As the dust settles on the General Election, and this morning's media stories focusing on the new Justice Secretary's task of "scrapping" the Human Rights Act, many people are concerned about what the results mean for the future protection of universal human rights here at home. It is sad that human rights have become a political football, and the new Government has made clear commitments to fundamentally change the legal protection of our human rights. Here at BIHR we are clear this is not about party politics. We are concerned with making sure that people are clear on what human rights are and how they work, these basic but crucial details are often overlooked in current debates. Yet clarity about both shines a real spotlight on why current debates about changing the law should be approached with caution.

What are the “human rights” we’re talking about?

Our Human Rights Act makes universal human rights law here at home, by “bringing home” the 16 freedoms we helped draft in the European Convention on Human Right after World War II. These are protections like the right to life, to not be treated inhumanely, to liberty, freedom of expression and fair trial. Back then the world community had witnessed what happened when governments get to pick and choose who has rights. Universal human rights, agreed the world over, draw a line which says never again will any government have the power to say who counts and who doesn’t.  Challenging as that idea might be, this means human rights are not a privilege or within the gift of governments; they are the basic minimums every person should have, and which governments are responsible for upholding.

The Human Rights Act: what and how?

The Human Rights Act is the law which protects people in the UK against the Government and public officials when they over step the mark. This could be helping victims of sexual violence get justice for failures in police investigations, protecting older people, or stopping drastic cuts to care packages for disabled people. Moreover the way the legal duty in the Human Rights Act works means hospitals, local councils, housing associations and care homes, are proactively working with BIHR to deliver public services that respect people’s basic human rights. Whilst many people will never need to rely on the HRA it is there working in the background, making sure power is exercised fairly and respectfully.

What changes might we expect?

The new Government has made clear commitments to fundamentally change the legal protection of our human rights. These plans, outlined in the policy paper published in October 2014, the 2015 manifesto and other public statements essentially boil down to:

  • “Scrapping” the Human Rights Act
  • Curtailing the role of the European Court of Human Rights
  • Passing a “British Bill of Rights”

Taking each of these in turn:

  • “Scrapping” the Human Rights Act: The language being used mirrors the direction of travel – a negative one. If what is on the table is better protection of our human rights then why does it come from a place where human rights are viewed so negatively? We should all be concerned about getting rid of the law that empowers us to hold the Government to account, should we never need to.
  • The European Court of Human Rights: when the European Convention was established countries also set up a Court to make sure people have access to independent judges to hear their cases. This is a basic tenant of ensuring justice. Given that human rights place limits on power, it’s hardly surprising that the Court will throw up decisions that governments don’t like – the judgements are against them. But that is what it means to live in a democracy where no one is above the law, including those with power.
  • British Bills of Rights: There are many facets to this. A bill of rights is about setting down the basic rights people have and the duties of their government to respect these…sound familiar? This is what the Human Rights Act does. The idea of “British” rights takes us away from universal human rights, the rights expect other countries to uphold. It takes us into the territory of what the rights the Government wants to grant, which is made all the clearer by proposals to restrict rights depending on criteria set down by Government. And of course there is the rather larger question of devolution and what a “British” law would mean in that context.

Does it matter, or does it matter now?

The short answer is yes. What is at stake is how we are all able to make sure our government exercises the power we give them in a way that ensures everyone is treated with dignity and respect, no matter who we are.

Right now there is lots of speculation about what might happen. What we do know is that the government has clearly laid its cards on the table and that the direction of travel is away from universal human rights. And we know that the Prime Minister has committed to putting forward measures to scrap the HRA in the Queen’s Speech on 27 May. With the announcement of Michael Gove as the new Justice Secretary, media coverage has been quick to reference abolishing the Human Rights Act as one of his key tasks.

The reality is that anything could happen. Scrapping our law could be kicked into the long-grass or it could be full steam ahead and part of the new government’s immediate plans. This could take many forms. There is an assumption this would involve consulting on the new bill of rights, and then passing this to “scrap” the Human Rights Act – this would follow usual pattern for legislative changes. However, it is also possible that the Human Rights Act could be repealed with the promise of consulting on a future new Bill of Rights, only leaving people with recourse to the European Court (provided that is not immediately effected). Being live to all the eventualities is important.

But isn’t it all too complex to happen?

No doubt there will be much to discuss in terms of the legal and political realities of the proposals, how they might happen and how they might be challenged. This detail will obviously be important, but those of us who value universal human rights must not get so caught up in the technicalities that we are (inadvertently) co-opted into the cause for getting rid of our protections.

Ultimately, universal human rights are challenging. You don’t have to like human rights, you can be annoyed about the kinds of decisions the law throws up, safe in the knowledge that your freedom of belief and expression is protected. Universal means everyone, and that includes people who are liked and not liked. That’s why human rights are not simply about being nice, or treating people how you’d like to be treated, and we need to be honest about that. Human rights are about more, they are the cornerstone of a democratic and fair society, a safety-net for us all, a rule book for our Government. Moves that take the UK away from these universal standards, the ones we tell other countries they must obey, risks what protects us all.

What next?

There is much work to be done to make sure that universal human rights are protected and respected here in the UK. BIHR's mission to bring human rights to life here at home by empowering people to know what human are and to speak up will be vital. Now is the time to stand Together for Human Rights, you can sign up to join in here: www.bihr.org.uk/together