By Guest Blogger: Katie Simkins
On Human Rights Day, 10 December, the British Institute of Human Rights launched its Human Rights Charter in the company of politicians, representatives of charities and NGOs and one of BIHR’s local Human Rights Champions. This day marked the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and presented us with an opportunity to celebrate the ‘unsung positives’ of human rights.
Sir Nicolas Bratza, the President of BIHR, told us now was the time for the Charter. It is not merely a list of rights, but a statement that everyone can participate in and one that aims to foster a culture of respect for human rights.
The event was kindly hosted by thee members of the House of Lords who are known for their bold defence of human rights in politics, both big P and little p.
Earlier in 2013, Baroness Campbell led a successful campaign to retain Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006, which puts a duty on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to exercise its functions with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society in which there is respect for and protection of people’s human rights. Baroness Campbell told the delegates that ‘to be excluded because you don’t belong is the most dehumanising act a government can do’. She became a human rights activist not just for disabled people, but for everyone.
Baroness O’Loan, a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, presented the Charter as another way to protect people and a way that can foster some understanding of what human rights are really about. Human rights, she insisted, are as important now as they were in 1948.
In October, Lord Low sought to clarify a currently ambiguous area and ensure that the Human Rights Act protection applies equally to all people receiving care services. Having successfully tabled an amendment to this effect to the Care Bill, the House of Commons will now discuss whether it will be made law. Lord Low highlighted the fact that human rights are not to be seen as academic, lofty or detached. They protect ordinary people against neglect and poor treatment in health and social care settings; the areas in which individuals should feel their most safe.
Several MPs then spoke to welcome the Charter. Dr Hywel Francis MP called for the Lord Chancellor to focus on the value of human rights, and not exclusively the cost. Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Minister for Justice, put forward a question: If the UK had the expertise to build a product that was exported to 48 countries and over 800 million customers, would we not be celebrating? Instead, politicians are stepping away from our finest export: the European Convention on Human Rights. With the election only 18 months away, now was the time to get our hands dirty if we want to keep the Human Rights Act. Simon Hughes agreed that fostering a culture of human rights was ‘a big battle for little people’. Jeremy Corbyn MP highlighted the intricate links between human rights and democracy. Democracy is not just about voting. It’s about participation, our independent legal system and the freedom to express an opinion.
Representatives from charities and NGOs spoke about how they needed the statements in the Charter to be alive in their work. Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty, called for the Charter to bring human rights back into our daily lives. The UK’s impact overseas could only ever be as good as its ability to protect rights at home. To Natalie Samarasinghe, the Executive Director at UNA-UK, the Charter aims to foster a wider, more accurate understanding of human rights. They are not simply pesky laws, bureaucratic annoyances and the property of minorities. They are for the everyday and everyone. Keith Best, the CEO of Freedom from Torture stressed the importance of human rights education. Through this, we are in a better place to take on the challenge of countering negative headlines in the press and celebrating what human rights have done for us.
Inquest’s Directors Helen Shaw and Deborah Coles told us how human rights legislation has had a profound impact on their work. In 2007, a law was introduced that called for institutions to launch an Inquiry if a person died in prison or a police cell. This was a victory for bereaved families; it was no longer acceptable that they remain in the dark about the circumstances of their relatives’ deaths. But the human rights journey has by no means come to an end. An independent inquiry is not legally required if someone dies while detained under the Mental Health Act, yet these deaths account for 60% of those that occur in detention.
Stephen Bowen, the Director of BIHR, brought the Charter launch to a close by presenting the Charter as a mobilising statement. By using it to educate people about human rights and supporting all levels of government and services to consider them when delivering laws, policies and services, we can repopulate the human rights landscape with many more voices.