Strange mistakes in European history & geography 3/4: Human rights

Other sections of this essay:

1/4: The Map of Europe

2/4: ‘The United States of Europe’

4/4: The European Union

3. Human Rights

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that – even more embarrassingly for the present-day Conservatives – Churchill was the instigator of the modern concept of human rights in Europe. In October 1942, he said:

Free men and women denounce these vile crimes [the persecution of the Jews], and when this world struggle ends with the enthronement of human rights, racial persecution will be ended.

Drafted in 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) came into force in September 1953. In 1998, the Human Rights Act (drawn up under the Chairmanship of a Conservative minister) duly incorporated this into British law. It holds the governments of 47 European countries equally to account, offering individuals rights and protections against government excesses, including freedom of expression, freedom of movement, fair trials and the prohibition of torture. It’s important to point out that the Act allows UK courts merely to ‘take account’ of judgments made by the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, and not to be bound by them.

In other words, there was nothing remotely contentious about it, and it was met with universal, cross-party support. So when, purely as a political gimmick, Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives promised to scrap the Act and formed a commission on a new ‘Bill of Rights’, the exercise was met with widespread disbelief and ridicule. This new commission found that the existing Human Rights Act had overwhelming public support, and that there was no strong objection to the Strasbourg court, ‘given the vital role it plays in guarding against abuses of the kind that plagued Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.’

It gets worse. On June 15 this year, on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – which he knew next to nothing about three years ago – the Prime Minister gave a speech at Runnymede that, with breathtaking audacity, took the opportunity to sneer at the Human Rights Act.

… 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.

The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said:

The prime minister could give a masterclass in bare-faced cheek, using Magna Carta day to denigrate our Human Rights Act. But we will take no lessons in rights and freedoms from a leader ‎who wants to dilute them to the detriment of everyone in the UK and the wider watching world.

And Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper said:

The prime minister should be proud of spreading our historic human rights tradition across Europe and the world, rather than trying to rip it up.

Amnesty International’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said:

The 13th-century barons [who drew up the Magna Carta] will be spinning in their highly ornate, lead-lined coffins.

A further complication for Mr. Cameron is that the 1998 Act is embedded in the devolution arrangements for Scotland and Wales, and the Good Friday agreement guarantees that Britain will incorporate the European convention into Northern Ireland’s law. So we’ll end up with the extraordinary situation that people in different parts of the UK will have different rights.

The madness doesn’t stop with the UK. Incredibly, we also have before us (courtesy of Martin Howe QC) a draft bill which proposes that a person’s rights will depend on whether they are a British citizen (who will have ‘full fundamental rights’), an EU national (who will have fewer rights), or a foreigner (fewer rights again). Such a ‘graded’ system would make a mockery of the very notion of human rights – which by definition are the same for all mankind.


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