David Cameron has long trailed his desire to repeal the Human Rights Act upon becoming Prime Minister. Conor Gearty reminds us how important human rights still are and how much of an impact the Act has yet to make:
In our bleak, post-1989 capitalist era they have become (for now) the only way of doing socialism.
When we talk about human rights these days we are often in fact discussing issues – the fight against poverty; the push for greater equality; a decent health system; greater support for developing nations – that were the common vernacular of that now largely extinct species, the international socialist. And when we see “communist” China apparently reject co-operation in Copenhagen, we cannot help but wonder whether the civil and political rights denied by the guns of Tiananmen might have made a difference.
In short, human rights are the answer to many of the seemingly intractable questions with which we are faced. The Human Rights Act has played a part in keeping the flame of universalism flickering, small for sure – but the Conservatives should not be allowed to snuff it out without a least a fight from everybody who thinks of themselves as of the left.
I don’t think the HRA has been responsible for holding the government to account on almost anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important. Jack Straw introduced the HRA to use as a prism through which government policy was to be formed; that abundantly clearly has never been the case. But it has provided access to redress under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) through British courts, and the importance of this can’t be overstated. Cameron bleats on about how the ECHR won’t be undone, should he repeal the HRA, that Britain will still be a signatory to it. But the fundamental purpose of the HRA was to enable access to European human rights law for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to get to Strasbourg. Repeal the HRA and a majority of those who need it will be cut off, only to have what will no doubt be an ultra-nationalistic British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (or was that Straw’s newest authoritarian wheeze?) to fall back on. Will non-British nationals be able to use it? Will Cameron decide human rights are no longer universal, and make them contingent? The signs aren’t good.
We will all have to fight tooth and nail to retain the Human Rights Act, and I hope every right-thinking person I know or who knows me will do so.
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