21 March 2018

Kim McIntosh from Race on the Agenda (ROTA) takes a closer look at human rights and race equality, as part of BIHR’s celebration of 70 years of universal human rights.

This year is a year of anniversaries; historical milestones on the track towards equality – but there are still many roadblocks to overcome before we reach our destination. We’ve had 100 years of (some) women’s suffrage, 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 70 years since the arrival of Empire Windrush, and 50 years since the passing of 1968 Race Relations Act.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave us the basis and the language for future race and equality legislation. A break from the Magna Carta, it mainstreamed the idea that dignity, equality, and fairness belonged to everyone – not just English men - and, when those rights were not realised, it became a tool to demand them. Its influence lives on in the 1965, 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts and beyond.  

Legislation has been important in affirming race equality in the UK – signalling that state sanctioned discrimination was no longer acceptable and giving ethnic minorities’ the legal tools to tackle it. But how well did it, and does it work in practice?

The 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Act, extended protection against discrimination to include goods and services and housing, introduced indirect discrimination, and established a body to implement the law. No longer could a landlord deny you a flat, or an employer a job, based on your ethnicity. The Human Rights Act went a step further, directly enshrining the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. The Human Rights Act includes the right to not be discriminated against in relation to any other human rights. It complements the Equality Act 2010, which is also used to challenge discrimination and safeguard our right to equality. These are important pieces of law which provide a strong foundation to build from, but there is still much work to do when it comes to wider government policy and changing social attitudes with regards to race.  

Research by The Runnymede Trust and  NatCen found that 26% of those surveyed self-report as very or a little prejudiced. This has never fallen lower than 25% since the survey began in 1983. 44% say some races are born harder working than others. Beyond the law, we need citizens to buy-in to the idea of universal fairness, equality and justice. It’s not that Brits don’t support these values – the data shows that we do. But equally, we need citizens to undo the dangerous, racist belief system that casts some races are less dignified and less deserving of rights and protections than others.

Policies also need to be put in place to make sure the law can be implemented appropriately. We need to keep the Human Rights Act on the statute books and fully implement the laws we have.  The Equality Act’s Public Sector Equality Duty should be a strong lever to make sure public bodies do not discriminate unlawfully; advance equality of opportunity between people with protected characteristics (race is one of these protected characteristics) and foster good relations between groups. But government bodies, at both a central and local level, need to be more proactive at implementing these laws so that we can see meaningful change on the ground. 

With Brexit casting a cloud of doubt over the future of human rights in Britain, it’s integral that we look back over what we have achieved, what we need to protect and what still needs to be done so we can ensure that everyone – no matter their race or ethnicity – enjoys the dignity, equality, and fairness they deserve, as envisioned by the UDHR all those years ago.

Take action, join in!

Show your support and sign BIHR's 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.

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.

Check out our 70 years of universal human rights hub for more ways to join in.