It’s small charity week: Why I love working at BIHR

By Stephen Bowen, Director, British Institute of Human Rights

 

Small charities are the unsung heroes of our civil society.medium_SBowen_0

In small places, close to home they have an impact way beyond their limited resources. Small national charities often lead the way in developing solutions to the challenges we face. They are remarkable for their willingness to focus on the often neglected and sometimes unpopular causes, working to champion the rights of people who are most at risk of disadvantage, poverty and exclusion.

The British Institute of Human Rights is a small national charity with a big Impact.

Across the UK, we help people and organisations understand that human rights are the standards by which a decent society should live. We help people understand that our Human Rights Act is a 21st Century Bill of Rights – a modern Magna Carta which celebrates our contribution to the rule of law over the centuries but which also recognises that we still have much to learn.

I love working for a small charity because of the sense of team work and the shared commitment that exists across the whole BIHR family. It is great to work somewhere that can respond quickly to changing circumstances, and which can stay true to its values however difficult the challenges become. And I love working for BIHR because we are connected, through our UK-wide Human Rights Tour and practice based work, to so many other people and organisations who are passionate in their belief that every member of the human family is of equal value, and that universal international human rights are ours to cherish and defend.

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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.

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.

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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. […]

Why I’m celebrating the Other Jubilee: 60 years of the European Convention on Human Rights

On the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights Paul Langton, winner of the BIHR ECHR Blog competition, reflects on the significance of the Convention.

“Human rights are inscribed in the hearts of people; they were there long before lawmakers drafted their first proclamation.”

Mary Robinson, Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

A couple of years ago I attended an exhibition that featured a 1963 front page from my local newspaper. The leading story was the hanging of Russell Pascoe, 23 and convicted of murder, in Bristol’s Horfield prison. I remember feeling a sense of despair that such a story was part of our recent history and decided then, that no matter what the crime, I never wanted to read in a British newspaper that the sentence would be capital punishment carried out on British soil.

The formation of the Council of Europe in 1949, and the establishment of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953, is a turning point in modern history. It symbolised a determination to leave behind the horrors endured in the Second World War and laid the foundations for a new Europe based on a passion to preserve universal values that are recognisable to people of every race, colour and creed. By codifying the relationship between individual and state the Convention

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is the protector of those values that can be so easily ignored, forgotten or eroded, and as a living instrument it adapts to every new generation it serves. Moreover, the right of individual petition to the European Court ensures that every citizen of a signatory country has access to a tribunal of fundamental rights and freedoms.

As I write this on eve of the 60th anniversary of the Convention I am disappointed to hear that David Cameron is considering scrapping the Human Rights Act which incorporated the Convention into British law. The implication is that the Convention does not serve the UK well and that the solution is the oft-repeated mantra “British laws for British People”.

The UK and its people are indebted to the European Convention. The European Court case files are full of examples of individual citizens reclaiming their human rights from the arms of the state. Independent military courts, protection of trade unions, the curbing of stop and search powers, safeguards for adults in care, regulation of state surveillance, limits on retention of biometric data and protection of religious freedoms are all examples of the Convention in action. It is sobering to realise that the UK, considered by many a paragon of human rights, is need of the safeguards of the Convention just as much as countries regarded as “young democracies”. The activities of the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the time of the Irish troubles, the CIA extraordinary rendition flights, alleged complicity of the UK in torture and the stories of the treatment of prisoners in the Iraqi conflict serve as reminders that hard won freedoms and values are fragile and can be easily forgotten in difficult times. It is in those times that the Convention should be prized. Not as trophy that we are seeking to protect, but as a memorandum as to how we should treat those we perceive as a threat to it.

“Human rights are not worthy of the name if they do not protect the people we don’t like as well as those we do.”

Trevor Phillips, Former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

When I read about Russell Pascoe I knew that the death penalty for murder was abolished in the UK in 1969. What I didn’t know was that it was not completely stricken from the statue book until the introduction of the 1998 Human Rights Act. And if by this I wasn’t convinced that we are sometimes novices in upholding human rights in this country, then I am by the knowledge that enforced slavery, and servitude, was not made a criminal offence in England until three years ago.

September 3rd 2013 should be welcomed as cause for celebration. It is incredible that today the European Convention has expanded to serve 47 countries and 800 million citizens. It is a people’s charter that enshrines in law the freedoms and rights to be enjoyed by everybody. It is this Convention that acknowledges Europe’s dark history and binds together its member states in a unity that could not be duplicated by trade agreements or diplomats. Critics call for “British laws for British people”. But the Convention is more than a set of laws. It is part of a British legacy and a collective conscience that encompasses the highest values of humanity. It is a tremendous achievement that we should not so readily turn our backs on.

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.