Union Jack, from Flickr, creative comms, Dave King

Union Jack, from Flickr, creative comms, Dave King

This article is co-written by shadow human rights minister Andy Slaughter MP and shadow foreign office minister Diana Johnson MP

Today, 10 December is the International Day of Human Rights. It marks the genesis of our modern international human rights framework.  The day in 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Two years later, the Assembly passed resolution 423 which asked all member states to mark December 10 as Human Rights Day.

The UNDR is a document which has British and Labour Party principles running right through it. Charles Dukes, a Labour MP and trade union leader, had a hand in drafting it.

The horrors of the Second World War were judged at Nuremberg, but there was also a desire to look to future conduct of nations and create better standards or humanity and legality.

Giants of the post-war world, such as French jurist René Cassin and US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came together to create the ‘Magna Carta for Mankind’. Europe went further agreeing the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1950, and ratifying it in 1951.

Again British jurists and politicians including Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe were instrumental in its drafting and enactment. It was the ECHR which codified the basic rights to which every citizen of Europe became entitled.

The right to life, liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, protection from torture, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, speech and assembly, the right to free elections and the right not to be discriminated against.

But despite the pivotal role played by Britain, the ECHR was not enshrined in UK law for almost 40 years. The Human Rights Act 1998, passed by the Labour government but with cross-party support, enabled UK citizens to enforce Convention rights in UK courts.

The Act was promoted with the slogan ‘bringing rights home’ as it meant that no longer would British citizens need to go to the European Court of Human Right in Strasbourg to seek redress.

It is remarkable to think that after such progress these rights could be under threat, but that is the reality under the current Government.

The Conservative manifesto commitment to ‘scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights’ raises the prospect of the UK turning back the clock on human rights.

Lord Chancellor Michael Gove has insisted that his long-delayed plans to consult on, and then repeal, on our human rights laws will not threaten our international human rights framework and that withdrawing from the ECHR is ‘not his intention’.

But our adherence to international human rights law is too important to be left to at the whim of Michael Gove.

The direction of travel means that this Tory Bill of Rights will lead to the UK increasingly finding ourselves in breach of the ECHR, which would risk taking us towards withdrawal.

And we know what we do sends a strong signal to others across the world. Already we have seen the Kenyan president, threatened with prosecution by the International Criminal Court, pray in aid the British Government’s position on the ECHR. Last month the Russian parliament considered legislation which would allow Moscow to reject decisions made by the European Court.

In October the Foreign Affairs Select Committee noted that, as a result of the government’s ‘prosperity agenda’, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could be forced “to downgrade human rights as a priority” in the future.

This is unacceptable. We all know that weakening human rights provisions at home has global repercussions.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has already made a point of raising human rights with both the Chinese president Xi Jinping and the Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi on their recent visits here. In his speech at Labour Party Conference in September he called upon David Cameron to intervene in the cases of two young men in Saudi Arabia who faced the death penalty and for the Government to drop the contract with the Saudi prison system, which they later did.

But we as a country can only speak out with authority on human rights if we strengthen, not weaken, rights for our own citizens.

To mark the launch of the UN’s ‘Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always’ campaign, the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said ‘on Human Rights Day, let us recommit to guaranteeing the fundamental freedoms and protecting the human rights of all’.

With that in mind, Michael Gove should use International Human Rights Day to recommit to and protect the very British rights which the UDHR, the ECHR and the HRA embody. He can start by dropping his plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and reaffirm our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights.


Profile photo of Andy Slaughter About Andy Slaughter
Andy Slaughter MP is the Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister

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1 Comment

  • trevor December 11, 2015 2:57 pm

    I agree 100% and this is also why I believe that the line being used by Hilary Benn about “treating people fairly” is in reality the line used by Blair in 1997 about “Britain deserves better”
    they were given three chances in government to give us better and they blew it big time.
    its high time for the public to stop allowing themselves to be carried away by big empty words by politicians who will say anything to get “what they want” and once they win
    they tend to forget the big promises they made.

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