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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 02:07 GMT 03:07 UK
Viewpoints: the Human Rights Act
As the prime minister admits he is considering re-writing the Human Rights Act, six experts - for and against the legislation - give their views.

Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty

Maeve Sherlock, the Refugee Council

Simon Gallant, consultant solicitor, Mishcon de Reya

Nigel Farage MEP, UK Independence Party

Clive Elliot, Victims of Crime Trust

David Conway, of think-tank Civitas

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI, DIRECTOR OF LIBERTY

It is high time for separating reality from spin about the much-maligned Human Rights Act.

The Act was initiated by this government, passed with a great deal of cross-party support in 1998 and brought into force in October 2000.

It does not emanate from Brussels nor the European Union, but is shared by members of the Council of Europe whose citizens have long been able to seek redress for violations of their rights in the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Human Rights Act allows people in Britain to argue these cases in British courts rather than being forced to appeal to an international court.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty
Nearly all of the rights are informed and qualified by the need for public protection

Contrary to a great deal of recent discussion by political commentators, there is nothing in the Human Rights Act that sets the criminal above the victim.

Nearly all of the rights are informed and qualified by the need for public protection. Many human rights cases have involved victims challenging governments for gross failures to protect them.

For example, until one brave woman sued the British government in Strasbourg, rape victims in England were subject to lengthy cross-examination in person by men who were alleged to have violated them.

As a result of a judgment protecting her right not to be subject to "inhuman and degrading treatment", the law in this country was changed.

The values in the Act mirror those found in Bills of Rights throughout the free world.

Free speech, fair trials, respect for private life and the prohibition of torture are values that distinguish democrats from dictators and terrorists.

Without some kind of human rights protection, there is very little to stop popular governments from introducing legislation that empowers themselves rather than those they serve, or even from undermining the democratic process itself.

That said, our Human Rights Act is pretty tame protection.

It is expressly trumped by primary legislation, giving citizens and the courts far less power than in the US.

Even President Bush wouldn't dream of repealing the American Bill of Rights.

Perhaps the British political elite might explain to the people why we are less deserving of their fundamental freedoms than others all over the world.

MAEVE SHERLOCK, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE REFUGEE COUNCIL

Most asylum seekers arriving in the UK believe this country is a place where human rights are respected and where people who have been persecuted will be welcomed.

"When I got to Britain I knew I would be safe."

We hear this said by many people coming into our offices. It is a poignant comment as the asylum system is now so tough that the large majority of claims are rejected.

However, despite the removal of legal safeguards, people are still able to challenge bad decisions in the courts.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council
Sometimes, no doubt, human rights law is badly applied and questionable decisions are made
The Human Rights Act has helped those seeking protection here, but in many cases, including the recent one of the Afghan refugees, international conventions have been as important.

One of the key principles of refugee law is "non-refoulement" - which means that no-one should be removed back to a country where they would face human rights abuses.

All those people who have angrily observed that this is a case of "human rights gone mad" - none of whom have heard all the evidence - should reflect on just how dangerous it would be for these men to return to Afghanistan where the Taleban are still strong.

Hijacking can never be condoned, and the men have acknowledged that what they did was wrong. But do they deserve to die, which is what could happen if they were sent back?

Sometimes, no doubt, human rights law is badly applied and questionable decisions are made.

But overall, we should be proud that we respect the human rights of people, even if they don't, at times, strictly "deserve" it.

SIMON GALLANT, CONSULTANT SOLICITOR WITH LAW FIRM MISHCON DE REYA

Before we get carried away with the clamour to do away the Human Rights Act, let's remember the history behind the legislation.

It was introduced in 2000. Its purpose was to give effect under UK law to the European Convention on Human Rights.

This International Treaty - which the UK had signed up to 50 years before - created certain basic human rights and freedoms that needed to be stated after six long years of world war.

These included the rights to life, to liberty and security, a fair trial, respect for private life, and to freedom of expression.

What the Human Rights Act has done is to allow litigants to hold their government to account in the UK courts

There were also prohibitions on torture, slavery, discrimination and the death penalty.

In the country that gave Magna Carta to the world, none of this was particularly shocking. It was the most natural thing in the world to do.

What the Human Rights Act did for the first time was to state explicitly that the courts should take the Convention rights into account when reaching their decisions.

Legislation that was not consistent with the Convention rights should be struck down.

And individual claimants could launch proceedings in the UK under the Act if a public authority had acted in a way that was inconsistent with those rights, instead of resorting to a European court, which was the case until 2000.

But contrary to the impression given by some politicians, the volume of cases where Human Rights Act issues have been argued has been relatively small.

Whilst there was a level of experimentation soon after the Act came into force, according to Sweet and Maxwell (one legal publisher) the number of reported cases which make use of Human Rights Act arguments peaked at 557 in 2002-2003 then declined to 398 cases in 2005.

So in the fortnight after the prime minister has lost his Home Office minister for not looking tough on crime and immigration, great caution must be exercised in listening to politicians seeking to take away our powers to hold them to account.

NIGEL FARAGE MEP, UK INDEPENDENCE PARTY

"An abuse of common sense", says the prime minister about the court's decision not to deport the nine Afghan hijackers and the release of the murderer and rapist Anthony Rice.

It is not. It is the direct result of the ill-considered and badly drafted Human Rights Act, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights, and was rammed through Westminster in the first months of the Blair government.

Nigel Farage
The Afghan hijackers have shown that they could play us and our new fangled system for fools

They of course are now hoist by their own petard.

The members of this illiberal and autocratic regime do not have to suffer the consequences of their own actions; but two of the most important things that we as a country possess do.

Firstly, our people, who suffer the results of government by experts. In the case of some like the tragic Naomi Bryant, they pay with their lives.

Secondly, the reputation of the country - now seen as a laughably soft touch.

The Afghan hijackers have shown that they could play us and our new fangled system for fools. Nobody can blame them, after all they only used common sense.

And it is common sense that is singularly lacking in a government that thinks that history begins with them.

Our society is a careful lattice in which the various parts interact within a framework that has grown over the centuries into one of the freest and most liberal societies in the world.

But because we, as a nation, have never relied on grand gestures like the Human Rights Act there is no great political mileage in watering the roots of freedom.

Instead Blair and his autocrats decided to prune this back in order to graft on some new branches.

CLIVE ELLIOT, VICTIMS OF CRIME TRUST

The abuses and uses of the Human Rights Act loopholes has, for a long time, been an inequitable tool placed in the undeserving hands of law breakers at the expense of justice for law abiders.

As director of Victims of Crime Trust and having, I first became aware that prisoners were receiving greater human rights than their victims when one of my clients wrote to me in 1999.

The lady, whose six-year-old daughter was murdered by a perpetrator - who later successfully sued the prison authorities under the Human Rights Act for 20,000 because treatment for his broken ankle was slightly delayed - was left wondering why he was paid such a vast sum. This compared with the 6,000 CICA compensation she received through the British criminal justice system for her murdered daughter.

Clive Elliot, Victims of Crime Trust
It is fundamentally flawed and open to abuse in so much that it was never designed to help a law-abiding society

It seems to victims that criminals and illegal immigrants are immediately elevated to some extraordinary higher status of special treatment under the Human Rights Act, which empowers them to sue for any and every perceived injustice.

Victims observing the type of preferential treatment, respect and advice afforded perpetrators during criminal trials and appeals have quickly realised the Human Rights Act cannot help victims, but only serves those held at her Majesty's pleasure.

The Human Rights Act was originally designed to protect the most vulnerable against abuse.

Nowadays, that remit has been manipulated into a reversal whereby the abusers can use it against the vulnerable.

It is fundamentally flawed and open to abuse in so much that it was never designed to help a law-abiding society.

We used to refer to these abusers, benefiting from the introduction of the Human Rights Act as "Blair's chosen people" who could do no wrong.

What a turn around for Tony Blair now.

DAVID CONWAY OF THINK-TANK CIVITAS

Should the human rights act be changed ... is the way the law is working at the moment "an abuse of common sense"?

The Human Rights Act should be repealed, not amended. No good has come of it at all, only harm.

It was not needed to secure any genuine civil liberties citizens and foreigners domiciled here should enjoy against the state and each other they did not already have under common and statute law prior to its enactment.

Moreover, it has given the authorities power to impose many quite unnecessary and undesirable restrictions on liberty, especially in relation to freedom of expression, without producing any discernible net benefit as a result.

David Conway, Civitas
The way the Act is working at the moment is manifestly an abuse of common sense

Simultaneously, the Act has resulted in judicial decisions that have limited the ability and will of the authorities to restrict liberty in ways they would have been able to before it which are warranted by the exceptional present circumstances arising from the threat of terror.

Judicial decisions invoking the human rights of foreign terror suspects and convicted criminals have seriously compromised national security and public safety.

The way the Act is working at the moment is manifestly an abuse of common sense.

This is not merely because it has been wrongly applied, as, for example, by the police in not publishing photographs of foreign criminals they are currently seeking after being released into the community rather than deported, out of fear their publication would violate a right to privacy of the foreigners.

Common sense would want the authorities to be able to detain foreign terror suspects without trial and deport dangerous foreign criminals upon completing their sentences, just as it would want primary school teachers to be able to administer suntan cream to their pupils prior to playtime to prevent their exposure to harmful sun-rays, something currently precluded by the act.

The Human Rights Act also abuses common sense by encouraging applications, some successful, for compensation for alleged violations of "human rights" that common sense would deny belonged to those seeking compensation.




SEE ALSO:
Human rights laws 'could change'
17 May 06 |  UK Politics
Blair targets 'distant' justice
15 May 06 |  UK Politics


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