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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Small Places Close to Home

Alex Funnell, Intern at BIHR, updates us on a recent radio show about human rights in local communities, featuring the British Institute of Human Rights and our BIHR Human Rights Champion Sam Bond.

More often than noIMG_1776t headlines and political sound-bites focus on the idea that “public opinion” sees human rights are being about “other” people, from situations in other countries to so-called “undesirable groups” such as people in prison, or asylum seekers. Last week Radio Free Brighton aired a programme that tells a different story, one about human rights in the community, one which shows that human rights are relevant to all of us.

Sophie Howes, Human Rights Officer at the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR), Sarah Faulkner from Assert Brighton and Hove and Sam Bond from Age UK Brighton all featured on the programme.

Sophie began the programme, talking about BIHR’s Human Rights in the Community project, a three year initiative designed to help plug the human rights knowledge gap within voluntary sector groups and local communities. She explained how there is a real affinity between these groups and human rights – often people tell BIHR they know human rights are relevant to their work but they don’t enough about human rights to practically apply in everyday work.  Through the project BIHR supported organisations and individuals in local communities to build up knowledge and capacity on human rights in a variety of creative ways. This included staff training, arts projects, and our hugely successful Human Rights Tour, a series of free to attend events on human rights in towns and cities across the UK.

Sarah Faulkner described the activities undertaken by Assert, an organisation that supports adults with autism and Asperger syndrome in Brighton and Hove, and the impact human rights has had on their work.  Sarah described practical examples of how they had used human rights in their work, for example in negotiations with the local council about the support offered to people with autism and Asperger syndrome. Sarah believes grassroots charities have a role in shedding light on the side of human rights that is largely ignored by the media, a side that helps those in the community that are in need of support.  BIHR and other human rights charities raise awareness of how human rights are relevant to different groups of people and Sarah explains that with a bit of support, such as that given by BIHR, she feels more confident when campaigning for the recognition and understanding of those with Asperger syndrome and autism.

Sam Bond is one of BBIHR Human Rights Bunting on display on Brighton Sea Front after our Brighton Human Rights TourIHR’s local human rights champions.  With the support of BIHR, Sam has been working hard to raise awareness of human rights in her local community and at UK Brighton and Hove. Age UK Brighton and Hove provides a range of services to older people, including advocacy, a crisis service, information and advice, a help at home service, and an IT drop in service. Sam views human rights as protections that we all have against the power of the government, including local authority services. She explained how having a clear understanding of human rights is particularly important for the older people she works with.  Sam wants the frontline workers of the local authority, along with clients themselves, to be aware of human rights and for information about human rights to become more accessible to older people.

Both Sam and Sarah highlight the importance of highlighting the relevance of human rights to people in our communities. Sophie gave examples of cases that illustrate how human rights are here to help us all.  One case involved the intended separation of an elderly couple because they’d been assessed as having differing physical needs which meant they were going to be placed in separate care homes.  They had been married for 65 years and were faced with the prospect of being separated for the first time in their long married life. Their family and the local community used the right to respect for private and family life in the Human Rights Act to campaign against the decision, and the local authority reversed their decision.  Sophie explained that this case showed the power of the Human Rights Act to empower older people and their families to challenge unfair decisions by the local authority, without the need to go to court.

Sophie also highlighted a case involving a young man with autism and learning disabilities who was detained unlawfully for over a year by the local authority following a brief period of temporary respite care whilst his father recovered from illness. The young man and his father went to court to challenge these decisions on the grounds that they violated the rights to liberty and to respect for private and family life under the Human Rights Act. Following this the young man was able to return home. These cases show how human rights have helped improve the lives of ordinary individuals, and how we never know when we might need the protection of human rights.

Sarah, Sam and Sophie remind us how human rights are relevant to all of us. BIHR is working hard to spread the word about human rights in local communities across the UK via our Human Rights Tour. We will be visiting towns and cities across the UK this autumn holding free to attend one-day events on human rights. We would love to see you there. Dates and locations will be available shortly on our website, so watch this space!

To listen to the radio programme please click here.

To see a recent blog by BIHR Human Rights Champion Sam Bond on the human rights of older people, click here.

Think human rights are just about courts? Think again!

Did you know it’s NHS Equality, Diversity and Human Rights week and Mental Health Awareness week? The idea behind NHS Equality, Diversity and Human Rights week is to raise awareness and celebrate best practice, perfect timing for BIHR’s final roundtable on our Human Rights in Healthcare Project and to launch our latest resource “Mental Health Advocacy and Human Rights: Your Guide

BIHR’s Human Rights in Healthcare Project, funded through the Department of Health’s Grant Programme has been exploring ways of assisting voluntary sector organisations working on health and social care to use the Human Rights Act to provide and advocate for better services, given that all public authorities, including NHS organisations, have legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfil peoples’ human rights.

We were pleased to receive the following words of support from Norman Lamb, Department of Health Minister for Care and Support:

LambI am sorry I am not able to attend this important event but wish to send my support for the day and for what you have already achieved. I sincerely thank you for the excellent work that the BIHR and you, its 20 partner organisations, have completed over the last three years on behalf of the Department of Health.

It is crucial that the NHS and care services take time to consider human rights and how they must underpin the way in which patients, carers and clients are treated, as well as understanding that their views and experiences are crucial in shaping our care systems.I look forward to seeing the outcomes of today’s discussions. Once again thank you and have a great day.

Discussions at the event focused on the challenges and opportunities of making rights a reality – to take human rights off the law books, beyond the courtrooms and into our everyday practice. Designed to be a framework law, the Human Rights Act provides both a legal and practical foundation for health and care services to develop and deliver policy and practice.

Through the Project, BIHR has worked closely with over 20 organisations based Birmingham, Liverpool and London and a sub-group focused on mental health. At the event we heard how groups are putting the Human Rights Act into practice, helping to transform internal culture, to secure good outcomes for service users, their families and carers and forming the basis of partnership working with services.

We heard from Mind Brighton and Hove about the initial “fear factor” and the sense that getting involved with human rights might end up in the courts, something which was dispelled with BIHR’s training and capacity building. In fact understanding the Human Rights Act means their advocates can be more targeted in raising concerns, empowering them to challenge poor practices. NSUN, a survivor-lead network, spoke about how the project has helped them to understand what the Human Rights Act is and how it can be used to as a lever for change. Just knowing there are legal rights which protect people has been very powerful and helped shift language of the organisation at every level, from local advocacy to engagement with Government Ministers.

We also watched films  from some of our other project partners, including:

Participants agreed it was important to ensure services are complying with their legal obligations under the Human Rights Act, an in some cases this is still not the reality. Recent scandals such as the deaths and suffering at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital, the abuse at Winterbourne View care home, and  others are reminders that quality of care is not simply a case of common sense or compassion. Values are important, they are the foundation of services, the ties that bind us. At the heart of health and social care are human rights values such as universalism, dignity, respect, fairness, equality, choice and autonomy. Yet these ties are too easily broken, sometimes something more is needed, assurances below which services cannot go below, and empowering framework for positive action and accountability for when things go wrong. This is what human rights laws do.

We were particularly pleased to launch “Mental Health Advocacy and Human Rights: Your Guide” at the event. Produced with Project partners Mind Brighton and Hove, Wish andMHG NSUN, our latest practical resource to help respect and protect the human rights of people with mental health problems. Aimed at both advocates and people who use services, the  Guide explains how the Human Rights Act is relevant in mental health settings, drawing on real life stories of how laws and legal cases can be used in everyday advocacy practice, providing helpful flow-charts, worked through examples and top tips. The Guide was warmly welcomed at the event, and  just one-day in we’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback we’ve had via Twitter, email and the phone. You can find out more and get your copy here.

No doubt there are challenges ahead, with the changing landscape of health and social care, economic constraints and the need for strong political leadership. But as the work of the Project shows it is possible to put the Human Rights into practice, securing not just legal compliance but also helping to build a culture of respect for human rights. There is much to be done to fulfil the spirit of this legislation, so that human rights become part and parcel of the way public services are developed and delivered, placing human rights at the forefront of daily interactions, but it can be done!

Rural Human Rights, Urban Envy, and the strange case of a Cornwall Councillor

This guest post has been written by Gemma Finnegan, BIHR Human Rights Champion, Cornwall, @Gemma_Finnegan (Please note it does not necessarily represent BIHR’s views)

 

It’s often said that the greatest trick the devil ever played was making you think Cornwall is near the rest of England. If you’ve ever journeyed down to our beautiful county by rail or car you’ll know that it’s about 2 hours further on from where bone- deep boredom set in, or Exeter, as we Cornish call it! All this tongue in cheek preamble is going somewhere I promise you!

My intention in underlining the geographical distance is to illustrate the differences in attitudes towards human rights than our urban counterparts.  Being at the end of the line as it were means there are cultural and social differences too. Ideas and attitudes permeate slowly – though the internet and social media has seriously speeded up this process. In the past I remember that the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s only really entered our collective Cornish conscience in the mid 1990s. There has always been a slight delay in popular culture as if we are still on analogue and everyone else is on digital.

Regarding rural attitudes to human rights it is important to point out that 45% of the Cornish population live in settlements smaller than hamlets. This is a very dispersed settlement pattern and delivering voluntary and community sector services is very challenging. I would say that attitudes here in Cornwall tend towards conservatism with a small ‘c’ and a slightly sceptical view of human rights in general, something the ‘city folk’ get worked up about.

What will probably surprise people is the sheer number of voluntary and community groups in Cornwall. We have a population in the region of 650,000 and there are several thousand voluntary and community groups in the county all working towards, though they may not recognise or call it as such, embedding human rights in society by improving a beneficiaries’ lives.

Cornwall has a larger number of people who volunteer than the national average and these individuals selflessly give up their time to talk with, listen to and help others. These actions recognise the innate dignity of the human being and that each of us deserves to live a life free from fear.

It is only within the last 5 years that human rights have started to enter the common language of the voluntary and community sector in Cornwall and it would be disingenuous to not say that there is a long way to go to embed the principals of the articles of the Human Rights Act across the board. There is still too much focus on ‘needs’ and not ‘rights’ and the sector as a whole isn’t yet empowered enough to speak ‘truth to power’ but I feel that the fundamental principles of the voluntary and community sector, wanting to help a fellow human being, are there, and can act as a foundation that will cement human rights in the county.

Addendum – 27.02.13 ( the strange case of a Cornwall Councillor…)

Last night a story broke about a Cornwall Councillor who had said to a disability rights project worker that disabled children cost the council too much and ‘should be put down’.

The righteous anger expressed last night on Twitter (#BrewerOut) and Facebook has continued today in the local, and I should imagine by lunchtime, the national media. The councillor has apologised but continues to insist that he won’t resign as he has apologised and that what was required of him by Cornwall Council’s Independent Standards Committee. If this is the case then this committee has some serious questions to answers about the Council’s attitude to Human Rights and Equality and Diversity legislation.

The attitude of the councillor that he recognises that his comments were ‘insensitive’ but doesn’t see he should take responsibility for his actions illustrate the battle still to be fought in embedding the fundamental principles that we continue to fight for. The response of the residents of Cornwall show that the majority instinctively understand the innate dignity of their fellow humans: 96% in an online poll say he should resign. Having this in the public conscience is an opportunity for our county to have a discourse and its one I intend to grasp!

Let’s remember the opening words in Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.