A rant about human rights

Brigadier: “Well naturally enough the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain.”
The Doctor: “Well, naturally. I mean, the rest were all foreigners.”
Doctor Who – “Robot”

Depressingly but unsurprisingly, “Britons believe too many people, especially immigrants and asylum seekers, take advantage of the Human Rights Act (HRA), a poll has suggested”.

This is one of those BBC news stories that underlines just how self-sustaining the seemingly bland and factual process of reporting the news can be. In many cases, of course, “polls” are commissioned by journalists themselves seeking to bolster a point with a vaguely factual evidence. That isn’t the case here since the Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Justice commissioned the poll itself. But in a very real sense, I would suggest, the public believes that people abuse the Human Rights Act because the press simply love reporting (or mis-reporting) sensationalist stories of common sense turned on its head; political correctness gone mad; criminals protected more than victims; cats sleeping with dogs! You know the kind of thing. What happens is that the press selectively single out and report only the negative scare stories of Human Rights Gone Mad, ignoring all those vulnerable people, patients and civil liberties campaigners who have used it to win hard-fought victories. The view that your average person in the street has of the act is therefore entirely skewed by what they have read about it in the press or seen on the TV news, making it more or less a foregone conclusion that they would agree with the proposition that the Act is abused. Of course it’s abused. If it hadn’t been abused they’d never have heard of it.

Take, for example, the Chindamo case in August last year in which a murderer could not be deported to his home country of Italy, the very case that led David Cameron to promise to scrap the act in favour of, er, something more British-sounding: a “British Bill of Rights”. Human Rights for all! But mainly the British! There’ll doubtless be no protecting of Johnny Foreigner in that stalwart document. There’s an extremely sensible and readable response to this from the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) here (in pdf form) which makes some obvious points: “the UK played a central role in the development of these human rights standards”, that it already requires individual rights to be weighed against the interests of the community, and that any new British Bill would have to meet the minimum standards of the HRA in any case. In fact the main reason Chindamo wasn’t deported is that although Italian by birth he’d never lived there and didn’t speak the language: it was the European Union’s 2004 Citizenship Directive that led to the ruling that deportation following his prison sentence was not proportionate (piece by Andrew Dismore in the Indy here). Hardly ideal, but not the HRA’s fault and a great example of how lazy or sensationalistic reporting can lead public opinion.

It’s actually quite difficult to find publicly reported cases that favour the HRA. The aforementioned BIHR have published a document called The Human Rights Act — Changing Lives that goes some way towards addressing this. One quote: “Too often the Human Rights Act is associated with technical legal arguments or perceived to fuel spurious claims by celebrities and criminals. These case studies reveal a very different picture. They show how groups and people themselves are using not only the letter of the law, but also the language and ideas of human rights to challenge poor treatment and negotiate improvements to services provided by public bodies.” In my job I deal a fair bit with Employment Law so I do at least get some sense of the HRA being invoked in legal cases of discrimination and privacy. When you look at what the HRA (the UK’s enactment of the European Convention on Human Rights) actually contains — the right to life, liberty, and a fair trial, the right not to be enslaved, treated inhumanely or discriminated against, the right of freedom of expression, conscience and assembly, and so on — it’s difficult to argue that it’s inappropriate. Inconvenient maybe, but only when what’s convenient is pandering to the emotive mass of public opinion or political expediency.

(The other issue for me in the Chindamo case, as in other high-profile cases of overseas nationals being considered for deportation on release from prison, is why everyone gets quite so outraged about “foreign criminals on our streets” when those criminals have served their time in prison. How is this substantively different from the default assumption built into our legal system that all criminals are released ‘onto the streets’ after having served their time? I realise that someone who is a “guest” in the country is abusing that privilege, but by definition all criminals abuse far worse privileges than being a bit rude to their host nation.)

The British Institute of Human Rights response linked to above makes it very clear that misinformation and poor public understanding of what the HRA does and doesn’t say is at the very crux of the perceived issues with it, and would similarly dog any attempt to replace it. It’s the media’s scare-happy approach and the government’s reticence in actively promoting the value and importance of protecting everyone’s human rights that are the real problem.

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