This is a talk I gave at King’s in 2016 at a conference on the important Ireland v UK forty years on
My book On Fantasy Island. Britain, Strasbourg and Human Rights will be published by Oxford University Press in July, with the proper launch being in September. I did a lecture a while back with this title – a summary of which you can read here . The book explores the various myths, illusions and occasional downright deceptions that have marked the attitude of our two main political parties, but especially the Conservatives, to the Human Rights Act since it was enacted in 1998. After going through these fantasies I outline the facts behind the Act and then end with some thoughts about the future. About 80,000 words – an antidote, I am hoping, to the infections of noisy nonsense that the Act has attracted. The test of the value of a law lies in the sort of enemies it attracts. On this basis alone the Human Rights Act would be worth defending!
Watch out for my new web site devoted specifically to the book, coming soon. I’ll be including long extracts from it there, and comments on the latest speeches on rights as and when they emerge – like Theresa May’s yesterday, on which as well more later (very soon in fact).
Shortly before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron launched the Conservative Party’s Annual Human Rights Report. In it the Party called in exemplary fashion for an increase in human rights protection around the world. Introducing the Party leader, a young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a former child soldier) praised the Party’s emphasis on ‘responsibilities’ as well as ‘rights’. He then went on to give a moving endorsement of British law, and in particular the Human Rights Act without which – he went on to say – his claim to asylum would never have been successful.
No one had told him the Conservatives wanted to repeal the Act, that human rights were for everybody – except those over whom this Party hoped to be able to exercise control.
This kind of double-standard is par for the course so far as human rights are concerned.
The more powerful a state is the easier it finds it to be hypocritical in its conduct without any serious risk of this being noticed or mattering very much if it is.
- For years the US has lectured the world on human rights and occasionally started revolutions elsewhere on the basis of them, all the while resolutely refusing any proper critique of its own human rights record, at home or abroad. (This is not just the obvious – Guantanamo and so on – but extends to such basics as childrens rights and the death penalty and much else besides.)
- Israel is keen to advertise its ‘western values’ through its special trading relationship with the EU and its participation in such events as the Eurovision song context and various European football competitions – but we hear very little from this beacon of democracy and human rights about agitating to be allowed to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights with its judicial oversight from Strasbourg – which for example even Turkey and Russia have managed to do.
Now the Vatican has joined the list of places which talk a good human rights game abroad but can hardly be said to be practising what it preaches at home.
Towards the end of May the Pope’s butler Paolo Gabriele was arrested, or so it was eventually acknowledged – the Vatican doesn’t do due process like the democratic world. It seems Gabriele was then sent to the Vatican cells where he has been kept through the early months of the Summer, until a sudden announcement (from the press office, rather than any kind of judicial officer) that he had been ‘released on parole’, in fact placed on house arrest. It seems a ‘Promoter of Justice’ has now determined that charges are to be brought, and it seems it will then be a ‘Vatican judge who will then decide whether he will face trial or be acquitted’. According to media reports in Italy, a sentence of 6 years could be meted out, albeit at this point the butler would need to be transferred to an Italian prison. Meanwhile we are assured by Gabriele’s lawyer that the butler had acted entirely on his own and as an ‘act of love’ towards the pope.
Well what would you say, after months in a cell in the sweltering heat of the Vatican and facing a tribunal that might jail you for many years?
Let’s substitute the words ‘Beijing authorities’ here for the Vatican and ‘defiant bishop’ for ‘the Pope’s Butler’ – what a fuss the Vatican would now be making, about freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary detention, liberty of conscience, and so forth? And as for the ‘act of love’ our hypothetical Bishop is now said to be expressing towards the Communist Party – obviously unreliable, after two months in isolation in detention and with the fear of greater punishment to come?
And it has to be said that even Chinese laws are easier to access than those of the Vatican.
The web site of the Holy See takes you to a Vatican City State site, the section on the governance of which begins with the simple statement that ‘The form of government is that of an absolute monarchy’ [‘La forma di governo è la monarchia assoluta’]. Short summaries of the further disposition of power then appear. The ‘Fundamental Law of Vatican City State’ promulgated by John Paul II on 26 November 2000 has more on the nature of the Vatican flag than on the rights of anyone who might be affected by the exercise of executive power. Both the Holy See and the Vatican City State have signed up to various international Conventions – but these have not included anything so specific as the European Convention on Human Rights, with its prohibition on inhumane treatment, its demand for fair trials and its requirement that detention be non-arbitrary.
This insulation from European human rights norms doesn’t matter so long as they keep the butler holed up in the Vatican. But it could become important if Gabriele ends up in an Italian prison.
For Italy is bound by the Convention and – more to the point – an individual can take a case to the Strasbourg court if he or she can show him or herself to be a victim of a violation. There was a case a few years ago in which nullity proceedings in the Vatican which needed to be enforced by Italy were found wanting in a case against that country.
If Gabriele found himself languishing in an Italian prison, at the very least there would be an arguable case that the detention was unlawful, not least because the process that lead to his incarceration had been fundamentally flawed. It is impossible to tell how such a case would go – but clearly the hearings would be very embarrassing to the Vatican and its absolute ruler.
Does the Holy See want to have the Vatican state’s procedures exposed to scrutiny by the very court that has been at the forefront of establishing a secular, multi-cultural identity for Europe?
Expect a retreat by the authorities, aided and abetted by further fulsome apologies from the errant butler. Rome can go back to holding forth on the international stage safe in the knowledge that it has avoided scrutiny of its own behaviour. But a nasty taste of hypocrisy will remain hanging in the air.
An odd feature of the Human Rights Act has been its deep unpopularity among politicians. Even before it was brought it into force (in October 2000, nearly two years after Royal Assent), new Labour had begun to disown it, dissatisfied even then with its likely solicitude towards the kind of marginal communities (prisoners; criminals; suspected terrorists; travellers) that its advisers were probably already telling it to get tough on. The Conservatives have pretty well hated it from the start, seeing in its scheduled European Convention rights a whiff of a Continent which their backbenchers and activists increasingly loathe. Even the Lib Dems have been false friends, moaning about the Act’s lack of reach and demanding greater, more fundamental change than its modest provisions could ever hope to have delivered. Maligned right, left and centre, the Act also almost immediately found itself the target of media attack, its right to privacy threatening the commercial interest that many newspapers have in intrusive gossip.
With such a groundswell of criticism from the powerful, it is perhaps surprising that the Act has lasted as long as it has, much less that even its strongest critics now say that what they want is not ‘no rights at all’ (which you might have expected) but rather ‘a new Bill of Rights’. But how can the answer to a disliked law be more (rather than less) of what that measure contains?
The Tories are caught here between xenophobia and neo-conservatism: even their slower members notice there is something odd about Mr Hague and Mr Cameron telling the whole world to embrace human rights – except, that is, the one bit of global terrain over which they have any power. It is hoped that a ‘British’ rights document would meet this point while detoxifying rights of their European influence. It would also somehow at the same time (the details are hardly clear) call a halt to interference from the Strasbourg court, or at least that is the prime minister’s hope. (Someone seems to have told him about the German Constitutional Court and the lack of trouble Strasbourg makes for it and he hankers after the same for Britain.)
It is not clear, however, in what way this new bill of rights would differ from the Human Rights Act. We are hardly going to have a right to food and shelter under this government, and surely the plan is not to grant jury trials as of right for everything (parking offences? speeding?). Maybe the whole idea is just to make it easier to give suspect foreigners away to foreign countries where they can be tortured with impunity? This would certainly be a novel basis for enactment of a bill of rights but the Strasbourg Court – bill or no bill – would be duty bound to stop it. And claims to the contrary notwithstanding, how can that court be cast aside so long as we belong in the Council of Europe? Is expulsion or withdrawal from the Council a price worth paying to ensure a few terrorist suspects can be safely tortured in evil places?
The Human Rights Act may not have enjoyed many defenders in the higher reaches of politics but it has secured for itself an attractive niche within our legal culture. The judges have dealt with it very well and grown familiar with the modest ethical weaponry it has supplied when they have had to confront egregious governmental conduct which might otherwise have escaped scrutiny. So what has it done? To take just a selection: young people have been protected from serious assault in adult prisons; ordinary members of the public have been given at least a modest legal weapon with which to resist the tabloid destruction of their lives; the police have learnt to be more sensitive to the risks posed by violent persons to former partners; coroners have been guided into asking serious questions about suspicious deaths which were never even considered before; same-sex couples have been given a security of tenure on the death of one of them which had previously been denied them; vulnerable people have been given a chance to speak before being thrown out of their homes; above all the Human Rights Act has protected us from a system of internment of foreigners which, without the Act, might by now have become a normal feature of our law. The Human Rights Act does not give prisoners the right to pornography, or lavish meals to hostage-takers, or any of the other nonsensical pseudo-entitlements which its enemies have ascribed to it.
Will the Act survive? Almost certainly yes, at least until the next election and very possibly beyond. The Commission the coalition has asked to enquire into the issue will report in a few months and will almost certainly divide along party lines (as it has been designed to do). The Tories have already begun to create a series of manifesto pledges for a post Lib Dem future, and no doubt repeal of the Human Rights Act will appear as one of the Party’s more prominent promises. The mechanics of its removal will be left to another day, in the hope that somehow or other the complexities of such a change will be resolved by the magic of government. This won’t happen of course. The Tories in power will be as they are now, and as the Labour party was before them – critical of this or that decision of the courts, happy to attack the Act to get a few cheap rounds of applause, but not inclined to follow the logic of such grandstanding into hard constitutional work.
The discussion at Occupy LSX last night was about the role of law in seeking to change the way we understand the society in which we find ourselves.
Interestingly there was far less cynicism about law that there would have been twenty years ago. The excellent David Allen Green produced an anthem to law-adherence which was applauded rather than booed down (as it might have been not so long ago). David was right to remind us that lawlessness is something the rich and powerful are more adept at and able to do with greater impunity, so that we need to be very careful before we write off the rule of law – it remains as David said (quoting the great radical historian E P Thompson) ‘an unqualified public good’.
Why did the rule of law get such an easy ride?
I’d say this is because of the transformation we have seen in the English judiciary in the past two decades, moving from the blind defenders of the status quo that I recall when I first starting teaching civil liberties (in the Thatcher era) to the more nuanced, thoughtful people you encounter on the Bench at the present time.
An example of this was the Occupy LSX appeal in the Court of Appeal (decision on the case due on Wednesday) – it went very well from the occupiers’ point of view:
- They were treated with respect
- Their lawyer (John Cooper QC) was warmly congratulated for having taken on the case
- The human rights issues were given time to be developed
- The individual litigants themselves had the chance of a ‘day in court’ that felt meaningful to them and was not just a charade.
This is all excellent news. But it does not mean that the appeal will succeed. I would still say the odds are stacked against.
And of course the judges might change again, losing the humanity which has marked recent appointments and reverting to hard-nosed type (historically the norm).
As we await the Court’s ruling in the St Paul’s case….
How do we define success?
Already the brave and extraordinary discipline shown by Occupy LSX, the organisational strength of the movement and its intelligent engagement with the issues have marked it out as a triumph. The case – taken against them of course and not by them – has been turned into a public soapbox, giving them a chance to explain their point of view and counter the demonization to be found elsewhere, in some of the Tabloid media, among the more hard-nosed City types and even – saddest of all – in St Paul’s itself where a noisy commitment to social justice has been shown to be risibly skin-deep.
Last night’s event was full of hope – hope that society can be transformed; hope that our culture can find the levels of solidarity that it so desperately needs; hope that equality can be achieved rather than merely spoken about.
But this hope never collapsed into utopian illusion.
Nor did it threaten at any time to morph into a cynical aggressiveness towards a public who refuse to share the dream.
There was an intelligent awareness of the time dreams take to be realised, of the hard work that utopia demands and of the need to be there for the long haul. Minds are not changed by singular actions, however singular. They are changed when society comes to regard these singular actions as the rule rather than the exception, when common sense shifts onto the side of the erstwhile heretic. This can take a long time or happen very quickly indeed. But it can always happen. No situation is so bad that dreams – with courage, determination and patience – cannot be realised.
I was proud to be involved last night and honoured to have been asked to speak.
First Article 3.
In the Abu Qatada case the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that he is not likely to be tortured or ‘ill-treated’ in Jordan if he is returned there to face the authorities.
Now this is, ultimately, a question of judgment for the court, based on an assessment of probability on the current facts. It could theoretically arise in a case involving Sweden or Norway just as much as it does in relation to Jordan or (for that matter) Libya or Egypt. It doesn’t come up because it never even occurs to anyone that such ill-treatment might occur. The thought, though, is uppermost when these other places are the likely recipients of expelled European residents.
Memoranda of Understanding are just devices for rebutting the inference of likely ill-treatment that is made simply on the basis of the record of countries like these. It is neither logical nor fair to rule them out as evidence simply because their having been volunteered proves irretrievable bad faith.
The weight to give them is quite another matter.
The Strasbourg court has rejected such memoranda in the past. In Abu Qatada, the court accepted that the facts before it (including of course – and I agree critically – the memoranda agreed by the British and the Jordanians as to how the applicant would be treated) did not give rise to the ‘real risk’ of ill-treatment necessary for their jurisdiction to prohibit the removal to kick in. As the Court says ‘its only task is to examine whether the assurances obtained in a particular case are sufficient to remove any real risk of ill-treatment’.
Commentators critical of this ruling have to accept that what they are doing is questioning a judgment of the court on the facts. If the Government were to do this, no doubt the human rights activists would be furious.
Now Article 6.
This ruling is a very strong one and worth defending if this case goes further up the Strasbourg hierarchy, as it may well do.
The Court found that Abu Qatada has successfully ‘discharged the burden that could be fairly imposed on him of establishing the evidence against him [in Jordan] was obtained by torture’ and that he has also therefore shown that there would be ‘a real risk of a flagrant denial of justice if he were deported to Jordan.’ This strikes me as a strong finding and a reflection of how torture (of anyone) should never be allowed to pay.
How can this Article 6 ruling be gratefully received by commentators (based as it is on a finding of a set of facts) while the court’s other ruling on Article 3 (equally based on a finding of facts) is rejected?
Are the critics allowing their feelings to run away with them, turning the Strasbourg court into an à la carte menu from which only the bits agreeable to their previously identified positions are to be selected?
Does such partisanship do the advocacy of human rights any favours?
All flourishing Christian organisations need to steer a careful course between mammon and morality.
On the one hand there is the wealth, power and influence that flow out of such success, especially if it is millennia old (as with the Roman Catholic church) or backed by the state (as with Anglicanism): how can one bite the hand that feeds one if the food is so good and one’s corpulent body now so dependant? On the other hand there is the unsettling example of Jesus himself – uninterested in money; contemptuous of luxury and of worldly power; devoted to the needy (or as we would say today the disadvantaged).
Some churches solve this problem by assimilating mammon to morality – the good are good because they are rich, and vice versa. This is too obviously special pleading for the more thoughtful faiths for whom, however, the problem remains: how can they be rich and radical at the same time?
These churches usually manage to side-step this dilemma by using their knack of fine rhetoric to call upon others to act. A prime example is the Report Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics in the City Todayissued by the St Paul’s Institute in November last year, an excellent critique of the ethical emptiness of global capital out of the mouths of financial services practitioners themselves.
But by the time this Report came out, the Occupy LSX camp had arrived at St Pauls, sparking a crisis of identity for the great Cathedral that supports this ‘challenging and well-resourced space for conversation’ (as the Archbishop of Canterbury had described the Institute in June 2010).
With eviction proceedings to remove the camp having yesterday produced a judgment against the occupy group, things are likely to get worse before they get better for the cathedral. At the back of everyone’s mind will be the feeling that a rare opportunity has been missed for an heroic religious engagement, for action as well as words.
It had all begun so promisingly.
The camp had only arrived at St Pauls in October last year when the stock exchange proved impenetrable. The police did not initially act, and the Cathedral itself – in the ebullient and civil libertarian form of the Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser – was positively supportive. Services continued. The talk was of a presence until Christmas. Early compromises allowed visits to the Cathedral to continue. The peaceful nature of the protest was acknowledged by all, the atmosphere good. Treated with respect and properly self-regulated, given as Giles Fraser was later to say on Newsnight ‘nice cups of Anglican tea … and a warm embrace’, a camp such as this might well have grown into a benign witnesses to the need for radical change, as the anti-nuclear Greenham common women had done a generation before. And what a gift this would have been to a Church about to launch its critique of city capitalism.
Faced with an open goal, the senior church authorities promptly turned tail and shot into their own net.
The talk was suddenly all of health and safety and of the risk of fire. The advice of professionals in these fields was immediately accepted, leading first to closure of the Cathedral (soon shown to be quite unnecessary) and then to a legal action launched with the intention of expelling the protestors. When the latter action was suspended the more hard-nosed Corporation of London took on the job of clearing out the protestors, the custodians of the Cathedral whispering encouragement while trying to look the other way. By then the Cathedral had lost both Fraser and the Dean himself, Graeme Knowles.
The law appeared stacked against the protestors from the outset and the judgment yesterday can have come as no surprise, with both highways and planning law being deployed by the City to legitimise its effort to get the protestors removed, not just from the areas all around the Cathedral but from the Cathedral land as well.
Of course the protestors pleaded the right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act but that measure was always unlikely greatly to assist. The European Court of Human Rights has been reluctant to extend its protection to those who invade private property in the effort to get heard, and the same has now proved to be true (so far as this case is concerned) of deliberate efforts to obstruct the highway for the same purpose. Lindblom J had the job of assessing the proportionality or reasonableness of the disruption as against its value as speech – and here again the background hostility of the Cathedral was likely to weigh heavily against the Camp.
With this ruling handed down, the case is already shaping up to resemble the Dale Farm debacle, with endless litigation, media summits, appeals, further clarifications of court orders and – eventually – a nasty moment when the camp is physically dismantled by the authorities.
If and when this does come about, the Cathedral will have been primarily responsible. Had it adopted Fraser’s line, the protestors would probably be gone by now (as they had always intended), the Institute’s report on the city would be a widely admired and much read document, and the church’s commitment to economic justice would have been given a tremendous boost.
We have this spectacle of a great cathedral acting not as a focus for Christian action but as a grand religious NIMBY.
The chance to undo this damage will not come about – opportunities of the sort offered by the Occupy movement are rare. No doubt there will be many more remarks such as that of the Revd Michael Hampel, Canon Precentor who commented of the Value and Values report that “Action is a crucial goal of the protest camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. We hope that the telling findings of this report can provide a solid foundation for future engagement and highlight issues where action might be of mutual concern for all sides of the debate.” This kind of comment is so within the comfort zone of the Church to be indistinguishable from complacency.
At Mass at the start of January celebrating the Epiphany, Catholic Christians had Psalm 71:
‘For he shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless. He will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor.’
What kind of an epiphany has St Paul’s offered the world this Christmas season?