Our human rights matter. For me, it’s a matter of principle that goes right to the heart of why I’m in politics.
Because standing up for human rights is about tackling injustice and righting wrongs. It’s about defending free speech, fighting for the rights of victims of crime, protecting the dignity of the sick and the elderly. This is why I became a lawyer and got involved in politics in the first place.
There are good reasons why we need laws protecting people’s basic fundamental rights. In healthy democracies like ours, governments are enormously powerful. This power isn’t always put to good use. And it’s those least able to fight back – those with the quietest voices such as the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor – who get trampled on. It could just as easily be you or me.
That’s why we have the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Protecting every citizen regardless of colour, age, sexuality, religion or who they voted for in elections, or whether they even voted at all. Fundamental rights such as right to life, the right to a fair trial, and the right to free speech are protected.
These aren’t trivial. They affect the lives of millions of British people on a daily basis. That’s why David Cameron is wrong to decide they’re no longer important.
The so-called “strategy document” his Party has published today is laughable – riddled with inaccuracies, contradictions and myths.
For a start, let’s lay to rest once and for all this Tory myth that human rights are a toxic foreign plot to impose their values on us. It’s simply untrue. Human rights are as British as fish and chips. We are renowned the world over for our strong moral leadership on questions of human rights. We are defined by our abidance to the rule of law and our natural sense of fairness.
We were responsible for the world’s first Bill of Rights – the Magna Carta – still revered in many countries. And it was British politicians and British lawyers who, in the aftermath of World War II, determined there’d be no repeat of the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, drew up the ECHR.
Myth number two is their claim that the Human Rights Act interferes with the sovereignty of our parliament. The truth is our courts have been free to abide by the rulings of the European Court for fifty years – the Human Rights Act did nothing to change that.
The thing that saddens me most is that the Tories are betraying their own history, as the party with a central role in shaping the liberal Europe we live in today. We owe a debt of gratitude to Tories like Winston Churchill without whose vision the ECHR would never have got off the ground. If he were a minister in the current Government, Cameron would have sacked Churchill for his pro-human rights views.
Instead of a Human Rights Act, David Cameron promises to bring in a British Bill of Rights. But the HRA is a British Bill of Rights. If what they’re promising is different to what we already have, then the British people deserve to know which rights they’ll be deprived of, or who will be denied their rights. The right to a fair trial? The right to privacy? Freedom of speech? Of course the Tories cannot tell us because it’s a sham.
Despite their weasel words about wanting to stay within the European Convention of Human Rights, we need to be very clear: the Tory plans are creating the conditions that would make our ongoing membership untenable. We would almost certainly be expelled as a result of these changes.
If other countries also insisted on a parliamentary override of the European court’s rulings we would be rightly outraged. What is to stop others following suit? Very quickly the post-war human rights consensus in Europe would crumble.
I’ve repeatedly said that the European Court isn’t perfect. The backlog of cases is still too large, the quality of judges could be improved, and they need to give each individual country greater flexibility our unique social and legal history deserve.
But leaving the ECHR would be a disaster, inflicting untold damage to our international standing. We’d join Belarus in Europe as the only countries not signed up to the convention. A once proud nation morally reduced and turned inwards from the rest of the world, isolated and alone.
It seems pretty obvious that the frenzied attacks on human rights over recent months and years have been about covering up this Government’s own failings, particularly on deportations of foreign criminals, and show how rattled they are by Ukip. That the jettisoning of people’s rights is seen by them as acceptable collateral damage in their wider political battles show how low the Tories are prepared to stoop.
There’s much we should be proud of as a nation, and our global leadership on human rights is one of these. Instead of doing down human rights, let’s shout from the roof tops about how important they are, both here and abroad. If the Tories had their way, people here and abroad would suffer. I’m determined to do what I can to stop them, because I don’t want that on my conscience.
Sadiq Khan MP is the Shadow Justice SecretaryReuse content