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We need human rights not mere privilege

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noesceptionsWhy women should beware of the call for a ‘modern Bill of Rights’ for the UK.

Guest post by Mairi Christine Oliver.

When it comes to human rights, much of Britain’s media coverage has been so manipulated that there is little room left for truth.

Riding on waves of popular gripes, the Conservatives keep promising us our very own ‘modern British Bill of Rights’.

But beware the poisoned chalice.

This is a carefully veiled attempt to roll back state accountability for human rights and undermine some major advances for women.

A draft Bill, or outline of what it would entail, has yet to be produced and the recent Commission Report on a British Bill of Rights got us no closer to a clear picture.

A confused and disjointed document, the report failed to provide an outright endorsement for such a bill or a road map for future developments.

Having originally convened the commission, and shelled out £700,000 in taxpayer money for it, the Conservatives have unsurprisingly decided to dismiss its conclusions.

Instead they have reiterated promises of a bill that untangles Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights – which they invariably, and incorrectly, conflate with the European Union (EU).

Offers to replace our Human Rights Act (HRA) pander to Europhobia while obscuring the realities of the Conservatives’ alternative.

Their ‘British Bill of Rights’ would protect British Citizens first, creating ‘privileges’ rather than ‘rights’ so the state can strip them away as it pleases.

The premise and power of Human Rights, however, is that they are neither ‘earned’ nor ‘deserved’; they are vested in individuals solely for being human.

The greatest strength of the HRA, the aspect most demonised by the Conservatives, is that it protects us all.

But the Conservative narrative places a collective ‘ideal’ above individual rights.

In the words of Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice, rights should not extend to those “operating outside the norms that apply to most people in our society”.

There was a time when the norms of the majority criminalised homosexuality, denied marital rape and allowed parents to beat their children.

Mainstream norms hide all kinds of injustices.

Nevertheless the Conservatives, and a vocal portion of our media, have painted human rights as the preserve of lawyers and criminals, the favourite being Abu Qatada.

A critical eye easily flags up the nonsense in these assertions however.

They are little more than politically motivated omissions or distortions of facts.

The Daily Mail, for example, decried the case of CN v. UK as a grievous attack on our national sovereignty and a perversion of justice.

The reality was that the Ugandan claimant, Ms C.N, successfully proved that between 2004 and 2010 the UK failed to provide adequate legal protection against domestic servitude.

Legislation has since filled this gap, but CN’s case is still important in bolstering the complaints of domestic slaves habitually ignored by authorities because their abuse doesn’t fit a cookie-cutter mould of trafficking.

To their great frustration, cases like this ensure that the government is held accountable for failing to protect even ‘undesirable’ victims – prostitutes, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

And if that wasn’t enough to make us bristle, the HRA also protects our reproductive rights.

In the UK we have no ‘right to abortion’; instead, European judgments oblige states to ensure women can access abortions if they are legal in the country in question.

This protects us from waves of medical professionals declaring themselves ‘conscientious objectors’ and refusing to perform abortions – as was recently attempted in an NHS labour ward in a Glasgow hospital.

Furthermore, the court has upheld the vital importance of access to abortion for rape victims, following the tragic case of a teenager in Poland.

Her victory protects us in Britain from the likes of Northern Irish DUP MLA Jim Wells, who last year campaigned to prevent rape victims accessing abortions.

When politicians attempt incursions on the freedom of our wombs the HRA helps protect us – something terribly inconvenient to our pro-lifers in Parliament.

The HRA has also come to the defence of innumerable women outside the courtroom, by placing positive duties on the government to act where rights are threatened.

Convention rights have been used to increase care support to mentally vulnerable women and fight arbitrary funding decisions.

In one case it allowed an asylum seeker to challenge an eviction notice served on her family while she was giving birth.

According to Detective Chief Inspector Matt Black, the HRA creates “a positive obligation to intervene to protect those at risk of inhumane or degrading treatment with regards to domestic violence”, making it one of the most effective ways of assisting victims of domestic and institutional abuse.

No other piece of legislation requires the state to act on these issues.

The duties imposed by the HRA are onerous and costly, but our government is there to serve us, not the other way around.

We must protect our Human Rights Act. It holds our government to account – and that’s the real reason the Conservatives can’t stand it.

  1. Thank you for writing this article, Mairi. Its an important and timely reminder of why we need to protect our HRA.

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