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Bill of Rights debate gets people listening

By ucyow3c, on 28 October 2011

It’s not often that the most distinguished attendees of a lecture are seated in the audience and not on stage. On 26 October, Sir Leigh Lewis, chair of the Commission on a Bill of Rights and former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions, along with Anthony Speaight QC and two other members of the Commission, sat quietly in ‘listening mode’ to a debate on a British Bill of Rights put on by UCL’s Institute for Human Rights (Live-tweeted under #BritishBillofRights @humanrightsucl). Avery Hancock, a first-year PhD student in political theory at UCL, reports.

Audience for Bill of Rights lectureJoshua Rozenberg, long-time legal journalist and presenter of the BBC Radio 4 series Law in Action, opened the proceedings by setting the debate in context. In March 2011, the coalition government appointed a Commission on a Bill of Rights to investigate how the UK can meet its human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights while ‘protecting and extending’ UK liberties, and to prepare advice for when the UK chairs the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers – which supervises the enforcement of the Convention – next month. Sounds innocuous enough.

But between the lines, as the panel soon spelled out, the government could be paving the way towards repealing the UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act and drastically limiting the role of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights to rule on UK human rights cases. Even more worrying, according to the Institute’s Director Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia, are indications that the government could build civic responsibility conditions into a new Bill of Rights, a move that would wreak “constitutional havoc”.

Aileen Kavanagh of the University of Oxford cut through the negative press that the Human Rights Act and the European Court have generated over the past decade (look no further than catgate) to provide a balanced view of the UK’s current human rights architecture as sufficiently balancing human rights with the public interest. The Prime Minister’s insistence that the UK is bound by Strasbourg to give rights to ‘foreign criminals’ is nothing more, she argued, than a political move to ensure human rights decisions are made in Parliament, and not the courts.

UCL’s Colm O’Cinneide criticised on two grounds Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s plan to implement more ‘subsidiarity’ from the European Court and return primary responsibility for human rights law to the domestic state. First, because the European Court already does so much as a long-standing principle of human rights law. But more importantly, granting the UK or any other state subsidiarity for having a good human rights record (a subjective judgment at best) could encourage other (not so nice) states to ignore Strasbourg as well. Coining a phrase (picked up in the Guardian, no less) Dr Meckled-Garcia described the Attorney General’s move as a shift from implementation to interpretation of the Convention. One can almost hear the pillars of the convention crumbling.

Audience member Francesca Klug from the LSE reminded the audience and panelists that the national debate could use a good dose of Orwell. Human rights are not about protecting the interests of the UK or any other government. They are about protecting individuals from the potential abuses of government. Aileen Kavanagh similarly warned that conflating the human rights agenda with British identity is misguided, if not downright dangerous.

The Commission on a Bill of Rights will present their final recommendations to the government in 2012.

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