Three Years on and Human Rights are Alive and Well in Belfast!

Guest Blogger- Peter McReynolds

At its most basic level human rights are standards for the state to follow to ensure dignity is ensured for all, regardless of race, gender, creed and sexuality. Having obtained a Masters in human rights law in 2012, I have seen the complexities that exist within an overarching set of principles that try to influence and guide the 190+ states making up our world today.

It is within this setting that myself and a group of participants from a variety of backgrounds, had the pleasure of attending the BIHR Human Rights Tour on the 26th of September 2013. Belfast was the 8th leg of 17 and it was great to see us so high on the list with our eyes focused on the future and not the past! The event itself provided a fascinating opportunity to brush up on our knowledge and learn new skills that could be applied in our respective fields. Having attended events like this before, I was expecting a similar experience of presentations followed by general discussion. However, what made this event stand out, was the inclusion of real stories from ‘the field’ and an overall bringing together of the variety of experiences across the United Kingdom.

Togetherness is something that can be forgotten about in the U.K today, and in the so called ‘age of austerity’, it is something we should perhaps remember more often. This was apparent from the beginning of the event which brought together a variety of sectors to strengthen the audience.  There were representatives from the public sector, third sector, academics, local community groups and myself, representing The Green Party in Northern Ireland; a party committed to human rights and social justice. The beginning was dedicated to establishing a common ground for us to work within by understanding the key human rights laws at an international, regional and local level. As well as this, we learnt more about the instruments that offer redress to victims of human rights abuses. In the case of Northern Ireland, this was the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights. The latter being a Court that Northern Ireland knows well, given that so many cases from the region was brought there to set precedent.

A second significant conflict that was addressed at the event and challenged us as passionate individuals was the idea of law vs. practice.  We listened to two excellent presentations by the Equality Coalition, a body which strives to ensure equality of opportunity for all in Northern Ireland, and the Participation and Practice of Rights Project (PPR), a grass roots organisation from Belfast, working to protect the marginalised. Two separate bodies which operate on two different sides of the same coin. The PPR representative praised the work of the Equality Commission, but also reminded us that human rights aren’t just something which secures rights, but allows them to be fought for every day. Indeed, this was food for thought for myself, as human rights can be seen in an abstract manner within academia and it is all too easy to forget what it is we are trying to achieve.

The day was brought to a close with case studies and reflections upon the future for human rights in Northern Ireland. The case studies operated as a vital reminder of the abuses that can be allowed to occur in economic down turn. Moreover, they served as an important catalyst for the stressing of a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. This potential document, which has failed to materialise 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement, is more required than ever. It is something the audience felt inspired to listen to, and has inspired me to become more involved in raising the argument for all to hear, in my daily life!

In short, the day was a thought provoking success. The organisers prepared a day which was insightful, informative and engaging. Moreover, they succeeded in their aim to end the day with attendees leaving the event inspired by what we had seen and heard. I was one of them, someone who is aware that things are starting to get better from the top down, but being fought for from the bottom up. Whilst bringing rights to life in Belfast may be a slow process, three years after the BIHR Human Rights Tour first visited, it’s clear that the enthusiasm is alive and well in Belfast!

Advertisements

Human Rights Tour Stop #6: I soon realised the day was really relevant to my day job at a housing association

Guest Blogger: Amy Lythgoe – Trustee Refugee Welcome Trust / Digital Marketing Manager: Bolton at Home

On one of those days where you’re wondering why you’re spending your day off at a Human Rights seminar, the availability of reasonable priced parking outside the door of the venue was the first hint that this would be a good day.

Realising human rights are about my work

At the initial refreshments, where that “first day of school” feeling can so easily creep back in, I was instantly made to feel at ease with the people who joined me at my table. It was refreshing to meet people from a range of backgrounds who were all really passionate about their jobs. Having initially signed up for the seminar with my work with refugees in mind I soon realised that the content was also really relevant to my ‘day job’ at a housing association.

Having worked with people whose fundamental human rights have so grossly abused, forcing them to seek asylum in the UK I had never really considered the day to day importance of the rights that we are all afforded.

 Lots of learning with lots of interaction

Despite describing myself as having a ‘reasonable’ knowledge of human rights prior to the sessions I quickly revised this DSC_0101appraisal. My knowledge was so restricted to one sector and the abuse of people’s human rights abroad I hadn’t really fully understood their reach in UK legislation and how we all go about our lives not appreciating them enough.

With such a complex and controversial subject the facilitators did a fantastic job of keeping the day on message and moved easily from broad politics to detailed case studies. Having a short attention span and an appetite for a bit of debate the discussion sessions were really interesting and I learnt a lot from the fantastic experience of the people in the room.

Along with some others in the group the biggest shock was that private companies rarely have legal obligations to protect the human rights of those they interact with. The contrast was most stark in the care home examples where those self -funding their place with a private healthcare provider had no basis on which to challenge human rights violations (this is something BIHR has been campaigning to change). Whereas those with state funded places at private homes would be able to challenge decision making if they felt it infringed their human rights.

Running a charity that allows UK refugees to exercise their legally protected ‘right to family life’ under Article 8 I thought I had this particular right under my belt so to speak. Discussions following the case studies revealed that this non-absolute right this is one which often has most relevance in people’s lives, especially as the ‘privacy’ it protects is not just about having a private space it’s also about having a say on what happens to your body. With the event partnered by and taking place within Liverpool Women’s Hospital (the largest of its kind in Europe), this was especially thought-provoking.

The media and politicians: it’s protecting human rights that matters

With politicians bandying round the idea of repealing the UK Human Rights Act it seems that now more than ever we all DSC_0109need to understand how significant these rights are to each and every one of us. It was encouraging to hear that there had been two youth sessions on this tour and perhaps it’s with the next generation we need to be challenging the negative perception of human rights pushed by the UK press.

The day was fantastic in terms of widening my understanding of human rights in the UK and has definitely encouraged me to read more about the subject and renewed an interest in legal process and precedent.

However I think what I came to realise most was that the 18 rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (and part of our law via the Human Rights Act) are unarguably what we should be doing – it’s how we go about protecting them that matters.

 

Wolverhampton Wondering: The Tour Heads to the Midlands

By: Guest Blogger Katie Simkins

From 9:30am, locals from Wolverhampton, Walsall and Birmingham arrive at the Workspace for the fifth event of BIHR’s Human Rights Tour. It aims to take a simple message to every corner of the UK: the Human Rights Act need not be the domain of lawyers. It is for local people in local situations. That’s why, today, members of the local council, the police, and voluntary organisations concerned with issues ranging from domestic violence to mental health, fill the room. For each leg of the Tour, BIHR teams up with a local organisation to make the workshop relevant to its immediate surroundings. The partner for today’s event is Unison West Midlands.DSC_0089

At the outset, we are invited to have honest and frank conversations about human rights and their relevance to our work and life. In the current climate of an ageing population, debilitating public sector cuts and high-profile scepticism of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), these debates are crucial. Politicians, the media and the general public react to human rights with praise, scorn and confusion. This room is no exception. On post-it notes, we write down what human  rights mean to us. Within minutes, the board is littered with ‘abstract’, ‘misunderstanding’, ‘controversial’ and ‘fundamental’.

We separate into different groups for the next task: case studies. Here, each group looks at different individuals who have been subject to neglect, maltreatment or injustice. We discover quickly that the application of human rights is complex. One group looks at the case of Stella, who is severely disabled, cannot dress herself and, as she cannot access the first floor of her house, cannot put her children to bed. This group mulls over how long the local council must fail to amend Stella’s care plan until it breaches one of the most fundamental provisions in the Human Rights Act: the right not to be tortured or suffer inhuman or degrading treatment. Another group asks whether the police, in its attempt to keep a protest under control, are within their rights to ask a journalist to stop filming. For me, this task is the most crucial of the day as it demonstrates that the Human Rights Act has brought justice to individuals in varied places and situations.

Most poignantly, many of us around the room make links between these case studies and situations we have come across in our work. To know that the Human Rights Act is another tool with which we can address inequality, unfairness and abuse is hugely comforting. A further comfort comes when we discuss the institutions that have a duty to carry out the Human Rights Act. We learn that since its implementation in 2000, all organisations carrying out a public function must incorporate human rights into their decisions. This applies just as much to private institutions that are commissioned to provide a public function, such as care homes, as it does to the police or social services.  Moreover, the Human Rights Act places a positive obligation on public authorities, to take steps to protect an individual from known abuse. For example, although domestic violence may take place within a private home, a public authority would have an obligation to take positive steps to try and protect someone from such abuse, once it becomes aware of the situation. In this light, human rights are there if we need them; they are a safety net for us all.

DSC_0083After a quick lunch in a small café in the back of a curtain shop (one of the most unusual lunch stops on the Tour I’m told!) these empowering thoughts are flattened somewhat by the afternoon sessions, in which we look at what the media and politicians are saying about human rights. After learning in this morning’s sessions that the Human Rights Act ensures that politicians cannot act without restraint or checks on their power, I am rather unsympathetic towards their frustration about it. We explore some of the negative and misleading headlines that the media has published about human rights. We learn that, although newspapers gave a huge amount of attention to the tragedies at Mid Staffordshire Hospital, the coverage failed to mention that the families who lost loved ones were granted justice due to their use of the Human Rights Act.

I learn that the UK’s furore about human rights is quite exceptional compared to the 46 other states that are signed up to the ECHR. Easily forgotten is the fact that the Act has only been incorporated into UK law for 13 years. Thus, the optimist in me hopes that all this debate is just part of its teething process. I for one look forward to a time when the Human Rights Act is ingrained into our society. I leave Wolverhampton knowing that it is now more than ever that we have to look out for injustices and negotiate with public services to ensure that human rights are respected and protected within our communities.

Heading North: The Human Rights Tour Goes to Blackpool

By: Guest blogger Nicola Jenkins

 

DSC_0057

Well, hello, I’m new to blog writing so if I get too formal, please forgive me! I’ve been told it’s like writing to a friend so I’m going to try to do just that. I have to confess I am a human rights geek; I enjoy using them in my projects and am a keen advocate of them.

I arrived at the tour event in Blackpool and was immediately impressed by the organisation of the event and the friendliness of the organisers; Helen and Sophie. They were extremely welcoming and as the afternoon went on incredibly knowledgeable, inspirational and passionate. I am not a beginner to human rights, but if I was, I think I would have left the event feeling very well informed and confident in promoting the Human Rights Act (1998) which is pretty good going in one day.

The afternoon started with a presentation from n-compass, an advocacy service who support and inform people on how to challenge decisions made by healthcare and council professionals using the Human Rights Act. They explained that professionals seem to have very little knowledge of the Act and there needs to be more knowledge and understanding of the Human Rights Act amongst professionals who work in public services, especially as many of these services have a duty to protect rights under the Human Rights Act. I hope human rights training is made compulsory for professionals in the near future as it would save a lot of time and worry for people!

There was then a discussion about legal aid and how there is very limited access to it anymore, this did not deter the group as it was established you could represent yourself in court and some solicitors do pro bono work (i.e. provide services free of charge).DSC_0073

The most valuable fact that I was reminded of today was that everyone in the UK is covered by the Human Rights Act; it is universal and very important to remember this. Everyone needs to feel how empowering knowledge of the Act can be; please educate yourselves. Don’t put up with being treated badly.

The afternoon then moved on to discussing how human rights are depicted in the media; I was very critical of them being reported in a negative way, for instance, when a criminal tries to use the Human Rights Act for their own gain. A delegate of the tour said that she was disgusted that the Act can be used by criminals, but the organiser said that the Act needs to be universal and apply to everyone as once certain groups are excluded, it is a slippery slope, for instance, who decides who deserves to be covered? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was introduced so nothing as horrific as the Holocaust would happen again; the Act needs to be universal to help prevent the misuse of power by our governments as we saw in Nazi Germany.

We also discussed how you rarely hear about the positive use of human rights, which led me on to thinking about why this is so. Why do the media want people to think of rights negatively?

We know rights are used positively on a daily basis. We need to publicise these stories so people feel confident using the law when they need to.

DSC_0077The next topic that was discussed was ‘Politics and the Future of Human Rights’. David Cameron and the Tories pledged at the last election to scrap the Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights. The coalition compromise was to investigate the case for a UK Bill of Rights using the European Convention of Human Rights, but making no mention of the Human Rights Act. However, nothing has been done as yet so the Act is still applicable. This made me question why they are thinking of replacing an excellent piece of UK law for no apparent reason.

I found the afternoon, in conclusion, to be very inspirational. I want to get back to human rights direct action work now after a long break due to illness. I am currently involved in a few campaigns, especially in the National Health Action Party to keep our NHS public and the Bedroom Tax and other consequences of the Welfare Reform. I will be using the information I learnt today to educate the campaign organisers and the people most affected by these political changes.

The Human Rights Act is there to protect us and I plan to be an advocate for it and use it.

Thank you to everyone today who ignited my passion again.

Swansea – First Young People’s Tour Event!

By: Guest blogger Novlet Levy

On Saturday 14th September, the Human Rights Tour stopped off in Swansea, welcomed by a spirited and diverse group of young people who were all keen to learn more about human rights and to express some of the concerns they had about human rights and the issues that affect them as young people. The event was hosted alongside the Wales Observatory on the Human Rights of Children and Young People – an organisation that prides itself in it20130917_131500s commitment to supporting children and young people to access their rights.

At the beginning most of the young people said that they had less knowledge of children’s rights than they had of human rights generally.  Nevertheless, a thorough presentation from the Wales Observatory representative made sure that the young people left knowing about the foundations of the rights that protect children and exactly what those rights are!

As the day went on, discussions became more and more comprehensive. One young person raised the issue of conflicting rights, asking whether a child can use Article 31 of the Convention of the rights of the child (the right to rest, play and leisure) to avoid going to school which is also a right in the convention (Article 28). The question gave the facilitators the opportunity to reinforce the idea of balancing rights and recognising the importance of certain rights in proportion to others, which all the young people agreed was crucial.

Amongst all the interesting and stimulating discussions of the day, the highlight was definitely the ‘What do you think?’ session where the young people were given the opportunity to present what they believed to be the key human rights issues for young people in the UK today, but also what changes they think should be made. The group was split up into three smaller groups and given different issues to discuss. These included; young people and education, young people and care and young people and discrimination. There were loads of thoughts and suggestions from the young people, many of them thought provoking. Here are a few examples:graffic 2

–          The opinions of young people should be given greater weight when decisions about their own care are being made.

–          Behavioural units (for young people excluded from school) are a good thing but there should be more of them equipped with staff that have undergone intensive training and are able to encourage children in a positive way.

–          That disabled children should be listened to more as they have different experiences and see things from a different perspective.

Attending and observing the Swansea Human Rights Tour event reinforced to me the extent to which the views of young people and children have so much more to contribute to the development and protection of our human rights laws within the UK. The British Institute of Human Rights in partnership with the Wales Observatory organised an event that was a huge success and fulfilled its aim of raising the awareness of Human Rights law in the UK and expressing just how relevant they are for young people and children.

This was the first of three young people events included in the Tour this year- the next stop is Glasgow on the 1st October! You can book your place by clicking here.

 

Salisbury: Home to the Magna Carta and the Human Rights Tour!

Guest blogger: Tom Bisgood

After two hours on three trains I arrived in Salisbury to attend one of the BIHR Human Rights Tour Events – admittedly the London one might have been an easier journey, but the opportunity to go to a community-based event outside of the capital was one not to be missed.

The day started much as it meant to go on – with lots of debate and discussion among the participants. The first thing we tackled was a biggie – what we felt human rights were all about. For my group this provoked a wide range of views including ideas of fairness, equality, checks on state power and even wars and bombs.

Learning a bit about the history of human rights and the particulars of the European Convention on Human Right and the Human Rights Act set us up for the rest of day. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek history video tracing some of the roots of human rights was apt given that Salisbury lays claim to be home of the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta.

Arguably, one of the most important parts of the day was the case studies and the chance to look at how human rights might apply to a variety of real life situations. I have no doubt from the discussions in my group that this session was extremely useful to those working in social care and community groups – what we learned was so clearly applicable to their work. We explored the case of Alex who, due to his history of mental illness was deemed unsuitable to be a reliable witness in a case against a man who bit off part of his ear and so the prosecution against his attacker was dropped. I don’t want to give too much away in case you get to look at Alex’s case on the Human Rights Tour, but it brought to life how human rights are about the person and looking at how the actions or inactions of officials can make us vulnerable or put us at risk. I’ll leave it there and wish you luck with your group discussions if you “meet” Alex on the Tour!

For me the most eye opening part of the day was the “fact-checking” sessions, where we investigated the reality behind some of the things about human rights in the press, from politicians, on the bus (or two-hour train journey!). The BIHR team were definitely put to the test, with the group throwing out some pretty big issues from FGM to deportation.

For me one of the most interesting bits was unpicking “cat-gate”, where the Home Secretary and many papers talked about how human rights and owning a cat meant a person couldn’t be deported. This case was actually about a Home Office policy which said deportation (here because a man overstayed his student visa, not because he’d committed a crime) should go ahead unless the person is in a relationship of more than two years. The man had been in a relationship and there was evidence to show this, like owning a cat – something lots of people in relationships do! So yes a cat was involved, but in a really minor way, which had nothing to do with human rights. Yet it presented by the media and politicians in a way which undermines human rights, making them seem silly or even dangerous.  And that led us to the case of Abu Qatada. I was surprised to learn how human rights helped the UK deport him to Jordan. Practically the whole world has agreed to the legal ban on torture (of course practice might be different), and this means Governments can’t just send someone to be tortured in another country and turn their face away. What they could do was get proper assurances that torture wouldn’t happen, and by convincing Jordan to agree to the international legal ban on torture – by using human rights – the deportation could go ahead. But none of that seems to have been explained by politicians or the media.

All in all the Human Rights Tour was an incredibly thought-provoking day. It was a great space for a real mix of people to firstly meet up and secondly to learn about and debate human rights, in a far more balanced way than is often seen in the media. At the end of the day I feel I’ve learnt a substantial amount about human rights and really got to develop my knowledge further. So now you’ve finished reading this, what are you waiting for? Book your free place at the Human Rights Tour now!

 

Reflections from “a member of the public” on 60 years of the European Convention on Human Rights and what the future holds

Guest Blog: Paul Langton, winner of BIHR’s ECHR at 60 Blog Competition, who won a place at our recent conference on the future of the ECHR. During the political “Question-Time” panel, Paul identified himself as a “member of the public”, much to the audience’s amusement. Here Paul reflects on the event and the wider debates about the future of human rights protection in the UK

On Tuesday 3 September I had the privilege of attending a conference organised by the British Institute of Human Rights and the Law Society celebrating 60 years of the European Convention and which also asked “what does the future hold?” It was exciting to participate in this historic event which included contributions from politicians, academics, representatives from BIHR and the Law Society, including a keynote speech from the former European Court President, Sir Nicolas Bratza.

Celebration however was tempered with caution. Sir Nicolas spoke of the myths perpetuated about the Convention. Some out of ignorance, some out of malice but they contribute to a hostility that seeks to undermine the UK’s participation in the Court, the Convention and the Council of Europe. Following the event I did a quick survey of the media and for the most part – aside from those coordinated by BIHR – he anniversary was overlooked, apart from a particularly caustic piece in the Daily Mail. To reinforce the point further the following day in the House of Commons public gallery I was disheartened, but not surprised, to hear two Conservative MP’s refer disparagingly to the Human Rights Act in the same sentence as “asylum backlog”, “massive net immigration” and “uncontrolled transition” during a debate on the UK Border Force.

“…the majority of members find it hard to persuade themselves that public perceptions are likely to change in any substantial way as a result, particularly given the highly polemical way in which these issues tend to be presented by both some commentators and some sections of the media…” A UK Bill of Rights? The Choice Before Us (para 12.8), Commission on a Bill of Rights, vol 1, Dec 2012

A few days after the conference and I am left thinking that discussions about the European Convention should not be framed in terms of parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law or our relationship with Europe. Important as these issues may be they are red herrings – and do not get to the heart of the matter.

The Convention is a challenging instrument because it asks us to face fundamental questions: To what extent are we prepared to uphold and defend an individual’s human rights and are we prepared for the moral and ethical implications if we don’t? It forces us to face squarely the discomfort in upholding those rights of an individual who may not offer us the same courtesy. Dangerous and malevolent people can be domestic citizens or entrants into the country. However should their fundamental human rights be violated because they are such a threat or because they have committed a heinous crime? These are not new questions. The London Cage established after World War Two has been documented in the National Archives, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as the United Kingdom’s clandestine torture centre both during and after the war. I confess, to some shame, I am conflicted between a revulsion of what happened at the Cage and a sense, albeit a guilty one, that its occupants got their just desserts for participating in some of the most appalling crimes in history. And perhaps that is the weakness – I am seeking to resolve this inner dilemma by attempting to reconcile how I feel about these events when what is required is the dispassionate analysis and judgement by Convention law. Today, the Cage would be outlawed under the Convention. However the UK faces the same quandary as to what is “right”, every time it seeks to deport someone to a country where they are likely to be tortured and killed.

The possibility of votes for prisoners has proved incredibly controversial. The ruling by the European Court in Hirst v the United Kingdom (No 2) in 2005 on removing the “blanket ban” has predictably continued to receive a hostile reaction in the media and on the floor of the Commons. “If you break the law you cannot make the law” David Davis stated in a Parliamentary debate in 2011. “Votes for Villains” cried the Mirror in May 2012. “The very soul of our democracy’s at stake” exclaimed the Daily Mail in October the same year. Such reactions fail to advance the debate. The blog by Conservative MP Claire Perry in 2010 (who is cautious about the reach of the European Court) about her positive experience at a mock hustings in HMP Erlstoke, and the successful work by ex-offender led charity “User Voice” on Prison Councils are two examples of how prisoners were willing to engage in a democratic process and are able to benefit from it.

It is disappointing to think that Members of Parliament have made more of a fuss over this political hot potato, than the recent inspection at HMP Bronzefield by Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. The inspection from this April, following an earlier one in 2010, reported that a vulnerable female prisoner had been kept in segregation for over five years to the point that her treatment was described by Hardwick as “cruel, inhumane and degrading”. These are words that were carefully chosen. As Hardwick himself stated “Much of this was outside the prison’s direct control and required a national strategy for meeting the needs of these very complex women – as exists in the male estate”. A deficient and unequal national policy present in the prison system that has been operating since at least 2010, and which led to criticisms couched in Convention language, suggests that these are the matters that Parliamentarians ought to lend their debating energies to.

Arguments abound that the European Court has strayed from its initial vision into areas that are best served by the domestic courts. The Convention was designed to prevent the atrocities of early Twentith Century Europe ever occurring again and by ruling in domestic cases brought before it by individuals it is suggested that it is attempting to micromanage member states of the Council of Europe, that its rulings are arbitrary, focus on trivial matters and that it undermines national sovereignty. These would be valid arguments if domestic law was full and complete, if parliamentary legislation always struck the right balance between state interference and personal autonomy and if representatives of the state exercised their powers without fault.

Sadly this is not always the case. The most withering criticisms made by the European Court is that there is “no remedy in law” when referring to domestic legislation, followed by the observation that powers are “neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse”. The UK, as a respondent state, has been subject to both these criticisms in Court cases – and rightly so. If anything should be learned from world history it is the lesson that it is the minor infringements of the rights of individuals and communities that lead to greater injustices.

Sir Nicholas called on delegates to “rekindle the fire” and in its 60th year the Convention is likely to come even under more criticism than ever before. How that fire is rekindled is a challenge to all. Attendance at the BIHR’s Human Rights Tour, a quick note to a Member of Parliament, signing up to a human rights blog or newsletter (BIHR’s are here)  – these are all beginning steps that can help to rekindle that fire. The temptation is to allow Parliamentarians to make the choices for us or to think that the Convention has lasted sixty years – surely it could survive sixty more? However, I conclude with a thought which sprung from an opening speech at the conference by BIHR’s chair, Francesa Klug. She reminded us the Convention was “hard to achieve but would be easy to destroy”. It is a solemn warning. The UK was one of the Conventions architects – it would be a bitter irony if we were the first to begin its dismantling.

Human Rights Tour Launches in Brighton

By: Guest Blogger Nathalie Martin

On Tuesday I was lucky enough to spend the day in Brighton attending the launch event of the BIHR Human Rights Tour 2013.

At the beginning of the day I knew almost nothing about human rights in the UK. How do I know this for sure? Because the day started off with us filling out a form to gauge our knowledge and, after being reluctantly honest with my answers, I was left feeling embarrassed about how little I knew and hoping no one around me could read what I’d written over my shoulder!

Brighton TourHowever, after discreetly folding my answers and returning them to the information pack I’d been given, I decided not to worry about it. After all I’d come along to learn more about this subject so in a way this was the ideal starting point. I only hoped that I wouldn’t be the only person in the room not to be working in a relevant field with everything going way above my head.

But I needn’t have worried because although a lot of people did have direct experiences of many of the issues we were learning about, this turned out not to be as intimidating as I had feared and instead proved to be one of the best things about the day. Having such a varied and informed group of people enabled some really interesting debates to take place as well as creating the unique opportunity to listen to first hand experiences.

Throughout the course of the day we learnt about the history of human rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, which allows breaches of human rights listed to be taken through UK courts. We also learnt about the difference between absolute rights and non-absolute rights. We also heard from some representatives from the charity Mind Brighton and Hove who showed us just how important it is to respect the rights protected by the  Human Rights Act, by sharing with us some upsetting examples of when these had been breached.

For me the highlight of the day was learning and understanding how the Human Rights Act can be applied to various situations. Initially, when I heard we were to look at case studies and identify which articles of the Act had been breached I thought there was no way I wouldn’t be out of my depth. I was expecting to be faced with an exhaustive list packed with legal jargon and expressions I would have to pretend to understand but instead, in front of me, was a document I found surprisingly clear.  What’s more, as my group attempted to match case studies with human rights, I realised that somehow I could do it. It really isn’t that difficult to understand what it contains and how it applies in real life situations. And if I can understand it, with no legal background whatsoever, and feel confident in applying it, then anyone can.

I think it’s incredibly important for people to know their rights so that they are in a position to identify when these are being violated and also to have the confidence and knowledge to challenge and prevent such situations when required. Something that particularly struck me during the day is that a large proportion of people who are vulnerable to human rights violations by public authorities, are those very individuals in our society who are either unable to speak up for their rights or are prevented from doing so. It is therefore important that people are not only empowered so that they can stand up for their own rights but also that we collectively support human rights.  This inspired my piece of human rights bunting, on which I wrote “speak out for your rights and the rights of others”.Nathalie's Bunting

Because of this I am pleased to be able to say I’ve signed the Human Rights Charter, demonstrating my support for the Human Rights Act and commitment to building a culture of respect for human rights.

The Human Rights Tour has just started and I would strongly recommend going along to a day if you want to learn more about human rights in the UK.  I can guarantee an enjoyable day where you will have the opportunity to meet fascinating people, learn things you didn’t know before and take part in some very lively and rewarding discussions. You can find out more information about the Tour here or you can book your free place at one of the events here.

60 years of the European Convention on Human Rights – what does the future hold?

Sadaf Etemadi, interning with BIHR as part of our Queen Mary University London Law School summer placement scheme, shares her highlights from BIHR’s ECHR 60th Anniversary Conference, held with the Law Society on 3 September 2013

The 3 of September marked the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights. The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) marked this milestone by holding a spectacular conference, with the Law Society, exploring the impact of the ECHR and its future in the UK.

The event began with a powerful speech from Sir Nicholas Bratza, BIHR’s president, and former president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Sir Nicolas reminded us of the UK’s enthusiasm in Sir Nicolas Bratzaembracing the Human Rights in 1998, which brought the ECHR rights into our law. Yet fifteen years on the Act has become the source of sensationalist media headlines, misrepresented news stories and negative and misinformed political discourse, rather than celebrating the extraordinary changes it has brought to the lives of 820 million people across Europe. The inspiring address was met with extended applause, the delegates refusing to let Sir Nicolas take his seat too soon!

This was followed by an insightful panel of distinguished academics and lawyers exploring how the convention has impacted legal systems outside the UK. Professor Phillip Leach began by highlighting how invaluable the ECtHR is in ending deliberate state evasion of justice and providing much-needed accountability. He spoke about how the ECHR system provides a vital forum for many disenfranchised people to have a voice, shine a spotlight on abuses and seek justice. For example, the ECHR meant the practice of forced disappearances came under the scrutiny of the court, compelling states to dispense with the practice and challenging impunity in countries such as Turkey and Russia.
Professor Fiona de Loundras’ provided a comparative analysis of the UK and Ireland’s attitude and traditions towards guaranteeing and interpreting human rights. This was directly relevant to current discussions calling for a UK Bill of Rights and the concerns over judicial power under the Human Rights Act. Loundras noted, the rights guaranteed by the Irish Constitution mirror the rights outlined by the ECHR, they are understood as legal constitutional rights as opposed to political rights. The constitutional importance of these rights allows for the judiciary to strike down incompatible laws, a practice which is not disputed, criticised or undermined. This raises interesting questions for the UK and the view that any new Bill of Rights in the UK would have to guarantee the rights set out in the HRA as a bare minimum and may actually require conferring the judiciary new powers, because no strike down power exits under the HRA (for primary law).

This should make interesting reading for those who advocate for minimalist approach to human rights protection. Professor de Loundres also made the interesting observation that if Ireland could accept criticism and recommendations for change to the availability of abortion services without condemning and disparaging the ECHR, then its seems illogical that the UK are resorting to such measures over individual cases in the absence resounding public consensus. Almut Wittling-Vogel expressed similar concerns as Germany has also in recent years had unpopular judgements but to use the language of withdrawal and non-compliance would be simply unthinkable.

Professor Aileen McColgan provided a chilling reminder of the recent troubles in Northern Ireland and how only the ECtHR had acknowledged that the state’s interrogation practices amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. In the absence of such a court and ECHR protection, interrogation practices of throwing detainees out of helicopters, depriving them of food and sleep and subjecting them to white noise and beatings would continue to have been characterised as ‘unintentional hardship’.

A unifying theme throughout these accounts was not to be fooled into thinking that these horrors are distant memories. Within the ECHR countries people are still captured and kidnapped by extraordinary rendition, communities such as the Roma population are segregated and discriminated against and post 9/11 counter terrorism strategies are reminiscent of the human rights abuses that occurred in NI. It was a sobering reminder of the potential abuses than can occur when human rights mechanisms are not enforced and the vital role they play in preventing a rogue practice from becoming the norm.

This was followed by an exciting and heated “Question Time” debate between Sadiq Khan MP, Julian Huppert MP and Mark Reckless MP. This provided a great opportunity for the politicians to outline their views and put forward their parties’ commitments to human rights and at times to have their human rights knowledge tested. Despite being posed a question on the UK’s attitude towards the rule of law and international obligations all three politicians failed to acknowledge the basic fact that actually a modern conception of the rule of law includes adhering to international obligations and the respect of fundamental rights and human rights which would include the ECHR and HRA.

The conference closed with a bold speech from our Director Stephen Bowen. He reminded the audience that regardless of the political debates and media distortions of human rights, human rights are still of interest and importance for “real people” that are so often side lined in the domestic debates. He said the focus must be diverted from media attack to public education, ending with a call for action to stop political bullying, to show leadership and ensure we secure our human rights legacy for future generations.

Gallery

60 years of human rights should be cause for celebration not silence

This gallery contains 3 photos.

Sanchita Hosali, Deputy Director, British Institute of Human Rights 3 September 2013 (This Blog first appeared in the JUST West Yorkshire Racial Justice Bulletin) Today is the 60th Anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) coming into force, a law seeking to protect the fundamental freedoms of 820 million people across 47 countries. […]