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.

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 Beneath The Headlines – A view from BIHR’s volunteer Charlotte

Human Rights Benath the Headlines

Human Rights Benath the Headlines

On Thursday the 30 January Leigh Day Law, in London, kindly hosted the British Institute of Human Right’s (BIHR) event Human Rights Beneath the Headlines. With so much swirling about in the UK’s media on human rights BIHR decided to respond to the people who want to know more, who read the headlines and wonder if there is more to the story. The audience were invited to send in questions beforehand or to just throw out their must ask issue on media stories during the Q and A style event.

Helen Wildbore, Human Rights Officer at BIHR, was in the chair and joined by Adam Wagner, Barrister and founder and editor of the UK Human Rights Blog, Benjamin Burrows solicitor at Leigh Day and his colleague Elisabeth Andresen, who have worked on a range of cases including prisoner’s rights, the Dale farm eviction and health abuse issues, plus BIHR’s Deputy Director Sanchita Hosali. The panel shared their expertise to look behind some of the cases most often featured in the headlines, as well as shining a light on those human rights cases that rarely make it into the media. The headlines came from a variety of UK newspapers, broadsheets and tabloids, which ran stories on human rights issues.

Read all about it!

To start we looked at headlines relating to prisoner’s voting rights asking questions such as, ‘Why should judges in Europe be able to force us to give prisoners the vote?’ The panellists looked at the legal issues behind the prisoner voting cases and what the ECHR said in its judgement – that the blanket ban on prisoner voting was unlawful rather than all prisoners should be given the vote. The negative headlines on the issue also highlighted the continued confusion between the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights when it comes to human rights law – some questioned whether this was deliberate or not.

Event panellists

Event panellists

Other headlines posed the question – ‘It seems like the Human Rights Act is really only about helping people who should be punished not given more rights?’ As panellist Adam flagged these aren’t cases about damages, they are about justice, often for people who have been at the sharp end of Government decisions. As Sanchita noted, one of the functions of human rights is to help ensure justice and the rule of law in democracies, to protect us all including those who the majority or those in power might deem unpopular. This was echoed by Elizabeth who spoke about cases on Mid-Staffordshire and other major healthcare failings where the Human Rights Act provides families with a vital way of holding the authorities to account. Again, what human rights helps them with is to get an apology for the infringement of their rights or the abuse of their loved ones. In many cases if damages are rewarded they are often small and only in grievous cases.

Immigration and deportation was another hot topic, with so many headlines leading to questions like ‘Is it true that human right’s stops us deporting people like criminals and from having control over immigration? We need to be able to set the rules.’ The panel spoke about how the figures on these issues are fairly complicated and often not as clear cut as presented. The law allows deportation if a person has been sentenced to more than twelve months. In the experience of the panellists successful human rights cases preventing deportation tended to be the exception rather than the norm and often involved issues like the rights of the children of those involved, including British children. Also, stories on this issues can mix up immigration and migration with deportation based on criminal conviction.

Similar issues about facts and figures were flagged when we looked at the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. As figures that had been released on the day of the event revealed the ECHR grants very cases against the UK and in general the UK Government does fairly well at the ECHR. The ECHR’s annual statistics showed that 98.85% of the 1,652 UK cases brought to the court in 2013 were declared inadmissible or struck out. Of the remaining cases it found the UK had breached human rights in 9 cases and had not in 10.

The final set of headlines focused on the issue of ‘stories about leaving the European Convention/ Court of Human Rights and maybe having a British Bill of Rights, how would this be different?’ Sanchita spoke about how in these debates in the UK what is often ignored is that the Human Rights Act is important not for its own sake but because it is the promise of international human rights made our law. All the panellist were cautious about debates on a new British Bill of Rights. In principle sounds like a great idea, but is the political climate of negativity about human rights the context for a new law? Some questioned how different a new law to make human rights sound more appealing would be.

Putting the confusion to bed

The event certainly helped to clarify some of the facts behind the headlines. It also gave the opportunity flag up the kinds of cases where the Human Rights Act helps people in everyday life get justice. It was revealing how there are news stories where human rights are of central importance but are never mentioned. Perhaps the media and political debates would be very different if these stories also mentioned how human rights laws help people, such as enabling those subjected to inhuman and degrading circumstances in hospitals and care homes to seek accountability and better treatment. Until then events like BIHR’s Human Rights Beneath the Headlines are very much needed!

NOTE: BIHR would like to thank to everyone who came along, to our panellists and especially Leigh Day for hosting the event.

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.

Working towards a human rights convention for older people

BIHR recently attended and spoke at a conference hosted by Age UK and Age International looking at the rationale behind having a human rights convention for older people. Hanna Gunnarsson, Intern at BIHR, reflects on the day’s events.

The strong themes of the day were the changing demography of the world (by 2050 there will be more older people than young in the world) the gap in human rights protection for older people, and whether or not a convention should be created to fill that gap. 

The morning started by looking at the case for a human rights convention for older people, which was introduced by Craig Mokhiber older peoplefrom the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva through a video link. One of the motivations for establishing a convention is the lack of protection that older people have globally and domestically. Although some protection is given to older migrants, women and disabled people due to conventions that specifically protect those rights, there is a gap in protection for older people who do not fit into those categories. Something Craig called “a remarkable omission” by Eleanor Roosevelt’s team when making the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. John Williams, Professor of Law at Aberystwyth University, noted that the violation against older people’s rights had a tendency to be reduced and illustrated how their fight was often ridiculed in society by being portrayed as a struggle for “right to family life… and your cat”.

In the second session of the day, the focus moved away from the global to the domestic scene and looked at how different parts of the UK works on strengthening the rights of older people. Representatives from Scotland, Wales and England were there to tell their stories about work going on where they are.  The representative for England Lorraine Rogerson (Chief Information Officer, Equality and Human Rights Commission), spoke about how we need to use every tool there is to push the process of a convention forward and that hopefully on the international level there will be a tipping point towards creating a convention. Andrea Nicholas-Jones (Head of Integrated Services at the Welsh Government) and Duncan Wilson (Head of Strategy and Legal, Scottish Human Rights Commission) illustrated how they are both currently working to ensure that the situation for older people in their constituencies is improving. In Wales they are working for a Declaration of Rights for older people, and which aims to set out the rights and concerns of older people, the main theme of the Declaration is the “right to live free from fear”. The Scottish representative claimed that the Scottish Government has good intentions; but in practice the picture is less positive. They are currently identifying the gaps and negotiating how to fill them. People are living longer, which is something to celebrate but also plan and react to. He recognised that proportionality and interference of the right to a private life, family, home, and correspondence (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights) need to be respected and gave an example of a man named Ken who was suffering from dementia and who had 106 different carers last year to support him, which caused him severe anxiety.

Critique of creating a new convention came out during the group sessions. Some thought that there should not be a distinction between people and a new convention focusing on older people would merely make them into victims that were not in charge of their own rights. Others thought that we already have too many conventions that were not properly used to defend our rights and that the UK should focus on creating more protective rights domestically instead.

After lunch, the conference looked at human rights in practice and the effects of other conventions in the UK. Andrew Latto, the Deputy Director for Work, Welfare & Wellbeing in Later life, Department for Work and Pensions, brought about laughs but there was a hidden gravity of the situation that came out during the Q&A when some delegates put him on the spot by asking critical and constructive questions about how the government was acting on improving the situation for elders. Andrew was then followed by our Deputy Director Sanchita Hosali, who looked at the different sources of protection of human rights and how we can combine them and apply them to our everyday life in the UK. She also defined what the “State” is; not just the Government in the strictest sense but public authorities more widely, who are responsible for providing us with a broad range of services, from policing to healthcare, in a way that respects, protects, and fulfils our human rights.

Afterwards, Zara Todd, a Disability Rights Campaigner, spoke about positive outcomes of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and Jenny King and Melvyn Harries from Derby Seen Ya Rights talked about the success of their commentary video on the rights of the older LGBT community.

Michelle Mitchell, Director General of Age UK finished off with encouraging words highlighting that campaigning for rights does not go unrewarded. She was referring to Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered schoolboy Stephen, who during lunch had received peerage into the House of Lords. As a general endnote, emphasis was put on the need to have a culture change in how we see older people, we need to stop the distinction in how we see our own elders (and how we want them to be treated), with how we see the general demographic population of older people as merely bed-fillers in care homes.

At BIHR we couldn’t agree more, and we’re looking forward to working closely with Age UK Brighton and brighton5Hove to launch our Human Rights Tour in Brighton on 10 September. We will be looking closely at the human rights of older people at this event, if you haven’t booked your place you can do so here. We look forward to seeing you in Brighton!  

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.