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Why we should care about the Human Rights Act

*This article is a reflection of my own views on the issues surrounding the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act. It does not necessarily reflect the views of all other HerCampus writers.*

What is the Human Rights Act?

The Human Rights Act of 1998 incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into English law. This is important because it allows us to defend and fight for our rights on British soil, without having to take every case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. Instead, domestic courts have the ability to deal with Human Rights appeals, must act in ways that comply with the rights laid out in the Act and, especially significantly, are able to hold public bodies to account if they act in ways are incompatible with the Act.

Described as ‘an invisible safety net’ by Amnesty International, the Human Rights Act quietly works to protect the rights of all of us, but is often also an essential tool for the most vulnerable in society to gain the support that they need. This video demonstrates the significant impact that the Human Rights Act can have on an individual’s life:

Why is it being threatened?

The current British government have promised to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. In the Conservatives’ proposal they cite three main reasons for the change:

  • That the ECtHR will no longer be binding over the UK Supreme Court
  • That the ECtHR will no longer be able to order a change in UK law and will become a purely advisory body
  • That there will be a proper balance between rights and responsibilities in UK law

The main focus throughout is on British sovereignty, with a large amount of discussion being around how the ECtHR has too much control over what goes on in Britain. The new Bill would undermine this, and give greater control and power to the British government and courts.

Why is this a bad thing?

The proposal states that the new Bill will ‘limit the use of human rights laws to the most serious cases’, but it fails to properly define what it means by ‘serious cases’. It indicates instead that there will be a threshold set, beneath which the Convention rights will not be engaged. This is scary, not only because it shows that rights will be somewhat restricted, but also that the criteria for this restriction is subjective and undefined. If this is not sufficiently addressed it could result in people who genuinely need the defense of human rights law not being able to get the help they need.

The new Bill also proposes to limit the reach of human rights cases to the UK, in an attempt to reduce the number of human rights claims that are made against the armed forces for acts they have committed overseas. This is done with the intention to prevent claims ‘that undermine their ability to do their job and keep us safe’. Whilst armed forces would still be held accountable to international humanitarian law, this option to ‘opt-out’ of UK human rights law is a dangerous and concerning proposal to be included in such important legislation. It is aimed to protect our troops, but could result in an attitude of greater complacency about the issue of human rights within the army.

Finally, the Conservatives’ proposal outlined that whilst efforts would be made to work with the Council of Europe to ensure that the new Bill was a legitimate application of the Convention, if an agreement could not be reached, the UK would withdraw from the ECHR as soon as the Bill came into effect. They justified this move by the fact that the text of the Convention would be contained within the legislation, and that this would protect human rights ‘in line with the will of the British Parliament and the rulings of British Courts’. This, however, would make the UK even less accountable to the international community, and make human rights within the UK even more contingent on individuals and groups of people.

What can we do about it?

  • Educate yourself on the issue:
  • Join Amnesty’s campaign to save the Human Rights Act: https://savetheact.uk/
  • Write to your MP, and express your discontent – the MPs are representatives of the people, and have to listen if enough of their constituents voice concerns
  • Talk about it! This is an issue that so many people aren’t aware is even happening, so just spreading awareness about it is really important.

‘We’ve already got a “British Bill of Rights” – it’s called our Human Rights Act. Help us save it.’ – Liberty

 

Third year History student Co-President of HerCampus Exeter
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