11 December 2015

We held an action-packed programme of events to celebrate global Human Rights Day.  Human Rights Day is marked each year on 10th December to commemorate the date the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948. This year the UN’s theme was “Our Rights, Our Freedoms, Always” and this was heard loudly and clearly in our celebrations last week.At our afternoon panel event in the Houses of Parliament, we were joined by Sir Nicolas Bratza, former President of the European Court of Human Rights and BIHR Chair; Simon Israel, Channel 4 broadcaster; Mark Neary, campaigner, blogger and father to Steven Neary; Imran Khan, human rights lawyer best known for representing Stephen Lawrence’s family; Ray Walker, Executive Director of Nursing from Mersey Care NHS Trust, and Sarah Yiannoullou of the National Survivor User Network.

Here at BIHR, our mission is to bring human rights to life for people across the UK, in everyday situations. Given our current government’s commitment to "scrap" our Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, Human Rights Day was a timely opportunity to reflect on the day-to-day impact of our Human Rights Act and take these discussions into the Houses of Parliament. Kindly hosted by Lord Low and Baroness Prashar, we convened a range of expert speakers to share their stories and experiences of using our Human Rights Act for positive social change.

Lord Low, our Parliamentary co-host, opened the afternoon by reminding everyone that this was an apt and much needed opportunity to tell positive and often overlooked stories that have emerged in the 15 years since the HRA came into force in 2000.

Sir Nicolas Bratza (former President of the European Court of Human Rights and now BIHR’s Chair) explored the journey the HRA travelled through the political sphere before it was passed in 1998. He referred to the often overlooked cross-party support and commitment the HRA had, and then moved on to a more sombre reflection on how this legacy is currently being tarnished.

Next up was Stephen Bowen, BIHR’s Director, reminding us of the pivotal moment in history when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, sending a strong signal that countries across the globe would join hands to secure a world free from fear and free from want. He reminded the audience that although this is an extraordinary cause for celebration, it is a critical time, and BIHR is determined to ensure that people understand what’s at stake:

“If we retreat from universal human rights, it would be a shocking blow not only here in the United Kingdom, but to what it means to have universal human rights.”

He commended the courage and solidarity from the 157 organisations who stood firm behind the HRA and signed our letter published that day in The Times.

We also heard a moving account of Mark Neary’s year-long separation from his son, Steven. Mark recalled how he made what he refers to as “the biggest mistake of his life” in 2009, when he arranged for Steven to spend a few short weeks in respite care to allow him to recover from the flu. What followed was a year-long battel with the local authority to get Steven home. It was not until the Court of Protection heard the case, and Mark and Steven argued that their right to respect for family life had been breached, that the Local Authority was ordered to let Steven return home. In Mark’s words, “the Human Rights Act came to our rescue” in a situation to which he had never thought human rights could apply.

Imran Khan (human rights lawyer best known for representing Stephen Lawrence’s family) spoke next, remembering what life was like before the HRA. It was exceedingly difficult to challenge public power or open inquests to learn lessons from dangerous practices or procedures. Powerfully, he questioned whether the family of Stephen Lawrence would have had to suffer two decades before receiving some form of justice if the HRA had been in force in 1993.

Ray Walker, Executive Director of Nursing at Mersey Care NHS Trust, explained how it had never been more important to protect and promote human rights within the NHS, particularly after the discoveries in Winterbourne View and Stafford Hospital.  Sarah Yiannoullou (director of NSUN) wanted to celebrate the HRA in being the tool and legal framework to challenge poor practice, and improve the experience of service users. The function of the HRA in providing a foundation for all law in the UK, including the Mental Health Act, has meant that people placed in the most vulnerable situations have access to advocates who can work to protect their rights. BIHR has worked for over 10 years with health and social care professionals to put individuals at the heart of the care they receive, and this was pertinent to Ray and Sarah’s discussions.

Our keynote address was given by Simon Israel of Channel 4 News, who focussed on human rights and the media. He played a series of human rights news stories with a view to emphasising the different approaches and attitudes they attracted from the public. Amongst others, Simon compared the media response to the Abu Qatada case, and the scandal uncovered at Stafford Hospital. In the former, human rights were at the forefront, whereas with the latter, they were underplayed.

Sir Nicolas returned to the floor to draw a close to the event, reflecting on this timely occasion to question why we should be repealing and replacing an Act which has wrought such significant change, as evidenced by our speakers. He emphasised that at the same time as celebrating the first fifteen years of the HRA, we must defend and preserve its next fifteen years – a fight he knows is well worth winning.

Our Human Rights Act belongs to us; human rights belong to everyone. Although this can be challenging to some people, our Human Rights Day event functioned as an opportune reminder that rights are universal, and distinctions about those who are deserving or undeserving undermine this founding principle that was internationally agreed after the Second World War. It was an occasion to reflect and celebrate the vital protection the Human Rights Act gives us all.