As part of our current campaign, BIHR's Natasha blogs about her experience of a March for Human Rights tour event - from the inside. 

It is 7.45am on Tuesday morning. I am at Euston station, hoping I have remembered everything and clutching a coffee. This is quite early for me and it’s going to be a long and busy day.

I’m off to my first event as part of BIHR’s ‘March for Human Rights’ campaign. It’s actually the first event of the campaign, and the first for my colleague Johnny. Johnny and I are joined by Helen, who is an old hand at this sort of thing and has delivered quite a few events over the last five years.

We all squeeze on to a train. Johnny and Helen are rereading their slides and briefing materials. I am checking Twitter to make sure my scheduled messages have gone out according to plan (they have). We discuss what the day might look like as the countryside rolls past. Very quickly, it is 9am and we are getting off the train and clambering in a taxi with all of our banners, resources, information packs and technology in tow.

When we arrive at the venue – a hall on the campus of Northampton University – we are met by Anjona, our contact at the partner organisation Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council. Anjona shows us around, links us up to her laptop and helps us start to make the room look like a welcoming environment. We put up our banner, hang up our bunting and put pictures of BIHR staff on the walls holding their #alrightwithhumanrights campaign sheets. We name our tables – for this event we have chosen four ‘Human Rights Heroes’ – Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai – and stick the short biographies about them alongside the photo of the BIHR staff member who nominated them. I am particularly pleased that my nomination Sojourner Truth made the list.

People begin filing in, making coffees and flicking through our sample resources. We have put out a wide selection, all of which have been finalised and printed in the few months I have been working at BIHR. For a small team, we produce a lot of really ground-breaking literature and it’s enormously satisfying to see these in print. As people take their seats and Helen and Johnny make noises about beginning proceedings, I station myself in a corner. I’m sure I must look like a grumpy teenager at a party but I’m on my phone ready to tweet along with the day’s events. I don’t get to go to many BIHR events and I’m looking forward to hearing how Helen and Johnny make human rights accessible for a varied audience.

It doesn’t take long before we start getting questions which show the range of concerns people have about human rights law. A woman asks what effect Brexit may have on rights and protections; we agree that we will discuss this in more detail, and a latecomer asks the same question not long after. We look at some of the key rights in the Human Rights Act, like the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, and the right to a private and family life. Helen explains the difference between absolute rights and restricted rights – so your right to liberty can be restricted, if you’re a danger to yourself or others, for example. The idea of a restricted right is quite a challenge for plenty of people, and it is interesting (and sometimes very surprising, to me) to hear which rights people think are absolute or not. Someone says that the right to be free from torture is not absolute (it is), because sometimes suspects have to be harmed to get information which will ensure the safety of the country. I am quite shocked by this, because it demonstrates just how far the fear of terrorism in particular has permeated society that even individuals with an interest in human rights may not be able to distinguish what lawful interventions can be made.

We discuss some real life examples, to see if we can work out what rights might be at risk in each one. Some seem very obvious to me, but it seems that the 9 months I’ve spent working at BIHR have allowed me to absorb a lot more knowledge than I would think, because our participants have some quite different suggestions. I find it quite surprising how people interpret the laws in the Human Rights Act, but also reassured – these kinds of variations demonstrates how useful the law is, and help to ensure that people are treated with dignity and respect. There is a very animated discussion about tattoos in the workplace, and whether they fall within the remit of the Human Rights Act. This is apparently a first for a BIHR event, and Helen and Johnny do their best to explain how the law might relate to this. In the light of the recent ECJ ruling about headscarves in the workplace, there’s every possibility that expression, whether it be related to religion or not, could well become a big issue in the courts in the future.

As we move in to the afternoon sessions, we come back to Brexit and the European Court of Human Rights. Helen succinctly explains that although the Human Rights Act is not under threat of repeal with Brexit, it is a Conservative manifesto pledge from 2015 and one to which Theresa May has pledged personal allegiance. The Conservative government plan to ‘scrap’ the Human Rights Act and replace it with a so-called British Bill of Rights. Although we do not yet know what form this Bill may take, there is every likelihood that it will feature watered-down rights for all of us, and even fewer guaranteed rights for non-citizens and people with dual citizenship. There is also a strong possibility that withdrawal from the European Union will make withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights seem like the next logical step, and this would be really bad news for human rights protections at home and abroad. 

‘Human Rights behind the headlines’ is our next discussion point. We look at some key stories that have been misrepresented in the media and which demonstrate the effect that the media can have on public opinion. I think ‘catgate’ is particularly interesting, about a man who the media reports can’t be deported because of his cat. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing certain newspapers would print… but it’s not quite true. In fact, the cat is a crucial indicator of the real reason that he wasn’t deported – his long term relationship with another man, before gay marriage was legalised. Not to mention the fact that the only reason this person was in the country ‘illegally’ was because his visa had expired and there was a delay in processing a new one – he wasn’t a criminal at all! In the light of recent headlines about people being deported despite many years of residency, long family ties and no connection to their country of ‘origin’ any more, this seems a particularly relevant case.

Finally, we split everyone up to do the final activity – sharing their personal support for the Human Rights Act. This bit is crucial for us as we’re collecting these individual testimonies to demonstrate the level of public interest in maintaining human rights as they are now. We’re going to be taking them to the government later on in the spring, and making sure policy makers and politicians know what people think. We ask everyone to write down why they’re #alrightwithhumanrights and then take a picture for sharing on social media, and nearly everyone gets involved. As people discuss what human rights mean to them, another lively conversation springs up about abortion and the right to life.

At last, it’s time to take the bunting down, sign out of Twitter and pack everything away. We divide up all the materials between our backpacks and walk back to the station. On the way home, we discuss what worked, what didn’t, what happened that we didn’t expect, and what did. We all agree that the question about tattoos took us by surprise!

Then we’re at Euston, and it’s time to go our separate ways. Helen and Johnny are off to the third event almost straight away, and Sanchita and Emily are already on their way to Scotland for the second event. March keeps marching on, and March for Human Rights keeps happening. We’ll be there when it does, every year, keeping up the fight for our fundamental protections. Join us on our #MarchforRights and tell us why you’re #alrightwithhumanrights. It could be your story that makes the difference.   

 

 

Sojourner Truth was born a slave in New York in 1797 and went on to become an African-American abolitionist, women’s rights activist and one of the first black women to win a case against a white man. Most famous for her speech now known as ‘Ain’t I a Woman’, she had a huge effect on the early American suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and black feminist writers.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________