Category Archives: Law

Human Rights After Gaza

This is the annual human rights lecture at the Las Casas Institute in Oxford that I gave on 2 May 2024

The Context

Approximately 1,400 Israelis and other nationals were killed on and after 7 October 2023, according to figures reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), most of them civilians, including multiple members of the same family, women and numerous children. Some 224 hostages were seized, including at least one person with a disability, women, children, elderly people and Israeli soldiers.

In response, Israel ‘declared war’ on Hamas. Since then, the Israeli army has dropped thousands of US-made 2000-pound bombs on Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, home to 2.1 million Palestinians, of whom approximately half are children, and the majority of whom are refugees from villages and towns now within Israel. At least 34,000 Palestinians have been killed thus far and over 70,000 injured in Gaza. Seventy percent of recorded deaths have been women and children. Human rights groups including Amnesty International have recorded multiple instances of ‘entire families [being] wiped out in Israeli attacks even after they sought refuge in areas promoted as safe and with no prior warning from Israeli authorities’. Groups of starving Palestinian civilians waiting for food aid have been killed, as have those supplying the aid. Strikes on UNRWA facilities have led to the deaths of 400 people seeking shelter under the UN flag. At least 165 employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (‘UNRWA’) have been killed as well as multiple journalists and leaders of Gaza’s now destroyed university sector. As I write, the bombing of northern and central Gaza has been resumed and the Israeli Defence Forces appear readied for an assault on southern Gaza where the vast majority of displaced Palestinians are now huddled.

The wilful violation of multiple human rights here is remarkable, with the remarks I have just made barely scratching the surface. What of the world’s main human rights cheerleaders? The US government continues to support this Israeli campaign of retributive violence with vast amounts of military aid and (at the United Nations) continued political cover. The European Union and most of its national leaders maintain their close links with Israel while doing nothing that might prevent or even merely inhibit or delay the ongoing destruction. The Parliamentary Assembly of that beacon of human rights hope, the Council of Europe, unquestioningly retains Israel as an Observer State, enjoying all sorts of favours within the organisation and able to choose which bits of its work in which to involve itself and which not (like, of course, human rights). The Council of Europe believes, it would seem, that the State ‘accepts the principles of democracy. the rule of law and the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms’, the condition for the award of such a favoured status. But then Israel is happily appearing in the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo on 7-11 May, and is participating in European football competitions and are now in Horizon Europe, ‘joining hands for a better future’ as the Mission of Israel to the EU and NATO put it in October 2022. Imagine if this were the Hutus in Rwanda, or the Yugoslavia of Milosevic, or – to pick a recent example not even arguably engaged in genocide – Putin’s Russia.

Human Rights Origins

How can the idea of human rights retain its current shape in light of what has been happening? To know where our subject is headed it is important to know where it has come from. The story is less unambiguous, more conflicted, less Whiggish, and more entwined with imperialism than we might suppose or want. Starting points reveal perspective and mine is to be found right here, in this Institute, in the person after whom it is called. As your website puts it, ‘Bartolomé de las Casas OP was a sixteenth-century business entrepreneur in the Spanish Empire who, when confronted by the suffering of indigenous peoples, became a Dominican friar and began to campaign as an opponent of genocide in the “new world” and a vocal advocate for human rights.’ Launching this Institute sixteen years ago I called him, not hyperbolically I hope, the ‘founder of human rights’.

In the centuries since de las Casas, and following him in spirit, human rights have been a way of getting the powerful to see people (the poor, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, the colonised) whom it does not otherwise notice, as humans. This is the original ‘consciousness-raising’ that I believe is the essence of human rights – a forced broadening of our understanding of what it means to be human, with all that it is hoped follows from this newly achieved empathy. Human rights adds entitlement to this compassion, asserting a right to the life chances which it was thought previously depended solely on kindness or charity from the privileged.

But how to get people unaffected by oppression to listen to this surely unwelcome message, to see what they would prefer to avoid? De las Casas was no marginalised figure himself; he was a propagandist of genius with (as we would put it today) access to and influence on those in circles of imperial power. His propagandic genius was to turn the Spanish empire’s own doctrine of morality against itself, revealing injustices that had previously been ignored. In the late 19th century, the Anglo-Irish diplomat Roger Casement did the same thing, reporting on imperial violence and dehumanisation from Congo, Peru and, eventually, from his own country, Ireland. The British lauded him when he was reported on Belgian or Spanish-led atrocities, but when he turned the same anti-imperial ethic towards the British Empire, his fate was sealed. In an echo of what we see today among the leaders of the US and the EU, the powers that be often condemn violence by other imperial forces but remain in a state of denial about the violence caused by their actions or that of their allies.

The centrality of the term ‘human rights’ drew a huge lift from its adoption as a core part of the United Nations, newly established in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. This was when human rights started getting defined as particular obligations, things that states were obliged not to do (torture; kill the innocent; commit genocide; restrict civil liberties) but also actions that they had to take (shelter their people; feed and hydrate them) if their citizens were to have the chance to lead decent lives. As had happened with the campaigns against slavery and crimes of war, law crept in, ‘declarations of intent’ first of all (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) but then growing via the internationally agreed covenants of 1966 and the various protocols that followed, together with many other agreements promoting the interests of the previously unnoticed, into something grander and more ambitious than had previously been achieved. Here was the de las Casas de nous jours, the bully pulpit for the marginalised to which all states had promised to listen.

But the nagging human rights question remained: how could the powerful absorb the obligations of human rights in this way without compromising their own (often imperial) positions, without damaging the inequality and injustice upon which their prosperity so often depended, both at home and abroad? Human rights victories have never been complete: slavery was replaced by entirely legalised indentured service and international humanitarian law had weak to non-existent enforcement mechanisms.

There has been a duplicity to human rights ever since they arrived on this global stage, a whiff of hypocrisy. From the outset, the UN promised never to question what the countries signing up to its Charter did at home – domestic autonomy was a guaranteed trump card. Stalin’s Soviet Union was in at the start and Mao’s China was a key member through the last years of that leader’s life. The 1948 UN declaration was all (deliberately) fine words, safely inoculated against any possible enforcement and so easy to support: none voted against. When the European Convention on Human Rights went further down the legally enforcement route, in 1950, the colonies were carefully left out if the signatories so desired, or submerged in emergency get-out clauses if they were not. The Charter of the UN and its various human rights treaties were successfully concluded precisely because they came without proper judicial oversight. But this sort of hypocrisy is not to be entirely deplored: it has a value. It creates space for the cohort of UN special representatives and rapporteurs to tour the world doing their good human rights work, like latter day missionaries of the de las Casas sort, waving not the bible but the UN charter in front of their national audiences and demanding they live by the human rights book to which they have all promised to adhere. Shame can produce change even without a court order.

Law’s Empire

This brings me to one arena of human rights protection that has managed to secure more robust enforcement than those that have relied for their power on mere shaming. This is international criminal law. Things have changed somewhat since the 1909 case of the radical Indian nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He published an article in Britain praising an assassination of a Raj official as an act of patriotism. He was arrested and detained in the UK; while being shipped back to India as a prisoner, he escaped at Marseilles, claiming a right as a political prisoner to sanctuary, something that was clearly established in the domestic law of the UK, and wider international law. Yet, the British got him back with the assistance of unwitting local police. The matter came before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague two years later, which refused to return Savarkar to France. There had been an ‘irregularity’ it was true but no rule of international law demanded such mistakes be rectified. The five decision-makers in the case were British, French, Norwegian, Dutch and Belgian.

Times have largely changed since the days when the colonial powers could blithely determine the legality of their own actions. It is no longer as easy as it was to deploy international law in this explicitly partisan fashion. It has taken a while but the momentum has been away from colonial/neo-colonial control. After the Second World War the victorious allies found a way to describe their beaten opponents as war criminals – Nuremburg and Tokyo gave us the idea of prosecuting former leaders of places that had committed what we now called war crimes and crimes against humanity. These defeated opponents were arrested, tried and punished (often with death). Around the same time, a Convention of 1948 delivered an unequivocal condemnation of genocide, not creating a special court to prosecute wrongdoers but at least empowering the International Court of Justice, established the year before, to adjudicate on disputes between signatory states on any aspect of its terms. In the 1990s, a special UN tribunal was set up to try those guilty of particularly heinous crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The International Criminal Court for Rwanda followed, and then in 1998 a whole new regime was created to punish political leaders and others in a new court of law for commission of the ‘most serious crimes of international concern’, namely genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression. Of course, just as with the Genocide Convention before it, states have to sign up before they can be bound by the International Criminal Court (‘ICC’), but many do and so are notionally bound by these international rules.

Law has a way of escaping its controlling roots. For all their fixing of the jurisdiction of the bodies overseeing operation of the European Convention on Human Rights, the British in the 1950s found themselves in an ugly dispute about their behaviour in Cyprus (with Greece taking the side of the at that point still colonised Cypriots). Subsequent cases involving Ireland followed with routine state violence against insurgents in Northern Ireland being condemned by no less a body than the European Court of Human Rights itself. Since then, the British authorities have been dogged by domestic as well as regional human rights litigation requiring compensation for those abused in past colonial conflicts in Africa or demanding investigation into contemporary abuses in modern day Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans have also been drawn in, facing censure in cases brought under the now slightly legalised international human rights regime for abuses incurred in the war on terror, while its European allies have been similarly caught out for helping administer the black sites (where torture was rife) or assisting in the kidnapping of terrorist suspects from the streets of European urban centres. Not even a retired dictator can live out his life in safety any longer, as the Chilean dictator consistently supported by the United States General Pinochet discovered when he was arrested in a London hospital in 1998.

One of the most dramatic advances of recent decades in the international field has been how law, and its theoretical under-pinner ‘the rule of law’, has become more autonomous, more independent of the powers that first imagined them. The story that law now tells itself is of a body of work in search of its own legal truth, beholden to no-one, answering only to this or that foundational text that determines its remit. Laws last when the fashion that gave rise to them falls away. The grand language of past eras, of post-1945 human rights, of post-Cold War optimism about punishing human rights abusers, finds continued salience long after the confident idealism that gave birth to such initiatives has faded away. Much like the idea of equal humanity that de las Casas argued for, the ideal of the rule of law now has something of the quality of enabling the powerless and vulnerable to throw the morals of the powerful right back at them. To paraphrase the infamous tax avoiding millionaire Leona Helmsey, obedience to the law might once have been ‘for the little people’. No longer.

Israel and human rights

Returning to the case of Gaza, can the ideals of human rights embodied in law and embracing punitive action for egregious breaches offer support to the vulnerable, offer even justice? We shall soon find out.
I mentioned earlier Israel’s engagement with the Council of Europe. Israel has long been expert at the cherry-picking of its international obligations. But the state could hardly skip membership of the United Nations that gave birth to it and could hardly avoid too committing itself to the Genocide Convention, agreed as it was so soon after the Jewish people had suffered their own, terrible Holocaust.

This does not mean that the State supports the international community of course. Its attitude to the UN has been on crude display during the conflict in Gaza, condemning nearly all UN fact finding as at best ill-informed, at worst the work of anti-Semitic Hamas apologists. Israel has paid some $10 million dollars to the UN in compensation for damage done to its buildings in previous attacks on Gaza. Already in this short conflict over 150 UN employees have been killed, I think an unprecedented number. Belgium had its development agency building in Gaza destroyed by an Israeli attack, twenty-four hours after it had decided to continue to fund the United Nationals Relief Agency in Gaza, resisting pressure to follow the US, the UK, Germany, Canada and Japan and eleven other Member States in defunding the agency, removing some $450m from their balance sheet.

Why on earth withdraw support from the only plausible relief organisation operating in a territory whose civilian population was being subjected to unprecedented levels of bombing and destruction?

The answer takes us back not to the UN this time but to law and the Genocide Convention. An independent report commissioned on 5 February following Israeli allegations of UNRWA support for Hamas reported last month, and in the course of vindicating the Agency observed that Israel ‘had yet to provide supporting evidence’ of the allegations it had made. These allegations had apparently ‘surfaced’ (the report’s own word) in January. This ‘surfacing’ had happened at exactly the time that the International Court of Justice gave its preliminary ruling in the case alleging genocide brought by the Republic of South Africa. The Court ruling was on 26 January, and that was the day that UNRWA received the first allegations from Israeli officials regarding the alleged involvement of 12 UNRWA staff in the 7 October attack against Israel. On 28 January the New York Times ran its usual long and supportive story citing Israeli sources detailing the level of alleged complicity in its characteristically graphic terms.

Israel is expert at these contrived scandals, designed to divert. It was right to be worried about the South African case. The bar to prove genocidal intent is high but apparently oblivious of the international implications Israel appears determined to scale it. Why else embark on what looks very like a policy of forced starvation if that is not the case? Normally those accused of genocide hide from authority and when arrested disclaim all responsibility for the horrors of which they are accused. Israeli leaders have taken a different route, celebrating mass destruction, promising more, and relying on the guarantees of impunity they believe they continue to enjoy from Global North power. But are they missing the move away from US global hegemony and towards an independent rule of law to which I earlier referred?
Arrest is not something the ICJ can order. But the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC can do so. Naturally Israel did not sign up to the Rome Statute, but the fact that Palestine is now a Party means that their actions in Gaza expose them to action by the ICC: a ruling of the court handed down before 7 October 2023 confirms the possibility. And the ICC does not need genocide to act; mere war crimes and crimes against humanity will do. The principle behind the ICC is that of individual responsibility, right up to and including the leadership behind the crimes being alleged. The Russian leader Vladamir Putin has already been indicted. How can Benjamin Netanyahu not be, together with his senior political allies and the IDF leadership, as well as countless other lower level personnel whose apparent war crimes have been a source of pride to them, flaunted on social media? Warrants are indeed said to be imminent. The usual accusations of anti-Semitism have come from the Israeli prime minister; there are reports that he is terrified of what lies in store.

Human rights after Gaza

The future of our subject as a plausibly universal idea supported by sovereign powers may well depend on the ICC prosecutor Karim Khan. If warrants for the Israeli leadership are issued and Netanyahu and some of his senior political and military officers are arrested on a trip abroad or (more likely as has often been the case with African countries) handed over by successor regimes, then regardless of outcome the jurisdiction will have proved its worth. If the ICJ delivers a verdict condemning Israel’s conduct in Palestine and perhaps even castigates its conduct as genocidal, then as with an ICC outcome of the sort just referred to we can say that the system is not rigged to protect the powerful, that all are vulnerable, even those with the Global North resolutely on their side.

Even if neither of these happens, if law does not rise to the occasion, then other options remain. The performative power of the ICJ hearings, seen on television around the world, were persuasive even without a court order: the slow deliberate analysis of the South African team, all emotion bottled into a series of devastating phrases, up against the old guy losing his way in the papers and making little sense even when believing he was on top of his brief. The judges in their grand judicial gowns and ranged on one side of their grand table looked as the peoples of the world should look if we were to take a random selection of fifteen, all nationalities, all colours, all languages.

The shame of these proceedings should have been enough for Israel to draw breath. But shame – an essential part as I have said of the human rights repertoire – appears not to work with contemporary Israel. It, its leadership and its supporters around the world appear to have convinced themselves that none of what is happening is Israel’s fault – that Hamas are solely responsible, and anyway even if it is Israel’s responsibility it is anti-Semitic to call the country out in the way its critics do, that the suffering of their ancestors gives them a blank cheque today.

Tougher measures are required, and they are coming – from the bottom up. Israel’s artistic and cultural engagements with the outside world are coming under pressure, with organisers finding themselves forced to deny Israel participation or lose their events. Malmo next week should be a reminder of the days when apartheid South Africa saw its European sporting events disrupted, The extraordinary protests on US campuses shame those of us in Europe who collude in continuing to treat Israel as a normal academic partner: a recent book by Maya Wind (Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom) has demonstrated the collusion between the country’s universities and its increasingly barbaric occupations, of both Gaza and the West Bank. The churches, led by the estimable Pope Francis, are reaching across sectarian divides to build new alliances with their Muslim co-religionists. Disinvestment campaigns are taking off everywhere. Israel is at risk – a substantial risk in my opinion – of becoming a pariah State, its own actions disowned not only in the Global South, but across the whole of progressive opinion in the Global North too.
This is not a clash between South and North: it is between corrupted power and (to use proudly a hackneyed term) ‘the people’. We must celebrate social media for showing us what has been happening in real time. When the Lebanese Christian militias murdered (with IDF support) unknown numbers of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila after Israelss brutal siege of Beirut of 1982, no cameras recorded the massacre in real time. No longer.

But social media carries its own risks, reflective of a wider hollowing out of a global audience’s capacity to focus on anything for any length of time. What happens when the killing finally stops, when the global community comes in to try to rebuild Gaza after Israel’s latest bout of destruction? Will the supporters of the Palestinians move on to their next cause, forgetting the passion they will have now spent and forsaking the cause that seemed so central just a short while before. Will some successor of Netanyahu receive the Nobel peace prize from an exhausted world, glad it has all stopped. Will Blinken join the late Dr Kissinger in such hallowed ranks?

The future of human rights depends on none of this happening. I have spent little time here on ordinary civil and political rights, and even less on the economic and social rights necessary to make a full life possible. These are utterly and in almost every way disregarded by Israel so far as Palestinians in the occupied territories are concerned (and also for many Palestinians within Israel). There is a reason why both of the UN human rights covenants of 1966 start with a people’s right to self-determination: without freedom human rights do not stand a chance.

The future of human rights depends on Israel being driven to recognise the need for a State of Palestine, and then to make the necessary changes to bring this about. For if large sections of a people can be destroyed with utter impunity by Global North military power, their culture destroyed, their lives eviscerated by deliberate destruction, if all this is possible, why should irregular asylum seekers not be next, and then asylum seekers proper, and then refugees and then – who knows? Martin Niemöller’s famous warning about for whom authoritarianism comes and in what order should be echoing in our ears, plausible more than ever since the 1930s, especially now at this time when a new, nasty brutalism is in the air.

The Case of Dinah Rose, Magdalen and the Bar

Dinah Rose appears to have survived. In the rush of current affairs in the noisy internet age it seems hard to believe that it was only a couple of weeks or so ago that the position of this leading QC as President of Magdalen College Oxford appeared precarious. Rose has now appeared in a case before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in defence of the Cayman government’s determination to persist in its prohibition of gay marriage. Rose is reported to have been supported by her College’s student representative body, and the Bar has closed ranks behind her, pointing to the ‘cab rank rule’ under which it is said that barristers have to take the cases that come before them as long as they are available, and there is no conflict of interest.

If it is indeed all over, it should not be. I have met Dinah Rose perhaps once or twice and corresponded with her from time to time. I have long been a fan (from afar) of her brilliant advocacy on behalf of her clients, a compelling articulacy that flows out of a fine intellect and is further buoyed by her fearlessness and (never to be underestimated at the Bar) her sheer resilience. But the problem with her taking this case has nothing to do with the Bar; whether or not it flouts or follows the supposed cab rank is neither here nor there. (And what meaning can that supposed rule have in any event when you can always set a fee to make yourself unavailable whenever offered work is unfancied?) No: the issue here is Dinah Rose’s presidency of her college.

I am an academic as well as a barrister so in a tiny way my position resembles that of Dinah Rose. I say ‘tiny’ because I am only a small cog in my university’s machine, teaching students, marking essays and all the rest of it. My main concern has been with making sure my appearances in court do not come at the expense of the time I can give to my day job. We had a head of department a few years ago who was also a barrister and who defended the government’s work in Iraq however nasty the other side claimed it to have been; certainly this made a few colleagues queasy. But neither he nor I were even close to Rose’s position in her College. She is its president, its public epitome. For good or ill, what she does, she does as president. No ‘Chinese wall’ can divide her up, marking this bit of her as the Magdalen bit and the rest of her as the feisty lawyer who will do what it takes to win for whoever is lucky enough to get her on their side. As the President of Magdalen, and particularly in light of the College’s explicit equality policy, she had a duty to the LGBTQ + students in her care and an obligation to provide a safe and secure environment for them.

The college commits to upholding the Equality Act and specifically mentions a commitment to eliminating discrimination and harassment on grounds, inter alia, of sexual orientation. This equality duty is surely incompatible with its President accepting a brief in a cause that can be widely seen (and not unreasonably seen) as homophobic. Assuming she is not doing the case for nothing (which strikes me as unlikely) Dinah Rose has been faced with a choice which she exercised in favour of accepting this, presumably lucrative, brief. As the executive committee of Oxford’s LGBTQ+ society put it: ‘The minute Dinah Rose accepted the position of President, the duties of her new role became pre-eminent.’ The Oxford African and Caribbean Society has issued a strongly worded critical statement, declaring with venomous clarity that ‘Dinah Rose cannot in good faith help to set back LGBT laws in a Caribbean island and simultaneously claim to support LGBTQ+ and BAME students in Magdalen.’

There is a wider question here, too, about the many barristers who have achieved headships of Oxford and Cambridge colleges – a recent trend which looks if anything to be gathering pace. I am not surprised by this: good lawyers are terrific chairs of meetings and the best of them personable too, no doubt as good with students as they are with clients and instructing solicitors. But these are real jobs, not pastimes for the ethical part of themselves.

The Overseas Operations Bill: a license for atrocity

The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill is what happens when the pub bore takes over British defence policy and there is no one left to prevent his cranky anger being turned into law. A rambling hostility to Johnny foreigner combines with a maudlin concern for the stresses faced by British troops on duty abroad to produce a measure which is almost as embarrassing to good governance as it is to those who care about contemporary British values.

The plan outlined in the bill is to compel prosecutors to let soldiers off the hook for crimes committed overseas as long as five years has elapsed since their alleged occurrence. We still say we have independent prosecutors and the rule of law in this country so a sweeping indemnity bill was out of the question. Instead the circumstances have to be “exceptional” for such proceedings to continue, with “particular weight” being given to factors that “reduce… culpability” such as the “adverse effect (or likely adverse effect)” of a suspect soldier’s “experiences and responsibilities (for example, being exposed to unexpected or continuous threats, being in command of others who were so exposed, or being deployed alongside others who were killed or severely wounded in action).” This “adverse effect” might relate to a soldier’s “mental health” or even “their capacity to make sound judgements or exercise self control.” Just in case your accused soldier is left exposed for his or her crimes while more vulnerable criminal colleagues walk free, the prosecutor is also required (emphasis added) to “have regard to the exceptional demands and stresses to which members of Her Majesty’s forces are likely to be subject while deployed on overseas operations, regardless of their length of service, rank or personal resilience.” (Yes, all these quotations are directly from the bill, not a ministerial speech, or a letter to the Telegraph.) And just in case things go wrong, there is a long-stop guarantee against inappropriate prosecutions in the shape of a requirement for the consent of the attorney general. That office is held at the present time by Suella Braverman.

The protections afforded these criminal suspects among the armed forces are explicitly extended to cover those accused of a range of domestic criminal law as well as the great majority of even the most serious international crimes (genocide; crimes against humanity; war crimes). They do not apply if the victim is a Brit rather than a foreigner. Other provisions aim to curb the capacity of human rights law to reach military actions overseas, and then—revealingly—anticipate departures from human rights law? in relation to future “significant … overseas operations,” retaking Calais perhaps, or laying siege to Brussels. The UK the promoters of this bill have in mind is one that has recovered its imperial greatness and the wonderful impunity that comes with being the international hegemon. Oh happy days!

Why has the government done this? Many senior figures in the armed forces are certain to be unhappy at this unravelling of their brand as modern, rule-based, civilised and so on. The International Criminal Court is bound to see it as a direct challenge to its authority.

The bill is part retaliation, part provocation.

So far as the first of these is concerned, since the invasion of Iraq the courts have been robust in their pursuit of the armed forces in relation to a series of alleged violations abroad of ordinary and international criminal law. In a recent article included on this site (TORTURE THEN AND NOW: THE ROLE OF THE JUDGES) I have detailed the extent to which the judges have had to overcome high levels of hostility, obstruction and deliberate obfuscation from the authorities in cases of this nature. Nor has it only been the judges: on one occasion even the government’s lawyers went so far as to consider sending in the Metropolitan Police to try to find relevant materials within the Ministry of Defence. This is all a far cry from the good old days when, in the analogous context of Northern Ireland, judges like Lord Widgery, Lord Denning and Lord Diplock went out of their way to protect the forces of law and order from close scrutiny. The government has not liked the result, and nor have many parliamentarians. A Defence Select Committee report in 2017 attacked the use of the law in this context and then the exposure of one solicitor’s wrongdoings in the field of evidence-gathering gave the antagonists of what they call “lawfare” their chance. This bill is the result.

Then there is the provocation. The government appears desperate to get the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer off Covid-19 and onto “elite metropolitan issues” like the rule of law, human rights and the prosecution of patriotic soldiers for “doing their job.” It was the same in the mid-1990s when a then-rampant shadow home secretary Tony Blair was constantly being forced to defend his party’s hostility to UK anti-terrorism laws—to his intense embarrassment. Starmer has not yet risen to the bait. So far as this bill is concerned that has been hugely disappointing. It can surely not be doubted that the British public know the difference between doing your duty and murdering and torturing innocent people. This was a conversation Starmer could have afforded to have, and where he might well have been persuasive. Next up will be the Human Rights Act. Labour will have a big decision to make then about whether to defend it or let it go. That will tell us a great deal about how they will govern: compromises of this serious a nature may be made in opposition but their moral contamination is hard afterwards to shake off.

With this bill we have further evidence of what the UK does not stand for: human rights, an ethical military and the rule of law. With Brexit we know it rejects regional co-operation too. What’s left? Trade deals with the Old (aka White) Commonwealth? The display of imperial power? You cannot govern a country on the basis of nostalgia however loud you shout.

Legal Week

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.

Reflections On Last Night’s Law Night At Occupy LSX

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.

It’s All Hearsay

Well there you are: the European Court of Human Rights has decided not to precipitate a crisis of authority between itself and the UK Supreme Court after all.

In today’s Grand Chamber decision in AL-KHAWAJA and TAHERY v. THE UNITED KINGDOM, the challenge was to UK hearsay law, a law which in certain circumstances allows statements to be admitted in evidence and to play a sole or decisive role in securing a conviction even where they are not made in the course of the trial. The Grand Chamber has now ruled that this does not as such amount to a breach of the Convention’s right to a fair trial (to be found in article 6). The Chamber judgment of the same name which claimed this was wrong; the UK Supreme Court ruling of R v Horncastle [2009] UKSC 14 (with Lord Phillips prominent) which said as much was right, or at least more right than the first version of Al Khawaja and Tahery had been. Of course where such evidence is admitted – with no possibility of cross-examination or testing in open court – then it has to be treated cautiously and where it is the sole or decisive evidence then the court needs to be super careful and check what other safeguards there are to guard against injustice. But crucially there is no automatic breach of article 6.

My colleague at LSE Mike Redmayne is an expert on the law of criminal evidence and with his permission I summarise here his comments to me about the case:

“Well, it’s an interesting judgment. They do a careful job: one of the better ECHR judgments I’ve read. There’s a concurring judgment from Judge Bratza, which sets the context: he welcomes the dialogue with the national court.” (I intervene here to set out exactly what Judge Bratza said: “The present case affords, to my mind, a good example of the judicial dialogue between national courts and the European Court on the application of the Convention to which Lord Phillips was referring., and thinks this is a sensible way to settle things.”) …

Then Mike goes on:

“The majority judgment looks at the law in lots of other common law jurisdictions, giving a more careful review than the Supreme Court did in Horncastle. They also look very closely at the Supreme Court’s arguments, and address them one by one. They don’t concede much. The Chamber judgment was that if hearsay is the sole or decisive evidence against a Defendant, it can’t be used. But the Grand Chamber concede that this is too absolute: exceptionally, hearsay can be sole or decisive and not make a trial unfair. On the facts of the cases, they conclude Al-Khawaja had a fair trial (there was corroborating evidence), but that Tahery did not…. Where that leaves domestic hearsay law is hard to say: but we’re probably left with something like a corroboration rule for hearsay.”

The partly dissenting judgments of Judges SAJÓ AND KARAKAŞ show how this case might have gone.

The Convention gives a defendant in a criminal case a specific right (in article 6(3)(d)) “to examine or have examined witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him.” On the view of these dissenters, this represents an unqualified right which cannot be turned into just an element in the general test of fairness already set out in Article 6(1) – “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” But this they complain is exactly what the majority have done. Before today “this Court has never stated that fairness can still be achieved [even] if one of the fundamental rights is deprived of its essence.” They went on: “With regard to the right to cross-examine witnesses and the related but broader equality-of-arms principle, the Court has systematically and consistently drawn a bright line, which it has never abandoned, in the form of the sole or decisive rule.” And then melodramatically but perhaps accurately: “Today this last line of protection of the right to defence is being abandoned in the name of an overall examination of fairness.”

Who is right?

There is certainly a change in that the “sole or decisive” rule is dumped but only on account of its inflexibility. It is still the operating assumption and will be hard to rebut. And whatever about the substance of the case, if the minority had won out there would now be quite a lot of political noise about this silly court and the inflexible insensitivity of its rulings and so on. It’s a relief not to be having to listen to all these pontificating sceptics, and know at the back of your mind that maybe, just maybe, they have a point. Things will probably calm down on the Strasbourg front now, so far as the local political temperature is concerned.

Last word to Mike:

“So on a first look the ECHR come out of this pretty well: they’ve played the Supreme Court at its own game, of carefully reasoned argument drawing on comparative resources, and done a good job. They abandon some of the stupid arguments the Chamber made. And the English courts won’t have to concede much.”

In other words: a score draw after an entertaining match. Strasbourg and the Human Rights Act live to fight another day!