The Holocaust and Human Rights: A Time to Remember

 

The end of this month sees the close of the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Holocaust, which is seeking views on what further measures should be taken to ensure the permanent, fitting and meaningful memorial and educational resources around the Holocaust. With reports of increased racism in the UK and increasing negative rhetoric around our human rights law, this is perhaps the most fitting time for us to remind ourselves about the all too often overlooked relationship between the Holocaust and the legal protection of basic human rights.

Universal human rights standards
It is easy to forget that until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948, there was almost no system that enabled criticism of – let alone action against – Government mistreatment of people within its borders, provided their own law allowed such abuses. As Professor Klug (2008) notes, “however morally repugnant, Nazi Germany’s racial purity policies were all in accordance with the law.”

Of course human history is littered with examples of the principles and values that underpin human rights – the struggle for dignity and equal respect has been the hallmark of so many social movements since the dawning of civilisation. Yet it was in “debris and ashes of a devastating world war” and the Holocaust that the world community drew up the UDHR, a document “crafted to celebrate the best that humans are capable of” (Klug, 2008).

The UDHR opens with the recognition that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” and that to prevent “tyranny and oppression…human rights should be protected by the rule of law”. This was a turning point in the legal recognition of the relationship between people and their governments. As Stéphane Hessel, a French-German diplomat and writer, a concentration camp survivor who helped write the UDHR said:

We had affirmed the universal responsibility of human rights… This was the innovation: we are responsible for human dignity and the rights of the person. It was democracy’s catechism. In other words, we do not govern for the pleasure of power, but to guarantee the exercise of a democratic society.

Human rights here at home
It is from the UDHR that the international system of human rights protections was born, one which heavily influenced the development of our legal framework here at home. At the same time the UDHR was being drafted, the nations of Europe, where the impact of the Holocaust was so keenly felt, also came together to say never again. Championed by leaders such as our Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Council of Europe was founded to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe. As the UDHR was being drafted European leaders drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, a legally binding document to protect a small but significant number of fundamental rights. During this time Churchill spoke about the strength derived from “our sense of common…values” and of such a Convention being “guarded by freedom and sustained by law” which ensured that “people owned the government, and not the government the people.”

When the UK parliament passed the Human Rights Act (HRA) in 1998 it made our human rights more accessible for people here at home. It means there is now a duty on all our public bodies to respect, protect and fulfill our human rights. This duty which is not just about central Government departments, but also covers the police, NHS organisations and staff, social services, housing and education officials – the types of public services that we all bump into every day.

The Commission on the Holocaust Consultation
The Prime Minister’s Commission on the Holocaust is a national, cross-party commission representing our whole society. It has been established to investigate whether further measures should be taken to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial and meaningful educational resources for generations to come.

The Commission is an opportunity to call for the continued support of our educators in teaching about the Holocaust. It is also a real opportunity to remind the Government that human rights are an integral part of ensuring meaningful education about the impact and legacy of the Holocaust.

Human rights education and the Holocaust – what is happening across Europe?
In a 2011 study about human rights within Holocaust education in 26 European countries only the governments of the UK* and the Netherlands responded that human rights education forms no explicit part of the core curriculum. The UK’s official response said that the values related to human rights naturally form a part of school education, but that there was no direct recommendation made by the Government with regard to human rights education. Additionally, all Member States except the UK and Bulgaria, said that they ‘promote projects and initiatives which expressly develop connections between Holocaust education and human rights education’. The UK only stated that the Holocaust is of ‘great importance’ in the core curricula.

The study stressed that the main responsibility for human rights education and the Holocaust lies at the school level, but that visits to memorial sites and museums only can serve as a complement to this. In went on to state that teachers should have access to training in human rights education, supporting them to make the linkages between these and the Holocaust.

Yet human rights is disappearing from the curriculum
Previously the statutory requirements for key stages 3 and 4 stated “The curriculum should enable all young people to become responsible citizens who challenge injustice, are committed to human rights, and strive to live peaceably with others.”

However, the new curriculum has removed reference to human rights at Key Stage 3, instead referring to the “precious liberties” enjoyed by those living in the UK, something which BIHR believes is too vague and uncertain. Although a reference to human rights and international law has been inserted into the final Key Stage 4 text, we remain concerned. During the consultation stages BIHR (and many others) asked the Government to reconsider these reforms and to ensure clear references to our human rights laws and systems, there is no mention of the UDHR, the ECHR, or the Human Rights Act.

Time to remember, time to make the links
Our human rights history is more relevant than ever. This week headlines have been dominated by the news that racism is on the rise in Britain; an important reminder that social progress is not a linear journey. We do not automatically become a more tolerant society as time goes on. Our human rights laws are a vital tool for ensuring everyone has their basic human rights respected and protected and they are as important now as they were 60 years ago.

Right now the Commission on the Holocaust wants to hear views about ensuring meaningful memorials and resources. Now is the time for us to make it clear that:

The legal protection of human rights for all is a direct and lasting legacy to emerge from the horrors of the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens with the fundamental commitment that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” For sixty years the European Convention of Human Rights has protected and upheld these universal values, and by 1998 these were made the law of the land here at home through our own Human Rights Act. Now is the time to celebrate and strengthen our human rights journey with better public education and ensure our leaders have the moral courage to preserve what has been so hard won and to safeguard it for future generations.

 

Take Action! The deadline for telling the Prime Minister’s Commission your views is 30 May.

 

On 29 May BIHR’s Director, Stephen Bowen, will deliver a key note speech, ‘Human Rights: Lessons for Humanity’, at the national teachers conference ‘Empowering Young People to Change the World’, hosted by Royal Wootton Basset Academy and the Centre for Holocaust Studies. You can follow the discussions on twitter using #EYP2CtW

*Explanatory note; when referring to the UK in the report it only represents England. This is because the UK as a whole is the Member State of the EU.

Human rights law protects dignity in decisions about care

By Sanchita Hosali and Natalie Threlfall

Today the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a London borough’s withdrawal of night-time care from Ms McDonald breached her human rights for almost a year before proper processes were completed. Significantly, in McDonald v UK the Court found a breach of the right to respect for private and family life in the provision of support services for a disabled person. The Court emphasises the importance the human right to respect for private life places on dignity, a principle which now clearly applies in provision and decisions associated with welfare support.

Removing the overnight carer

The case was brought by Ms McDonald, a former prima ballerina with the Scottish Ballet. Following a stroke Ms McDonald needed help to get around her house and was unable to use the toilet at night. The local authority – Kensington and Chelsea – originally provided Ms McDonald with an overnight carer, however this care package was suddenly withdrawn and she was told instead to use incontinence pads at night. As she was not incontinent Ms McDonald refused to do this, and understandably felt that to act as though she was incontinent was an affront to her dignity.

Making the link to human rights
Ms McDonald ended up taking legal action to challenge this decision, including on the grounds that withdrawal of care was an unjustifiable interference with her right to respect for her private life (Article 8 of the Human Rights Act & European Convention). This right includes ensuring public authorities respect physical and mental well-being, that decision-making is fair and dignified and takes account of the person. Recognising that there are not infinite resources, this right can be limited provided it is a proportionate response to the situation, which means it’s both necessary and lawful.

During the course of legal action, two local authority care plan reviews decided that incontinence pads were practical and appropriate. The UK’s Supreme Court rejected her case, describing the human rights argument as ‘hopeless’, and in 2011 all night-time care was withdrawn.

Seeking justice, the long road to Strasbourg
Ms McDonald’s last avenue for challenging the decision lay with the European Court of Human Rights. The Court reinforced the need for a broad approach to the right to respect for private life. The Court stressed that respect for ‘human dignity and freedom’ are the very essence of the European Convention on Human Rights, notions which will be increasingly significant with an aging population and finite welfare resources. The Court applied the reasoning from the Pretty case, in which a disabled woman, sought to clarify whether her husband would be prosecuted for assisting her to commit suicide. Although a very different set of issues, the European Court today confirmed that dignity is not only relevant to such extreme cases, but is also important in everyday issues such as decisions about care and support services. The Court found that the local authority decision meant Ms McDonald was forced to live in a way that “conflicted with [her] strongly held ideas of self and personal identity” and therefore her case fell within the right to respect for private life.

The outcome for Ms McDonald
Following withdrawal of the care package for overnight assistance, Miss McDonald’s needs were reassessed as being met through the use of incontinence pads. The European Court ruled this was a decision the local authority was entitled to make as they had carefully weighed Miss McDonald’s needs against the economic consequences of paying for an overnight carer. However, crucially, the decision to withdraw overnight care had been made before Miss McDonald’s needs were reassessed. Therefore for the period before the reassessment, the local authority was not meeting its duty to Miss McDonald and had breached her human rights.

Dignity and the right to respect for private life back at home
In this case the later decision to withdraw overnight care was not a breach of Ms McDonald’s rights, because the proper processes were then followed, and whether this is necessary is a decision that best rests with national authorities. However, The European Court’s reliance on the concept of “strongly held ideas of self and personal identity” sends an important signal to the UK courts and local authorities to make sure people’s basic human rights are given proper consideration, and cannot simply be ignored to save money. Today’s decision, although not a resounding victory for Ms McDonald, underlines the potential power of the human rights safety-net to make sure local authorities put the protection of our human rights at the heart of decisions about care and support.

 

Read BIHR’s Press Statement in response to the McDonald case here.

For information on human rights in health and social care, including real life stories of challenge and change which use human rights without court action download BIHR’s The Difference it Makes: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of Health and Care.  You can also download our Human Rights Pocketbook for Carers, Our Human Rights Guide for Older People and tour Mental Health and Human Rights Advocacy guide here.

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Human Rights at the Party Conferences: An election battleground

With the party conferences came a fair degree of attention on human rights. One thing is certainly clear, this issue is not going away and the position on human rights will be a dividing line in the run-up to the General Election in 2015. That sounds like a good old while away, but in fact it is now that parties will be considering their manifesto commitments, now is the time that our political representatives will be having discussions about their position on the future of our human rights protections. So what exactly was said at the party conference?

Liberal-Democrats: stopping the Human Rights Act being scrappedLD

  • Nick Clegg’s speech listed “not ditching the Human Rights Act” as one of the top 16 things the Lib Dems have prevented the Conservative party from doing in the coalition Government.
  • Conference motion F41 on Human Rights was passed (proposed by Julian Huppert MP and summated by Brighton and Hove Lib Dems). The full text of the motion is here. It has 6 main points and begins with “The Human Rights Act to be retained”. It also refers to the ways the HRA protects people in everyday situations – often the examples that reflect BIHR’s practical experience of bringing rights to life beyond the court-rooms.
  • During the motion debate Lord McNally, current Justice Minister with human rights responsibility, said “So long as the Liberal Democrats are in Government there will be no repeal of Human Rights Act…I have said to my Tory colleagues – if the Tories really want to call into question our commitment to the Human Rights Act, to the European Convention on Human Rights, to the European Court on Human Rights, then let’s take that case to the hustings…I still have great faith in the value of the British people and their respect for human rights. It is an argument that we can win.”
  • At a fringe event organised by Liberty, Lord McNally said: “I want us to go out and win the argument, even in difficult places,” he said. “Of course our human rights legislation will defend criminal suspects but also the grandma in the care home, the child that has been abused; it will protect the right of people to protest against politicians. If we don’t keep to the Convention, what hope is there for the gay man in Russia, for the political activist in Belarus? We have to be resolute in taking this on. We will be at the barricades and Liberty will be there with us.

Labour: supporting the Human Rights Act, and its role in protecting peoplelabour

In his conference speech, Sadiq Khan, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, said:

“…what if the Conservatives succeed in their clamour to abolish human rights laws? There’d be less protection for victims of crime. We’d lose:

  • Laws that halted the diabolical situation of rape victims being cross-examined directly by their attackers.
  • Laws that helped bereaved families find out how loved ones died.
  • Laws that offer protection against the grotesqueness of modern day slavery, human trafficking.

Human rights laws the Tories want to scrap. Human rights laws of which Labour is proud. Human rights laws Labour will defend.”

At a fringe event by Liberty, Diane Abbott concluded the event by noting that the test of a society’s commitment to civil liberties is how it treats the marginalised and unpopular minorities, she said “Sometimes we must take a stand in advance of public opinion because it is the right thing to do”.

Conservatives: a manifesto promise to scrap the Human Rights Act Conservative

The conference speech of Theresa May, current Home Secretary detailed plans for the future of the HRA and for the specific right to respect for private and family life (Article 8):

  • “..the next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act…it’s why the Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do. Those are issues for the general election, when Labour and the Lib Dems will have to explain why they value the rights of terrorists and criminals more than the rights of the rest of us.”
  • “The Government will soon publish the Immigration Bill, which will make it easier to get rid of people with no right to be here.” Focus on cutting appeals, deporting with appeals from abroad and “the Immigration Bill will sort out the abuse of Article Eight – the right to a family life – once and for all.  This is used by thousands of people to stay in Britain every year.  The trouble is, while the European Convention makes clear that a right to a family life is not absolute, judges often treat it as an unqualified right.”

In addition Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling’s conference speech, focused on scrapping the HRA and altering UK’s relationship with European Court of Human Rights:

  • “never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined it would end up where it has; twisted by political correctness … with the all too familiar yob’s catchphrase ‘I know my rights’ … rulings that make our judges doubt they can say to the most heinous of murderers ‘you’re going to prison for the rest of your life’.”
  • “For me no change is not an option. One small problem.  We are the only major party committed to radical reform of human rights laws. Labour are opposed.  The Liberal Democrats are opposed.  I don’t know why.  It’s blindingly obvious the public want change.  I simply don’t believe that the majority of the people in this country think that human rights laws are fine as they are.”
  • “We will go into the next election with a clear plan for change. In the New Year the Conservatives will publish a document setting out what we will do, when we will do it, and how we will do it. And then later in the year we will publish a draft Bill which will set out in legal detail exactly how our changes will take effect. We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act. We will make sure that with legal rights go legal responsibilities. Our Supreme Court should be in Britain and not in Strasbourg.”

However, at a fringe event organised by Liberty, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve said:

  • “I defy anyone in this room to read the European Convention and find a right within it with which they disagree.”
  • “That’s not to say we always get it right – we’re a human society, there will always be examples of judicial decisions which are probably wrong. But the question is how do we tackle this problem in a way which leads to a satisfactory long-term outcome for this country. That’s what I’m committed to try to help my colleagues achieve.”

What next

There can be no doubt that the future of human rights protections in the UK is set to be a key issue in the run up to the General Election in 2015. BIHR believes now is the time for people and organisations to learn more about these debates, to understand their relevance to everyday life and practice, and join with others to speak up about the importance of human rights to us all.  Watch this space for more information and resources! In the meantime you can:

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.

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. […]

Women’s rights in the UK: we must keep moving forward

The 8 March, International Women’s Day, is a cause for celebration. It is an opportunity to mark the progress on our journey towards the realisation of women’s rights around the globe. Whilst there is much to celebrate, this year our march feels less like a journey and more like a standstill.

This week the international community gathers in New York to examine the advancement of women’s rights around the world as part of the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The UK is also preparing to appear before the UN Committee tasked with monitoring the Government’s progress on the promises we have made under the international law on women’s human rights – the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

The Government’s engagement with CEDAW is certainly welcome. As a State which prides itself on international human rights leadership it is important that we too step into the global spotlight and are accountable for action to guarantee basic rights here at home as well as abroad. Less heartening is what this spotlight reveals. The Government’s interim response to the UN Committee ahead of July’s full examination reveals a worrying picture which, in some instances, risks regression rather than progress for women’s rights in the UK.

For example, in relation to employment tribunals the report highlights that, as women are more likely to be low paid they are more likely to benefit from the remission scheme that will allow for some government subsidy of the very poorest people who cannot pay their legal fees.

In another section the report outlines how probation services are ensuring that women who are serving community sentences will be able to serve their sentences in appropriate settings that avoid situations where it is likely for there to be a lone female in a work group.

Are these the mark of a government taking active steps to achieve a more gender equal society? The fact that women continue to make up the poorest people in society, or that women are at risk of violence simply because they are a woman are not signs of progress. More worrying is that these examples reflect a worrying lack of ambition at the heart of government about what is needed to achieve gender equality in the UK.

As Eleanor Roosevelt stated shortly after drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights begin in small places close to home. The Government’s commitment to engaging with international human rights mechanisms is commendable, however it is important to remember that the point of human rights, including women’s human rights, is that they must be made real here at home.

Threats to human rights laws and institutions isn’t just political bluster

The start of this week was a busy (and worrying) one for anyone concerned with the protection of basic human rights in the UK. It began with a weekend prelude. It was reported that Theresa May, our Home Secretary, is considering making withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) a Conservative Party manifesto promise in the next General Election. Followed by Chris Grayling, our Justice Secretary and the Minister responsible for human rights, writing that he cannot conceive of a situation to put forward the reform he thinks necessary without scrapping the Human Rights Act and starting again.

The protections we helped build

If the promises of reported withdrawal from the ECHR and scrapping the Human Rights Act are true, then we have reached a profoundly disappointing moment in UK politics. UK withdrawal from the ECHR would risk unravelling an important and internationally-recognised system of rights protections, one which provides a vital safety net for us all. What Winston Churchill and his contemporaries understood when they created the ECHR system was the need to place limits on the exercise of power, to ensure basic levels of dignity and respect for all, to provide a rule book for Governments. This is what human rights are all about.

Human rights are relevant here at home

Parliament and political leaders of all colours understood this when they passed the Human Rights Act (HRA), a simple and particularly neat piece of drafting which accounts for the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Importantly, the HRA does many of the things its critics are seeking to remedy. For starters it ensures access to our rights is no longer limited to litigation in the European Court of Human Rights. Rather because of the HRA our cases can now be heard in our courts here at home. Perhaps more important, but little known, is duty the HRA places on public authorities not to act incompatibly with our rights (under section 6 HRA). What might at first glance appear as a somewhat technical obligation is in fact pretty simple. Human rights are about ensuring Governments treat us with equal dignity and respect, and the HRA means this is about the way we are treated by NHS professionals, social workers, the police, local authority officials, and all the various other “everyday” ways that we interact with the State.

Whilst endless column inches and political sound-bites have been dedicated, often inaccurately, to extreme cases, what is rarely heard is how human rights are helping people across the country to live dignified and respectful lives, enabling them to secure accountability when powerful officials overstep the line. How many times do human rights stories feature examples such as the mother who used the law to stop the authorities from removing her child simply because she lost her sight, or helping carers access respite, to stop older and disabled people having ‘do not resuscitate’ orders simply placed on their hospital files, or how the law helped end inhuman treatment of homeless people and ensure victims of crime are not denied justice by refusals to prosecute perpetrators of abuse.

It’s not about the law alone, our institutions matter too
As the week began we moved from rhetoric on the law to very real threats to institutional frameworks. In the House of Commons MPs were debating proposals which would effectively permit secret courts in certain cases. In many ways human rights simply add force to those ancient principles that have shaped our legal system for centuries. Principles of the rule of law, equality of arms and that it is not enough for justice to be done it must be seen to done. Yet amendments which would have secured important safeguards were defeated, and the Bill presents very worrying proposals.

At the same time the Lords were scrutinising the removal of an important purposive duty from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one of the UK’s National Human Rights Institutions. Institutions are important; the law alone cannot achieve the kind of society we want to live in, nor can we simply rely on individuals seeking redress for poor treatment in courts. We need institutional frameworks which help us to achieve prevention and not just cure. This is why we believe the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s general duty is important, it places people’s fundamental aspirations centre-stage, emphasising the basic desire of each of us to be treated with dignity, equality and respect. It focuses on the difference that the EHRC should be making to people’s lives, making it clear that the EHRC must go beyond tick-boxing and bare compliance and speak to people’s sense of shared values, the diversity of our experiences and the common desire to live in a dignified, fair and respectful society. That is why we supported an amendment by Baroness Jane Campbell and Baroness Ruth Lister and others to keep the duty rather than ditching it as the Government suggests. Thankfully, the peers agreed and overwhelming backed the amendment, safeguarding the EHRC’s general duty for now.

The Rule Book for Governments Applies to the UK too

So all in all a mixed bag and that was just the end of Monday! Whether or not the threats to take us away from the Convention or scrap the Human Rights Act are political bluster or a soon-to-be-reality, whether it is legally sound or a nonsense is not really the point. A modern democratic society such as ours must operate by the rules rather than seeking to change them when faced with a result we do not like. This is not only about the example we set on the international stage – one rule for us and another for you – it is about the kind of society we want to be here at home.  Whilst our human rights laws were born out of the devastation of the Second World War, in a very different, they were built to last and to endure. The fact is that human rights challenges remain here at home from inhuman treatment and deaths in our hospitals, to proposed secret justice in our courts, and that rule book for Governments remains as valid now as it did in Churchill’s time.

Death, Indignity and Indifference in Our Care System: Human Rights Abuses Need Human Rights Solutions

Hundreds of people have died; others have been starved, dehydrated and left in appalling conditions of indignity, witnessed by their loved ones. Surely this is what Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary, had in mind when he recently cautioned to need to “concentrate on real human rights”? Yet the rights, legal accountability, and practical benefits of the Human Rights Act are rarely mentioned in discussions about the shocking failures of care such as those featured in today’s Public Inquiry Report in events at Staffordshire Hospital between 2005-2008. Sanchita Hosali, Deputy Director at the British Institute of Human Rights, shines a human rights spotlight on the issues.

When we need toPerson holding the Francis Report use NHS services most of us will receive care and treatment which respects our basic rights to equal dignity. Sadly, for others, often at their most vulnerable, this is not the case. Today’s Francis Report from the Mid-Staffordshire Public Inquiry, the latest in a long line of similar reports into failures of care. It is unfortunate that the report provides little explict reference to human right; however with the focus on patients, on dignity,  respect and safety and accountability at the day-to-day and legal levels, the Francis report is in essence calling for a system of healthcare which respects, protects and promotes people’s basic human rights.  The message is clear, that when we are in the care of public services there is minimum level of treatment that we should all receive. Human rights – universal basic minimum standards based on the values of equal dignity and respect which are legally enforceable – provide the very framework that is needed.

The Francis Report into Mid-Staff presents an opportunity to reflect on why it is important to frame these about the quality of care in human rights terms. Put simply we are talking about risks to and abuse of basic human rights, so our solutions both for immediate accountability and longer-term change should include human rights.

Seeking accountability? That’s what the Human Rights Act is for

Just one of the stories from Mid-Staffs is a stark example of the serious human rights issues at stake. Following hospitalisation for a fall at home, one woman’s “care” resulted in pressure sores, dehydration and malnourishment, an array of serious infections and frequent pain due to lack of medication. After three months she died in hospital, and her body was so contagious she was denied the final dignity of a proper burial. The family argued this was so appalling it amounted to a breach of the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment under the Human Rights Act, and the family distress at witnessing their mother’s suffering breached their rights to physical and mental well-being. Leigh Day and Co helped this family and many others secure over 1 million pounds in out of court settlements, and perhaps more importantly a personal letter of apology from the top. It is also worth recalling that families relied on the Human Rights Act to secure the Public Inquiry in the first place, relying on the investigative duty included within the right to life and freedom from inhuman treatment.

Applying a human rights lens also raises serious questions about the time it took to respond, particularly as health practitioners and those in regulatory bodies have talked about the concerns they raised. Positive obligations under the Human Rights Act to take action can include investigating crediImage of hospital corridorble allegations of harm and taking preventative measures. Perhaps now is the time to consider the role of regulators and “whistle-blowing” laws in light of these positive obligations.

Beyond Mid-Staffs the Human Rights Act is now being used to challenge other care-related failings. For example, Liberty is representing two former residents of Winterborne View who suffered physical violence and humiliation. Beyond the courtrooms, BIHR works with advocacy groups to use rights language in their everyday interactions to make sure services are dignified and accountable, including for example the groups which challenged the blanket use of Do Not Resuscitate orders in hospital wards.

Re-introducing the human into healthcare

Mid-Staffs is a stark reminder of what happens when targets and financial imperatives become the focus and services lose sight of the person. A human rights approach looks at using the law in practice to design and deliver services that place patients at the heart of healthcare, seeking to respect, protect and fulfil their rights.

Our work with Mersey Care NHS Trust shows how a human rights approach helps put patient voice front and centre, transforming services and changing staffing cultures and practices. In the Learning Disability Service staff, patients and carers work together to understand their human rights and what they mean in a healthcare setting. Evaluation has shown the powerful difference this work makes to both patients and staff. More than three-quarters of service users and carers said it has a positive impact on their mental health. Over 90% of managers said this approach had positively changed them as a person, with significant numbers reporting a change in attitude and practice.

Moving forward: naming human rights abuses here at home

Clearly the Human Rights Act is not a magic wand; but when we need health services, it is not too much to expect to be treated with basic dignity and respect. Placing human rights at the heart of healthcare is an important step in making this a reality.

So will this happen? You only need to visit the pages of this blog to see the increasingly toxic nature of our domestic debates about the Human Rights Act. Sadly, this game of political and headline one-upmanship helps foster a climate which fails to identify appalling standards of care as a human rights concern, ignoring an important accountability mechanism and a means for a fresh person-centred approach.

Mid-Staffordshire should not be seen as a one-off or something from the past. As a recent report notes the climate of increased demand for services coupled with “austerity” may lead Trusts to focus more (or exclusively) on cost rather than quality of care, raising fears “that there could be another ‘Mid Staffs’. As Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, considers the Francis Report and the much broader need to ensure  “patients must never be treated as numbers but as human beings” we should all be reminding him that the Human Rights Act should be part of the toolkit for ensuring accountable, dignified and respectful services.

The Courage to Care and to Build Bridges: Holocaust Memorial Day 2013

January 27th – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – marks the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It is a day to reflect on one of the greatest systematic violations of human rights in our history. This year’s theme, “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care”, honours those who risked their own lives to save thousands of people from near certain death under the Nazi regime. Telling these stories of courage serves to inspire people everywhere to reflect on their own capacity for compassion for others and to turn this into action.

Britain’s role in the Second World War is well-known, but less renowned are the stories of those Britons who faced personal risk in order to help save thousands of the persecuted. Twenty six of these people, such as Sir Nicholas Winton and Major Frank Foley, were honoured in 2010 for their incredible bravery (most posthumously as only 2 were alive to receive the honour). Most of those helped by them never knew their names, but these Britons and many others, did what was right to protect those who would otherwise have faced certain death.

The horror provoked by these gross abuses and dehumanization accelerated the development of human rights set down in international, regional and domestic laws. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, made it clear that all people are born in equal dignity and rights. It began the journey of setting down basic minimum protections that all people everywhere have simply because they are human.

In Europe, where the effects of the Holocaust and World War II were keenly felt, countries came together to ensure human rights had a legal footing to help set the foundations for the future. Leaders from across the political spectrum and state boarders, including Winston Churchill, agreed the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1950. This was a guarantee of the standards which would protect all people equally and meant that state power could not be wielded without checks again.

In 1998 the UK passed the Human Rights Act to make the rights in the European Convention accessible here at home. For the first time public bodies, such as the Government, the police, the NHS and others, had a specific legal duty not to act in ways that are incompatible with our rights. Now, when the line is crossed by powerful officials’ people can hold them to account, and if necessary take action in our domestic courts.

In the UK the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust co-ordinates commemorations of the day and this year’s theme is particularly poignant in today’s society: “Communities Together: Build a Bridge.” In times where people all over the country are struggling and when people are experiencing disadvantage and discrimination, and made vulnerable by abuse, neglect and indifference, it is important to remember the foundations set in the UDHR: equal dignity and respect. Sadly many in power seem to have forgotten the legacy of our human rights laws. We should remember that our human rights have been hard-won, they belong to us all, they unite us in our common humanity. Now is the time to be standing together.