or even about training but about the failure of implementation. In a recent case* against the police, brought by two women who survived sexual attacks by John Worboys, the Supreme Court examined this precise failure. The case was vigorously opposed by the police and supported by the Home Secretary. They fought every step of the way– at great expense to the taxpayer – to avoid accountability, despite admitting serious failings in the case.

Yet without the scrutiny of these failures, and without redress for victims, a climate of indifference, disbelief and impunity builds. The police have no impetus to change or improve and perpetrators are emboldened because they know that they can get away with their abuse. And victims’ voices are lost and ignored. If anyone needs evidence of why it is so important for police conduct to be held up to scrutiny, they need only look to the Hillsborough and Rotherham scandals.

The ‘Warboys’ judgment is, therefore, a vindication of the courageous struggles by the victims of Warboys and of countless other women to ensure that police conduct is held up to scrutiny, such that there is an effective remedy for any failings in the investigation of the crimes they have suffered.

The judgment highlights the importance of the rule of law itself – that no one, including the police is above the law. It will have far-reaching ramifications, not just for abused and raped women, but for all other vulnerable and powerless groups who are forced to look to the police for protection and some semblance of justice in the face of serious crimes of violence. This case should serve to help the police and the criminal justice system at large to understand that such victims cannot and should not be ignored or treated with callous indifference, that they will be held to account if they fail to do their job in relation to such crimes.

But above all, this judgment also reminds us of the importance of the Human Rights Act in asserting fundamental rights and freedoms. It makes it absolutely clear that the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment means the police owe a duty not just to the public, but to individuals, to protect them from, and investigate, these very serious crimes. Where they fail in that duty there will be scrutiny, there will be accountability and there will be consequences.

This is a victory not just for feminism, but for all of us who are concerned with human rights, justice and equality. It reminds us that there can be no justice without accountability and there can be no accountability without the Human Rights Act.

Take action, join in!

Show your support and sign our digital 70th birthday card for universal human rights here - it's a quick and simple way to have your voice heard and join others across the UK. Find our more about our work to celebrate 70 years of the UDHR here.

Remember we're running a digital campaign between 14 - 23 March; follow the discussion on social media using #MarchforHumanRights and #celebrating70. We'd love for you to join the conversation.