Monday, May 15, 2006

Blair's most urgent policy task

What is Tony Blair's most urgent policy task? Contrary to what you might think, it is not fixing Britain's NHS, or ending child poverty. No, it's gutting the Human Rights Act.

The UK's Human Rights Act is the equivalent of New Zealand's Bill of Rights Act. It implements the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights in British law, requiring courts to, where possible, interpret and apply the law so as to be consistent with those rights. The chief aim - and chief effect - of this legislation has been to prevent the British government from violating the human rights of those under its jurisdiction; the application of the HRA has (to list a few recent examples) freed suspected terrorists from indefinite detention, and forbidden the use of evidence extracted by torture, and looks set to bar the deportation of suspected terrorists to states which torture, even where the government has a "memorandum of understanding" that they will not be tortured (on the basis that they really aren't worth the paper they're written on). These rulings have incensed the increasingly authoritarian Blair government, and so now Blair is demanding that the law be gutted. According to the Observer, he wants to amend the law to require the courts to pay attention to "the rights of the community to basic security", and to allow the government to overrule the courts when they disagree with the rulings. And he describes this as one of his "most urgent policy tasks". So, the UK now has a Prime Minister who wants to remove fundamental rights and undermine the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Again, you really have to wonder who the real threat to the British way of life is - terrorists, or Tony Blair.

One irony here is that it was Blair's government which passed the HRA in the first place, back when it cared about human rights rather than trying to stomp all over them. A second is that Blair's plan won't work. Gutting the HRA may mean the government wins in British courts - but people can always appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, who will apply the ECHR as written (rather than as Blair would like it to be written) - meaning that in cases such as arbitrary detention or deportation to torture, the British government will still lose. Someone seems to be aware of this, and a Downing Street source is quoted as saying that

A further possibility would be for Britain to consider withdrawing from specific clauses of the European rights convention if they led to court rulings which placed 'community safety' at risk.

But this is simply madness. The relevant articles - those protecting the right to life and the prohibition on torture, and banning punishment without law - are non-derogable, even in times of national emergency. The only way to withdraw from them is to withdraw from the ECHR itself, which would mean withdrawing from the EU (adherence to the ECHR being a condition of EU membership). And its not just the ECHR they'd have to withdraw from; the relevant rights are also protected in the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, where they are similarly non-derogable. Is the UK going to withdraw from those as well?

If taken to its logical conclusion, Blair's desire to free himself from inconvenient human rights legislation would turn the UK into an international pariah. But even his plans to amend the HRA are bad enough. As the Observer points out in its accompanying editorial, the HRA protects citizens from abuse by the state. Blair's desire to amend the law to remove this protection is tantamount to an admission that his government wants to abuse people. And that is not something his citizens should tolerate.


It wouldn't have anything to do with this incident, would it?
If anybody here deserves sympathy and a helping hand from the British state, I would have thought the pilot should be first in line.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/15/2006 08:26:00 AM

Anon: it has a lot to do with that incident. And if you read further down the article, you'll see why: while prosecuted for the hijacking (as they should have been), their convictions were declared unsafe. The Refugee Convention allows refoulement to persecution only where someone has been convicted of a particularly serious crime which endangers the host community. While hijacking would almost certainly count, the long and the short of it is no conviction, no deportation. And if the government is unhappy about this, it needs to do a better fucking job in the courts, not try and weaken the law which protects everyone.

And yes, I would have thought the pilot would have been first in line as well - particularly in light of what happened to him when he returned to Afghanistan. But he didn't apply for refugee status at the time, and now perversely the British government seems to regard him as a terrorist. And OTOH, he really doesn't seem to understand the difference between the legal costs of the case and the support available to refugee claimants in the UK - something which is made clear by the Telegraph, though perhaps not as clear as it ought to be given the obvious misunderstanding...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/15/2006 09:32:00 AM

The Conservative opposition in the UK is even more commited to an anti-HRA policy than the Labour government is.

On the other hand Liberal Democrat leader Ming Campbell, in a recent BBC Question Time programme I watched, robustly declared that human rights are indivisible. He supported the decision the court had reached about the Afghans.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/15/2006 10:51:00 AM

Gary: I don't think they're at the level of suggesting pulling out of the ECHR or derogating from the ban on torture yet, are they?

I was originally planning to blog about David Cameron's outburst, but Blair kindof trumped it.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/15/2006 10:58:00 AM

Idiot/Savant: I see my link to the Independent does not seem to have worked, but Cameron is saying exactly the same things as Blair has now taken up. Apparently there was something about this in the Tory 2005 manifesto (which Cameron wrote for Michael Howard). It is one of the few things in that manifesto Cameron has not dropped since becoming leader.

Even more significant the anti-HRA theme is one which Rupert Murdoch's newspapers are pushing.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/15/2006 11:49:00 AM

Gary: Ouch. I must have missed that bit. Though again, I don't think withdrawing from the relevant parts of the ECHR is a credible policy, given that they are a) non-derogable; and b) duplicated in non-derogable clauses in the CAT and ICCPR as well.

BTW, if you want to link in a comment, you use HTML. If you don't know how to do that, see here.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/15/2006 12:09:00 PM

The UK Human Rights Act has been a great bulwark for the maintenance of fundamental freedoms in the face of an executive that seems determined to abolish those freedoms. Our Human Rights Act in a feeble thing, easily evaded by the bureaucracy. Even in its current state it would probably be shredded by an ACT-National government. Anyine remember the Public Safety Consercation Act 1952?

Posted by Anonymous : 5/15/2006 12:23:00 PM

Anon: I don't remember it, but I am aware of it; its the law which allowed the government to suspend civil liberties during the 1951 Waterfront Strike and criminalise basic humanity and decency by barring providing food to the families of striking workers.

Interestingly, it wasn't repealed until 1987. Something else we have to thank Geoffrey Palmer for, I guess...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/15/2006 12:41:00 PM