“70 years of the European Convention on Human Rights, 22 years of the UK's Human Rights Act: Human rights in the UK, Covid-19 response and recovery.”

Every year, the 10th December marks International Human Rights Day. This year, the date also marked 70 years of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), 50 years of the British Institute of Human Rights and 20 years of the operation of our domestic Human Rights Act.

We brought together people with lived experience, parliamentarians and sector leaders in human rights, health, care, advocacy, media, academia and law to discuss the human rights landscape in 2020; the announcement of the review of the Human Rights Act and how we can work together to renew our commitment to making a culture of respect for human rights real here in the UK.

The event was chaired by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, crossbench peer and BIHR Trustee. Tanni opened the event by acknowledging the limited nature of the review of the Human Rights Act, noting that it has a very legal focus looking at the relationship between the government, parliament and the judiciary.

“That is only part of the puzzle, what about people? If it’s going to be a review of the Human Rights Act, looking at people and their every day lives should be included... For BIHR, a charity working beyond the courts of which I’m proud to be a trustee, it’s important we reflect on this.”

Alexis Quinn

Our first speaker was Alexis Quinn, award-winning author, autism campaigner and human rights activist.

*Note that the following content contains distressing descriptions of Alexis’ time in hospital.

Alexis spoke about her own experience in 12 different hospitals.

“I hit crisis… I was told to take a 72-hour rest in hospital…what a mistake that was. My right to family life was gone, I couldn’t see my daughter. I was transported in a cage…The setting in itself is inhumane, congregate living, chaos, noise, different care workers, lack of routine, away from anything familiar. We know that is the opposite of what autistic people need.”

Alexis spoke powerfully not about the failure of individual staff members but about a system that doesn’t work. If we put human rights first and see people as assets and not problems, a fulfilling life is possible. She ends by saying,

“It’s not rocket science, it’s human.”

Professor Alan Miller

Our second speaker was Professor Alan Miller, Independent Co-chair of the Scottish Government’s National Taskforce for Human Rights.

Alan spoke about the work of the National Taskforce for Human Rights in Scotland, describing the situation there as the opposite of regression; a dynamic movement, together with civil society towards the realisation of rights.   

“Very ambitious steps are being taken to provide human rights leadership in and by Scotland so as to improve people’s lives.”

By March, a Bill is to be presented to the Scottish Parliament which aims to establish a new human rights framework for Scotland. The Bill includes restating the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act as well as going further, including incorporation of many UN Treaties.

Alan made it clear that no consent will be given by Scotland to the undermining of the Human Rights Act:

 “I can assure you that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will not provide consent to any Bill at Westminster which undermines the Human Rights Act.”

Brian Gormally

Next, we heard from Brian Gormally, Director of the Centre of Administrative Justice in Northern Ireland

Brian gave an overview of the human rights landscape as seen from Northern Ireland. Brian spoke about the deep significance of the Human Rights Act in Northern Irish society.

“It is the main legal means through which dealing with the legacy of the conflict could be addressed. It underpins and legitimates the practice of contemporary policing.”

He raised concerns about Brexit and the threat that any change to the Human Rights Act (which through the Good Friday Agreement brings down the ECHR into domestic law) could have on Northern Ireland’s peace process.

“Our peace process was predicated on common British and Irish membership of the EU.”

Brian also warned against any restriction of Judicial Review through the Independent Review of Administrative Law.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of this government’s cavalier approach to the rule of law.”

Joe Powell

Joe Powell, Chief Executive of All Wales People First

All Wales People First is the national umbrella body for self-advocates in Wales. Joe used his platform to remind us that the voice first and foremost belongs to the individual person.

“Being a person comes first, disability comes second.”

Joe talked about how there is still very much a medical model of service provision in Wales,

“We subject people to a life of services… We have a system where the market drives the need rather than the need driving the market.”

“During Covid-19, we haven’t seen any changes to the human rights issues of people with learning disabilities in Wales… Covid’s not caused these problems, it’s just made them worse.”

Joe ended his presentation explaining the difference a session by Eilidh at BIHR had made for self-advocates who have since directly challenged decisions.

“Without human rights we are never going to be seen as people first.”

Merris Amos

Merris Amos, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, London  

Merris is an expert in the Human Rights Act, she begins by saying that the Human Rights Act has,

“Fundamentally improved protections over the last 20 years and also improved the record of the UK before the European Court of Human Rights particularly in sensitive areas like state surveillance and non-discrimination.”

Merris shares her surprise in the limited nature of the review of the Human Rights Act,

“The terms of reference for the review are very legal… it is not wide-ranging, most of the issues that have been flagged up appear so rarely in human rights litigation.”

Merris touched on the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially on BAME groups yet the government have not used human rights language other than to say, “there will be an inquiry.”

Merris ends by saying that this is an opportunity to argue that the UK human rights framework must have better mechanisms for making sure that these violations don’t happen in the first place. 

“We have to do a better job of mainstreaming human rights law into civil society.”

Saba Salman

Saba Salman, freelance social affairs journalist and chair of Sibs, a charity supporting siblings of disabled adults and children, and author of, “Made Possible.”

Saba devoted her presentation to a series of short videos, inspired by her sister Raana, sharing the personal success stories of people with learning disabilities.

“I’m out there breaking barriers.”

- Sarah Gordy (MBE), actor

“We might have a disability, or a learning disability or autism. It’s just a part of us. It’s nothing. We’re not different. We’re just human.”

- Shaun Webster (MBE), human rights campaigner

“Don’t ever underestimate people with disabilities.”

- Lizzie Emeh, singer-songwriter

Saba kept her part deliberately short, letting the films speak for themselves but ended by saying,

“It really is about incorporating a human rights – just a human- approach into people’s every-day lives…if we harness the skills and talent of everyone then we all gain.”

Imran Khan QC

Imran Khan QC, solicitor whose practice focuses on securing accountability from public institutions. Most famous for representing the family of Stephen Lawrence.

Imran spoke passionately about the importance of the Human Rights Act in his practice.

“We rely on it on a daily basis to advance people’s rights.”

Imran spoke briefly about the Stephen Lawrence case,

“If the Human Rights Act had been incorporated, we might have had a different outcome to where we are now.”

He also spoke about the case of Zahid Mubarek, a teenager killed by his racist cellmate at Feltham Young Offenders Institution.

“It was clear that it was murder, but the family wanted to know how this had happened in a public institution…We didn’t have the legal basis in the Stephen Lawrence case but this time because of the Human Rights Act we did.”

“It has given us the opportunity to expose wrong-doing… I am going to carry on using the Human Rights Act in a way that I think helps society the most.”

Carlyn Miller

Carlyn Miller is the Policy and Programmes Manager at the British Institute of Human Rights. 

Carlyn presented on BIHR’s work with people and their families/loved ones accessing services, public officials and advocacy, campaigning and community groups.

“If you empower people and community groups to know their rights but you have legislation, policy and systems which create barriers to the realisation of rights then your work with people doesn’t create change - it risks disillusionment.”

The beauty of working at BIHR is that the organisation recognises the importance of working holistically to create a culture of respect for human rights beyond the courtrooms. In 2020, the importance of working together with public bodies to build their capacity to make human rights decisions is even more crucial.

“Public bodies are operating in a context of greater risk, of less resource and a barrage of changes to legislation, guidance, ethical frameworks often all of which contain contradictory messaging. We have to get this bit right if we want human rights to be real for people.”

Sir Nicolas Bratza

Sir Nicolas Bratza, former President of the European Court of Human Rights.

The event was brought to a close by BIHR Trustee Sir Nicolas Bratza who acknowledged that 2020 has not been a year to celebrate with widespread human suffering and economic disaster.

However, Sir Nicolas stated that it is good to pause to celebrate the three anniversaries of today: 70 years of the European Convention of Human Rights; 50 years of BIHR; and 20 years of our own Human Rights Act.

“Which together have done so much for the protection and advancement of human rights.”

Sir Nicola Bratza described the ECHR as;

“The living instrument for the protection of human rights across Europe. Judgments from the Strasbourg Courts have had an immeasurable influence in protecting rights and freedoms in the UK."

Speaking of the Human Rights Act (HRA), Sir Nicolas said,

"It is in fact difficult to overstate the contribution made by the HRA in the protecting and fostering of fundamental rights here in the UK.” 

Speaking of BIHR, Sir Nicolas reflected on the importance of what’s been shared today,

“Personal stories where, with the support of NGO’s, individuals have been empowered by provisions of the Act itself to assert their own rights… Where with training provided by NGO’s, the police, hospitals and public services have been guided by the act to respect and uphold those rights.”

Sir Nicolas concluded with,

“The fight to preserve the Act is a fight which is not only worth fighting but a fight which must be won.”