On Monday evening I listened to a radio news report about the Washington gunman. During the piece two American women were interviewed during which they stated that they were in the city on a tour of national institutions including the Supreme Court. It was a powerful reminder of how many Americans value their rights under the constitution. Now, despite not being a fan of the US Constitution, I wondered just how many Britons people were aware of their rights and how much value they place on them. This is in the context of a disingenuous UK Government who eternally seem to promise a British Bill of Rights ‘by next Thursday’! The fact that the government itself places such a low priority the reformulation of our rights calls into doubt their motives in government.
It was in the summer of 2013 during the Abu Qatada saga that the government considered a plan to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). During that incident and through the subsequent discussion on repealing the implementation of the ECHR in the UK, the Human Rights Act (HRA), it was often forgotten that the rights it asserts protects all of us: black, white, gay, straight..etc. Take an example from my personal experience. The fact that I advocate abolition of the monarchy in writing is clearly protected by the HRA as established in the 2003 Judicial Review brought by Alana Rusbridger and the Guardian newspaper. Although I value my right to freedom of expression very highly, but it is still relevant to consider the problems with enshrining human rights in an International Convention backed by a Court.
Firstly, it assumes that judicial decision making is somehow superior to decisions made in the political sphere. In reality judges are sometimes called upon to make effectively political decisions without being subject to the sanction of the electorate. As David Chandler has pointed out, as human rights become the preserve of supra-national organizations, contestability as to what constitutes a right is compromised. Furthermore, focussing in on the UK in 2013 official figures show the judiciary remains unrepresentative of the general population with women making up 51% of the population whilst only comprising 24% of judges. Ethnic minorities consist of 12% of the population but comprise less than 5% of the judiciary.
So it may in fact be sensible to withdraw from the convention and trust such rights to political contestability, with the added advantage that politicians can be proactive. This would mean that the direct link between the electorate and the rights they enjoy would be restored. Furthermore, rights are often only facilitated by instruments which are themselves subject to political decision e.g. Legal Aid.
As Matthew Scott points out, however, the reality is that the ECHR does NOT in fact determine national laws which are still controlled by local legislatures. But political aims are furthered by such a confusion. Like the ECHR withdrawal proposal, the British Bill of Rights is now appearing to be what it was all along, an exercise in short-term political expediency rather than long-term review, The fact that withdrawal from the ECHR and the replacement of Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights is being considered by forces with an agenda which is not wholly concerned with protecting the rights of citizens means that we must remain suspicious of the project. Furthermore with the UK currently possessing a dysfunctional and unrepresentative democratic system staying with the ECHR is in fact a reasonable position. More importantly, don’t be fooled by government indolence into thinking your rights are simply unimportant, we must all value and own our rights.