The topic of ‘human rights’ at one point garnered sympathy among the British public. The term would call to mind images of the
courageous struggle of Burmese dissidents, apartheid in South Africa and an idealised battle for self-determination and justice. Nowadays, the concept of human rights has become a profanity in the public discourse: something dirty, cynical and exploited against national interests.
The Rubicon was crossed when David Cameron gave in to pressure and sacked Attorney General Dominic Grieve as part of his July reshuffle. What had Grieve done wrong? He had the audacity to propose, rather insistently, that the UK remain incorporated in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
With tenacity and very little consideration, Britain’s tabloid media has successfully waged a war against human rights by linking them to two deeply unpopular themes: terrorism and European integration.
It’s a sad fact, but the British public is being gradually conditioned into believing that human rights represent a shameful refuge for criminals. In covering the terrible Omagh bombing, the Daily Mail has repeatedly circulated lurid headlines such as ‘Human rights law helps murderers not victims, say Omagh families’, while the Sun has been made to correct a revolting story which argued that the European Court made it easier for paedophiles to prey upon children.
Reasonable minds may disagree about the costs and benefits of the UK’s engagement with the European Union, but to carry out one’s agenda on this issue by encouraging citizens to accept a weaker regime of rights will lead us down a very unpleasant path.
What has happened is a gradual transformation from the War on Terror to the War on Rights — an international trend being pushed and shaped from multiple directions to steadily diminish the legal protections of individuals and private businesses and expand the power of the state.
What is most amusing in the UK is that while the Mail and Sun crew are whipping up garish stories of the inimical impact of human rights in the European Court, the government is happily violating rights of citizens with no consequence.
This summer, at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), it was finally publicly acknowledged by the government that GCHQ is actively sweeping up all your emails, texts, calls and browsing history, even if you have never been suspected of doing anything wrong. James Eadie QC told the IPT that, despite the inconvenience of violating rights to privacy, GCHQ’s mass surveillance methods were ‘practical’ in order to find the ‘needles’ in the communications haystack.
Notwithstanding the fact that a number of studies show that indiscriminate bulk surveillance is ineffective, the government’s position reveals a glib attitude toward the laws that supposedly protect citizens from the state. In light of this egregious trend, we are meant to be suspicious of the ECHR?
Yet we see relatively little public anger over the erosion of privacy, and the gradual removal of basic rights to defence, search and seizure or presumption of innocence. The state’s powers continue to grow and grow, partly premised on a false idea of this anti-European jingoism.
There are of course a number of concerning verdicts reached in recent years by the ECHR, as well as a worryingly long backlog. When the prime minister made his pointed speech regarding ECHR reform before the Council of Europe at the beginning of the year, it was clear that Downing Street was not happy about the court’s expanding role in immigration matters — especially the deportation of suspected terrorists to countries where they might face torture.
These are reasonable arguments, but to propose that the court’s existence somehow infringes upon British sovereignty is a dishonest exaggeration. There is a pressing need for the UK to continue to support international human rights law, especially with regard to the character of its own judicial system being subject to parliamentary supremacy.
Currently, the vocabulary of human rights has been hijacked and had its meaning twisted into something negative and sinister. It’s time for us to seize it back and redefine what human rights are, how they work and are enforced and why they continue to matter today more than ever.
A failure to resist this slide into a self-induced helplessness will not produce the society that we want. Sadly, it may result in the Orwellian type of state that we deserve.