Guest blog by Rebecca Carr, reporting on the human rights stall she ran at a local festival, supported by BIHR

Last weekend, members of my local Amnesty International group and I ran a stall at a popular local festival in Didsbury, which aimed to raise awareness of the Human Rights Act. Our aim was tell people about some of the things that the Act has done for ordinary people in the UK: to disseminate information about positive legal judgments and human rights success stories that organisations such as the British Institute of Human Rights and RightsInfo are doing a remarkable job in making more accessible. We also sought to gain the support of – and in fact were able to obtain nearly 250 signatures from – the local community to send forth to their newly elected labour MP, Jeff Smith, so as to ask him to protect the Human Rights Act in the face of any upcoming assault by the current government.

I’d like to thank the British Institute of Human Rights for all their support with our event; in particular for their brilliant ideas, their informative case studies and other helpful materials, which enabled us to make our human rights messaging much more accessible to the public. 

Bar the brief and characteristic downpour, (admittedly to be expected from an outdoor Manchester event), this was in many ways the ideal weekend to be running a Human Rights Act themed stall. With the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta being celebrated up and down the country this week, human rights discourses have filled our screens and newsfeeds in ways that the pre-tech savvy King John could have never imagined.

There is a danger, however, in conflating the content of these two “Great Charters”. While the Magna Carta is indeed significant for its massive symbolic legacy, its substance (unlike the Human Rights Act) is undeniably wanting. Of the only three clauses of the Magna Carta that are still alive on the statute books today it is this clause that most people have revered:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.

Impressive, as one commentator has joked, upon the ears of Purcell or Elgar perhaps, but in all seriousness, as to what concrete rights this clause gives us, I have to say I’m not entirely sure.

Contrast this grandiose declaration with the deliberately pithy Human Rights Act, whose schedule one clearly sets out our fundamental rights to life; prohibition from torture and inhuman treatment; protection against slavery and forced labour; liberty and freedom; fair trial; respect for privacy and family life; freedom of thought, religion and beliefs; free speech and peaceful protest; freedom from discrimination; education; the protection of property; and free elections… and one clearly sees how the Human Rights Act is in the end more weighty.

The problem, however, is that the Human Rights Act is potentially facing its repeal: something that David Cameron sought to emphasise at the Magna Carta celebrations taking place in Runnymede on Monday, where he said:

But here in Britain, ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of ‘human rights’ has sometimes become distorted and devalued. It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system.”

Speaking to quite literally hundreds of people at our event last weekend, however, the other members of the group and I would argue that the reputation of those rights is in fact just fine.

With the exception of one or two vocal sceptics, so many people came up to us who were extremely eager to pen their support for the Human Rights Act, through signing our petitions and otherwise, and expressed their sheer despair at the thought that the Act could be soon be removed.

We spoke to the Mayor, to councillors, and even to Jeff Smith MP (who was lovely): all ostensibly in agreement with our views, however, it was most inspiring to see and hear from the many young people who were passionate about protecting the Human Rights Act.

If our community event is anything to go by, it is a litmus for the fact that the public firmly support the Human Rights Act, and while the on-going Magna Carta celebrations are to be welcomed, they must not overshadow the true legacy of the Great Charter that is the Human Rights Act, which has brought us the much needed executive accountability and substantive rights protections that the Magna Carta purports to have set in motion.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Manchester Amnesty International Group, please send us an email at: [email protected] or follow us on twitter at: @amnestymanc

To find out more about what BIHR are doing to support people to stand Together For Human Rights, see our website here and add your voice to Protect What Protects Us All. If you are running an event, or as the festival season draws near would like to host a #Together4HumanRights stall at your local summer fete, we also have lots of promotional materials available. Get in touch with us at [email protected] for more information.