Prime Minister Theresa May has reaffirmed plans to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act, while insisting that the UK continues to be a “strong advocate for human rights on the international stage”. Her comments came in response to BIHR’s annual Human Rights Day letter, co-signed by the United Nations Association – UK.
The letter on 9 December, organised by the British Instite for Human Rights and signed by 164 groups, urged the Prime Minister to drop Government plans to “scrap” the Human Rights Act, noting that the legislation makes “a much-valued difference to all our lives and for many people that difference is dramatic.”
The Human Rights Act incorporates the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, thereby enabling people in this country to claim the fundamental freedoms – from free speech to freedom from torture – that we have all enjoyed since the 1950s under the British court system.
In her letter of response, Prime Minister May recognised that the UK has a “proud and distinguished tradition of respect for human rights”, while reiterating that her Government “wishes to reform the UK’s domestic human rights framework, by replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights”. She assured that any new legislation would “remain faithful” to the human rights principles enshrined in the ECHR and would not be considered until after the UK has agreed its terms of exit from the EU.
While UNA-UK was pleased to see the Government state that the new proposals would be based on the principles set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, UNA-UK does not believe that a compelling case has yet been made as to why the current system should be abandoned or why it could not be strengthened through reform.
Concerns about the future of human rights protections in the UK have been amplified by the increasingly negative domestic debate on our fundamental freedoms, as a consequence of Government rhetoric on seeking to exempt the armed forces from legal action under the ECHR, as well as the dismissal of recommendations by a UN committee on disability rights by a minister. There have also been reports that the Prime Minister will put plans to withdraw from the ECHR at the heart of her 2020 general election campaign.
Such language risks exacerbating negative public feeling towards human rights at a time when the future of the UK’s human rights protections are in question. It also risks misinforming the British public about the purpose of human rights, which provide a minimal amount of legal protection for every human being. In a ComRes poll commissioned by UNA-UK to interrogate ‘British values’, results revealed that the British public deeply value the principles that underlie human rights law, with 70 per cent of respondents saying that the British Government should criticise an ally when it abuses human rights.
UNA-UK feels that any proposed changes to domestic human rights law should strengthen rather than dilute fundamental freedoms. With proposals shelved until after the terms of Britan’s exit from the EU have been decided, now is an important time for respresentatives across Government to commit to a balanced and informed debate on human rights that serves to strengthen public understanding about the value of human rights.