Is the Human Rights Act destined to be scrapped by the Tories?

[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]

When the Conservative party won a majority on May 7th, one of the first questions asked was – what about our human rights? In their manifesto, the Tories vowed to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

There has been widespread fear, outrage, and scaremongering. People have invoked the ghost of George Orwell (author of 1984), declared their intentions to leave Britain, and sketched out terrifying, doom-laden prophecies of a dystopian, totalitarian Tory state.

Should you be worried? If you’re not a big consumer of political news, this might be the first you’ve heard of this, and chances are the phrase “take away your human rights” has you reaching for your passport. But things are not always as they seem in the adversarial world of politics, and we’re here to take a closer look.

What is the Human Rights Act?

In 2000, Britain signed into law the Human Rights Act 1997. This act was designed by the European Committee for Human Rights, which drew up the list of Human Rights we have come to hold up as a global standard. When it was drawn up, it was not automatically binding on all countries – hence, there are a number of nations worldwide which have not ratified the Human Rights Act, and they are usually the ones who violate it most frequently, such as North Korea. Each country had to enact it into their own law, which Britain did. This is because the ECHR is not an international authority – each sovereign country must enact legislation on its own, rather like the way in which the EU cannot enforce its rulings directly on member states, instead making legislation a condition of membership in the EU.

The Human Rights Act includes a number of important principles: “freedom of speech”, “freedom of belief”, “freedom of movement”, the “right to life”, “right to marry”, and so on. It prohibits torture, execution (except for when the death penalty is enacted by law, although all EU member states have abolished capital punishment), persecution based on gender, religious beliefs and sexuality, and guarantees the right to live where you want, to leave the country if you want, to say what you want (within reason), to vote, to not be imprisoned without a fair trial, and many others.

What does repealing the Human Rights Act mean?

People are understandably upset that the Conservatives want to scrap this piece of legislation. However, it’s important to remember that they don’t plan to implement Big Brother – not yet, anyway. They want to draw up a replacement “British Bill of Rights”, which would apparently contain many of the same rights as the Human Rights Act (they have not made the content of this bill explicitly clear as of the time of writing).  According to the Conservative Manifesto, “the bill will stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat in our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation”.

The stated aim of repealing the Human Rights Act is to give Britain the ability to deport foreign-born criminals (like the high-profile case of the radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza, whose deportation was repeatedly blocked under the Human Rights Act) and to ensure that the British Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal. At present, any claimant who cannot obtain legal relief in the British Courts can appeal against the Supreme Court’s ruling, take their case to Strasbourg and the European Court of Human Rights, and Britain has – at least in theory – got to abide by that court’s rulings. Many people are unhappy about the authority this gives Europe over the UK and want to ensure that people cannot do this. However, in the past it has been the case that the European Court has enabled people to get justice for breaches of human rights where member states have not had the necessary legislation – for example, before Britain had laws to protect privacy, a man was able to get compensation from the ECHR for a breach of his privacy (CCTV footage of a suicide attempt released to the media), which the British courts did not recognise at the time.

Another worrying element of this proposed repeal is that it would make British forces serving overseas basically immune to prosecution under the Human Rights Act for war crimes and human rights violations like those seen in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, a prison where foreign detainees were tortured and held indefinitely without fair trial. British armed forces overseas are subject to British law, and at present are thus also accountable to the ECHR, but that could change if the HRA is repealed, and if the British Bill of Rights does not include relevant legislation it could open the door to crimes against foreign nationals overseas. Human Rights Act 2000 Conservative Manifesto 2015

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