Free and equal in dignity and rights … for now

Eleanor Roosevelt with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. Photo credit: FDR Presidential Library & Museum / CC BY (

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)

They’re invisible, intangible and all too easy to lose down the back of the sofa – but you really do need to hang on to human rights. Britain can look back with justifiable pride at a long and glorious list of domestic laws passed and international conventions agreed that outlaw slavery and torture and guarantee rights taken for granted nowadays, such as freedom to dissent peacefully from government policy without fear of persecution.

The USA’s Bill of Rights (1791), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) refer to some of the principles in our famous Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, which established that no one, not even the king, was above the law. And it was in London that Peter Benenson, whose mother had emigrated to the UK from what is now Belarus, founded Amnesty International, an organisation that has for 59 years campaigned for the release of prisoners of conscience and against the use of torture and the death penalty.

Painting by Laurent Dabos of Thomas Paine, progenitor of the ideas behind the US Bill of Rights, and who lived for six years in Lewes, East Sussex. Image credit Laurent Dabos/public domain

UK Government abandons fundamental human rights

On 31 January 2020, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union slipped silently out of British domestic law under the legislation enacting Brexit. The Charter was drafted by the EU and is interpreted by the European Court of Justice of the EU, a body that the Government views as a threat to British parliamentary sovereignty.

The Charter seeks to protect a full range of civil, political, economic and social rights. As an example, workers have a right to protection against unjustified dismissal, to working conditions that respect health, safety and dignity, to a limitation of maximum working hours, to daily and weekly rest periods and to an annual period of paid leave. It commits member states to a high level of environmental protection and it prohibits torture and the death penalty.

The Charter only applies to matters concerning EU law but it could be raised in courts in the UK on such matters and it enabled British subjects of Her Majesty the Queen to take their government to court over legislation incompatible with a fundamental right, something that they can’t do simply under the European Convention on Human Rights.

After 31 December 2020, the UK will remain a member of the Council of Europe and therefore a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. The Council has 47 members, including Russia.

However, the Conservative party has never sought to hide its dislike of the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British domestic law, and the government has replaced its original promise in the Political Declaration to reaffirm its commitment to the ECHR with an agreement merely to respect its framework. The party’s election manifesto in 2017 declared its intention to keep the Human Rights Act for the time being but only “while the process of Brexit is underway … [the UK will] remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of [this] Parliament”.

No recourse for rights violations

If international laws on human rights are to be effective, they have to be part of domestic law.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry made this point to the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU during an oral evidence hearing on 27 May in an exchange with Michael Gove, MP and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: “What makes the ECHR accessible to British citizens is the Human Rights Act. That is what allows individuals in the UK to invoke the rights contained in the ECHR in our domestic courts.” Lord Hoffman commented in the Simms case, 1999: “Parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament can, if it chooses, legislate contrary to fundamental principles of human rights.” Were the Human Rights Act to be repealed, there would be no recourse in law for ordinary British people whose rights were violated.

It would be short-sighted of the Government to tear up its commitments to human rights legislation since the UK’s adherence to international and domestic law is part of its attraction for non-British business people. So we stand to lose not only much-needed foreign investment, but also precious and hard-won rights – backed only by the Government’s promise to uphold them.

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