Unclear future for human rights in the UK

The debate in the UK concerning the Human Rights Act and its implications for parliamentary sovereignty is not a new one. During the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, which ended last Wednesday, leader of the party David Cameron gave more fuel to the discussion by announcing that if the Tories will win next year’s general election he will scrap the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Actwas passed in 1998 under a Labour government and it was the first bill of rights the country had seen in three centuries. It is composed of a series of sections that have the effect of codifying the protections in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. One of its most important implications is that people can take human rights cases to domestic courts without having to go to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg like in the past.

Conservatives have been opposing the act for quite some time and they see the European Convention as an imposition from an external body that undermines Parliamentary sovereignty. One of the main difficulties with Strasbourg at the moment is the insistence of the ECtHR that the UK provides some category of prisoners with the right to vote. The Tories have been suggesting that a British Bill of Rights should replace the act and now Cameron has promised to do so if he wins the coming elections.

Now, the Human Rights Act does not equate to the European Convention on Human Rights, a point that seems to confuse many Conservatives. It is an act that incorporates most of the rights of the European Convention in the UK law, which makes sense since the British government is bound to uphold these rights since 1953.The Tories’ position has been rather unclear on whether they oppose the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, or both. It is becoming more and more clear that the latter is the case in place. Then, there are a few points that need to be made.

Firstly, much concern is direct at the state of parliamentary sovereignty and whether the evolution of the human rights system in the past decade is incompatible with the UK parliamentary democracy. Yet, the Human Rights Act already explicitly recognizes the sovereignty of Parliament and it gives it the last word on judgements.

Secondly, the very purpose of the current Human Rights Act is to reduce the involvement of the ECtHR in the UK affairs. The Brighton declaration released in April 2012 after a conference of the Council of Europe discussing the future of the ECtHR stated precisely that the European Convention on Human Rights should be implemented by each country through its domestic law.

Besides, this is the only way the ECtHR could cope with the overflowing of trails that inevitably results from allowing every individual of the 47 countries members of the Council of Europe to bring cases to the court.

Thirdly, if the aim is to escape the jurisdiction of a “foreign court”, simply replacing the Human Rights Act will not achieve so, since, as already stated, the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights are not the same thing. Unless the UK decides to withdraw from the convention, it will have to have to do with the ECtHR anyway in one way or another. Then, if a new Bill of Rights is meant be a vehicle for leaving the convention the Conservatives should openly state so. And there would no need to camouflage the fact that, logically, leaving the European Convention on Human Rights could very wellimply leaving the Council of Europe as well.

There is no doubt that there are some problems with the status quo. The broad character of the Human Rights Act leaves room for some ambiguities and there is the concern that the need for interpretations gives too much power to lawyers. The fact remains that those opposing the Human Rights Act do not have a consistent position on how it can be ameliorated and on what a new Bill of Rights will contain. The debate is becoming loud and confusing, two adjectives that should certainly not be associated with a political campaign.


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