In a speech to the UN in 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt famously remarked, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home… they are the world of the individual person… Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” That is precisely what Britain’s human rights agenda has yet to achieve. Adam Wagner, barrister and founder of the UK Human Rights Blog, sets out to tackle this with the launch of RightsInfo on 21st April, by bringing rights into the home.
It has been 15 years since the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Outside the legal profession, few seem to remember, still less appreciate, the fact that it represents “rights brought home”, rights which are in truth “Churchill’s Legacy”. Coming from the general public, it is regrettable. Coming from politicians, it is disturbing.
It is thus deeply concerning that in the wake of the General Election, there is little airtime in the campaign rhetoric for a human rights agenda. In the Conservative Manifesto, human rights only made its way into one paragraph out of 86 pages, under the category of “fighting crime” (page 60). Its gist? A threat to scrap “Labour’s human rights” (Churchill is turning in his grave), representing the HRA and ECHR as the criminals’ charter. This is followed by an undertaking to “review” legal aid, which in Tory-speak means “reduce”.
Similarly, the UKIP Manifesto contains two paragraphs on page 53, attacking the ECHR as “putting the rights of criminals over the rights of victims” (they have clearly not read Osman v UK) and giving too much power to European judges – all bare assertions which are both factually and legally false, yet escaped public scrutiny.
Even in the Labour Manifesto, there was merely a bit over a page vaguely asserting that it would keep the HRA, promote equality and extend freedom of information (page 67), but nothing with substance that shows genuine concern for those issues.
More interesting are the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. The Greens promise to keep the HRA and also to restore legal aid (page 58). Lib Dems have devoted a respectable 13-pages to human rights, including some colourful ideas on limiting surveillance and fighting discrimination. Alas, none of these have been featured much in the Debates, and the reality is that neither party would get much credit at the polling station for defending human rights.
Back in 2010, Jack Straw has already noted the lack of a “human rights culture” in the face of the war on terror; that “the next challenge is to ensure that it becomes an embedded part of our national identity”. RightsInfo is the beginning of a much-needed initiative to tackle the threefold challenge of “inaccessibility, imbalance and inaccuracy”.
As Adam Wagner rightly told The Times, “we need a more graphic starting point, something in plain English” – something fun and down-to-earth. It is for this reason that RightsInfo is both impressive and revolutionary, capitalising on technology and social media. With its user-friendly blog featuring 50 key cases, humorous myth-buster, interactive cards, and beautiful infographics, RightsInfo can spark a human rights revolution in every household.
People need to know the fundamental rights which kept police power in check in Gillan and Quinton v UK; led to marriage rights for transsexuals in Bellinger v Bellinger; increased protection of children from sexual abuse in O’Keeffe v Ireland; and just this year, stood up against Google’s misuse of private data in Google Inc v Vidal-Hall and Others, and protected the right of patients in Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board. Only then can we diffuse the hostility and reverse public apathy.
Human rights have taken much artillery fire, and access to justice has suffered severe blows, from legal aid cuts to court fee hikes. The media distorts, politicians waffle, but we as lawyers have the ability, indeed responsibility, to get Britain’s human rights agenda back on track. Our knowledge, shared with the world in the right form and dose, is the last bastion of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Now more than ever, there is truth in Francis Bacon’s adage – knowledge is power.