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Tories have Human Rights Act in their sights

The imminent appearance of the parliamentary commission’s report into a new Bill of Rights is giving the Tory right an opportunity to bray against what they call “a court sitting overseas” – the European Court of Human Rights.

For the Bill of Rights as is proposed is not about holding parliamentary lawmakers and the executive to account or guaranteeing basic democratic rights. No, quite the opposite. Behind the nationalist demagogy about “diktats from Brussels” and a purely “British” form of justice, is something quite different.

This is prime minister Cameron’s effort to appease the right wing in his Conservative party. Their nationalism provides a cover for a visceral hatred for the idea of human rights in general and the European Court of Human Rights in particular.

Strangely enough, for the Union Jack-waving backwoods people who argue that the ECHR is a dictatorial “imposition” from Europe, it was the Tory Winston Churchill who helped establish the European Convention of Human Rights. The same Convention then led to the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights in 1959, as human rights lawyer Bill Bowring notes.

Despite this, it took four decades for the convention to be – and then only partially – incorporated into British law. This took place in 1998 under New Labour. But, to the anger of human rights lawyers, home secretary David Blunkett immediately “derogated” – ie opted out – of Article 5 of the Convention, which enshrines “the right to liberty and security of person”.

He did this on the grounds that there was a terrorist threat and a public emergency in the UK following the 9/11 attacks on New York, which overrode any such individual rights.  New Labour’s derogation dovetailed neatly with the needs of the secret state – namely the heads of the military, the police and secret services – and last but certainly not least – the US Central Intelligence Agency’s own “war on terror”.

Two recent cases show why human rights legislation is hated by the right.  Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer Gary McKinnon avoided extradition to the United States on computer hacking charges under the Human Rights Act.  It took huge determination by McKinnon himself, his mother and lawyers to conduct  a ten-year legal campaign after initially losing appeals in the High Court and the House of Lords against his extradition. Last week, it was decided he would face no charges in Britain.

The case of German citizen Khaled el-Masri has taken almost as long.  El-Masri was seized by security officers in Macedonia on 31 December 2003 while crossing into Serbia. He held incommunicado for 23 days, turned over to the CIA and tortured.  It was only on 13 December last week that 17 European court judges provided him with any kind of redress.

The ECHR has held that his forcible disappearance, kidnapping and “rendition” in Skopje to the United States violated the most basic guarantees of human decency. He had never been charged with any crime. It was a case of mistaken identity but neither the CIA nor the US government admitted what happened.

The Commission for the Bill of Rights has already cited the “exponential increase” in the ECHR’s caseload as a threat to its viability. At that time the court had a backlog of 150,000 cases. The commission’s first proposal is that new screening mechanisms should be introduced to “reduce very significantly the number of cases that reach the Court”.

So the ECHR is facing a twin attack – from the Tories in Britain and from the backlog of cases as a result of the mounting attacks on human rights. The Bill of Rights under consideration is a Trojan horse which we should not make the mistake of accepting as a gift. Instead, we should fight for an Agreement of the People, a democratic constitution for the 21st century.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
17 December 2012

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