UK Human Rights – a grave case of misunderstanding

UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s recent comments have highlighted a woeful naivety in his understanding of Human Rights, both in the UK and Europe.

In a discussion with the BBC regarding new speculation of Conservative plans to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Grayling stated that he had “not ruled anything out.” His comments come amid reports that Theresa May as been working on removing the UK from the ECHR as part of the Troy party’s next manifesto.

Media stories of members of the Tory government threatening UK withdrawal from the ECHR are nothing new. Furthermore, Grayling noted that the case back log of the ECHR shows that the current system is somewhat out dated and needs revision. It is fair to say that few would disagree with that proposition, at least from an administrative perspective.

More worrying however are Grayling’s comments in relation to his general attitudes towards Human Rights. When asked about the ECHR as proof that Britain is a modern, compassionate society, Mr Grayling said: “I was a human rights campaigner. I chaired the Amnesty International Group when I was at university”. He then went in to espouse the view that Human rights were “about some of the appalling things happening around the world – people being brutalized for their political views, people being put in jail. Not about the rights of prisoners to artificial insemination in jail”.

By itself, the idea that Mr Grayling’s Human Right’s credentials can be proven by university activism is laughable. As the justice secretary of a 21st century democracy, which prides itself internationally on its Human rights record, university society membership, as an example of ministerial commitment to the area is somewhat worrying.

Further into the interview, whilst purporting that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has gone beyond the original intentions of the drafters of the ECHR, Grayling commented that Human Rights are now, ‘Cropping up in areas of law that most people agree are not right, particularly around the rights of people to stay in the UK.”

These statements are flawed for a number of reasons. Firstly the issue of Human Rights ‘cropping up’ in areas of UK law where they shouldn’t be suggests a significant misunderstanding of the role of human rights in the constitutional framework of modern democracies. It is fundamental to the nature of Human rights legislation in any jurisdiction that its application is not restricted to certain areas of law. The pre-amble to the United nations declaration of Human rights states that ‘the general assembly proclaims this universal declaration of human rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society’.

To limit rights to areas where they can and can not be exercised removes the need for the state to act in accordance with rights in the majority of areas of society. This would have particularly negative consequences, as often it is the most venerable who are at risk in areas such as education rights. Moreover, the idea of limiting the application of rights simply under mines the concept of fundamental rights as a whole.

In addition only allowing rights to be evoked in the gravest cases of human treatment, cripples the scope of implementation of rights, and dangerously lowers the standard of treatment to which individuals or groups can be subjected without their fundamental rights and freedoms being legally implicated.

Grayling went on to assert that ‘the issue of the removal of the UK from the ECHR was not a right wing position but rather “not a left right issue. ..75% of the population agree with us.” However, no source for this statistic was offered, and within the context of the conversation it was unclear as to what exactly 75% of the population agreed on; the alleged over dominance of Human Rights law in relation to extradition cases, or the UK as a signatory to the ECHR itself.

An interview which began discussing the implications of the recent Eastleigh by-election, turned into one, which brought the naïve and borderline ignorant views on Human Rights of the Justice Secretary to light. If we are to engage in any meaningful debate on the status of the UK as a signatory to the ECHR, those leading the debate must at least be correct in their understanding of Human rights legislation as legal instruments, and not just political tools to be thrown around in an attempt at media point scoring.

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