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

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. That is no easy task, yet it is one our leaders such as Winston Churchill and the Conservative lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe set thECHR 60 Ann logoemselves in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War 2. Having witnessed what happens when there are no checks on the power of Governments, it is little wonder that nations came together to say there must be some basic minimums, set down in law, which all Governments must respect.

Yet too few people here in the UK know about this “other jubilee”. Picking up a paper or catching a political sound-bite you could be forgiven for thinking the ECHR is responsible for many woes. Reporting and commentary is often riddled with half-truths or myths, not quite accurately reflecting a story or unnecessarily sensationalising an issue. Papers have recently been pulled up for factual errors and international committees have expressed concern that the Human Rights Act, which brings the rights in the ECHR into our law, has been subject to negative criticisms by public figures.

It is worrying how tarnished this law has become among those whose voices tend to be the loudest in our national debates, and how easy a “band-wagon” approach has developed, without really taking the time to stop and think. Do people really think human rights are a bad thing? Do people really think that there should be no rules for the way Governments treat us? Do people really think that elected officials always get it right and that having access to independent judicial review of decisions is a bad thing?

The short answer is no! BIHR’s experience of going out and talking to people, working with organisations and groups across civil society is that there is a very different story out there. It is one of people recognising the vital importance of human rights not just to our democracy but also in very real ways that touch on how we should be treated in our everyday lives. At BIHR we see how human rights are about making sure we’re all treated with dignity and respect, safe in the knowledge that there are checks on the power of public authorities. Whether it is in our interactions with the police, health services or working to make our communities better places to live, the ECHR and Human Rights Act help make sure we’re not treated with indifference or injustice.

That is why today over 85 organisations from across the UK have joined together with BIHR in a letter published in the Telegraph, including JUST West Yorkshire, to speak up for the ECHR and how these rights are a vital safety net for us all.

These groups and many more have also been joined by members of the public, parliamentarians, electedMeeting between Helen Wildbore and Judge Mahoney officials and judges to send messages of support for the ECHR in a 60th Anniversary Card. BIHR was delighted to present the card to the British judge at the European Court of Human Rights, Paul Mahoney, who said “this is a reassuring indication of the support of the public and ordinary people.” (You can read these messages of support and watch a video of BIHR’s delivery of the card here)

As powerful politicians and sections of the media wrangle over human rights, BIHR and others are more interested in having a genuine informed debate. We need balanced debate which includes the voices of people who work to put human rights into practice, instead of simply resorting to easy rhetoric or dismissing human rights as an inconvenience rather than a cornerstone of our democracy.

At a conference today on 60 years of the ECHR, Sir Nicolas Bratza, our President, will deliver a keynote address calling for an end to the tarnishing of the UK’s human rights legacy. He will argue that we must rekindle the fire for the Human Rights Act, and for keeping the UK within the ECHR – a task which although not easy, must be undertaken. BIHR couldn’t agree more. We should be proud to live in a country which played a central role in setting up the ECHR system.

Now is not the time to go backwards. BIHR will be here helping people across the country to get to grips with these debates, making sure we all know that human rights are not a remote or technical subject, but one that matters to us all. Wherever we go in the country we’re met with a real appetite to learn about human rights and what they mean. If you want to find out more join us on our 17-stop Human Rights Tour, we’ll be in York on the 3rd October!

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