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‘The Time for Human Rights is Now’

Human rights are about our relationship with those who wield public power, writes the CEO of the British Institute of Human Rights

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Across the globe, people are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). That first action of the United Nations after the Second World War was to confirm the equal dignity of each person and the commitment of governments to uphold universal human rights. 

We are living through a time of wars and conflicts, of significant human tragedies across the world – a time when the message of upholding people’s most fundamental rights has never been more necessary both internationally and here at home.

However, in the UK, you’d be hard pushed to find that same political commitment, 75 years on. Have you read the UK Government’s statement celebrating Human Rights Day here at home? Seen the features on the news? Got diary invites for the local actions today? I suspect for many, Human Rights Day is not a major part of Sunday plans. 

More likely, you’ll have heard about the Government’s new planned law to remove human rights protections from people seeking safety on our shores.

We should all be worried about any governmental ‘divide and conquer’ approaches to the fundamental standards for humanity that are about us all, no matter who we are. Human rights are one of the rarities that really are about us all — the fundamental standards for humanity, no matter who we are. They are about what happens in our everyday lives. They are about our relationship with those who wield public power.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that those very same powers that be, the Government, can find the legal protection of human rights inconvenient. 

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As I often find myself saying, those who are bound by rules can be irritated when those rules stop them from doing something. But the UK appears to have moved far beyond irritation. What we’re seeing is a hostility towards legal accountability for human rights taking us down a dangerous path that could destroy the rules-based system the UDHR sought to secure in the aftermath of global conflict 75 years ago. 

An overstatement? Let’s review the last year.

We entered 2023 with a Government Bill in Parliament seeking to scrap our Human Rights Act and replace it with what could only be seen as a Rights Removal Bill. It was UK Government policy to abandon its legal duties to respect and protect the universal human rights of people here. Instead, our rights would be subject to the whims of those with political power, to be earned or given to people deemed worthy. That is not human rights.

Thankfully, when Alex Chalk replaced Dominic Raab as Justice Secretary, the Government took time to think. Think on the evidence of its own independent review that concluded that there is no case for scrapping our Human Rights Act.

Think on the responses to the public consultation, which the Government’s own analysis shows did not support its plans. Think on the cross-party scrutiny in Parliament, including that the “Government should not progress the Bill in its current form through Parliament”. By the summer, the Government withdrew its unprincipled, unevidenced, unnecessary and unworkable bill, and with it the very real risk that we would lose our Human Rights Act in 2023. 

The mobilisation of civil society, of people, across the UK, across political spectrums and interests, was vital in securing this change. Together we spoke up, countering the all too negative narrative of those seeking to reduce their accountability to each of us. We shared the very real stories of children in mental health crises, for whom human rights are a lifeline when faced with undignified care and treatment.

How human rights are a key part of the UK’s international peace agreement ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, which, far from being a piece of paper, has transformed people’s lives. How human rights are vital for members of the armed forces and their loved ones who have suffered neglect, abuse, harassment and bullying which has led to serious harm and loss of life. And much more besides.


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As 2023 comes to a close, there is still much to be done – so clearly spotlighted by this week’s latest attack on universal human rights here at home. On Thursday, the Government showed its hand: yes, the Human Rights Act stands, but the approach to law-making now seems to be to exclude certain groups of people from protection. This time it’s people fleeing persecution – who will it be tomorrow in this approach to human rights that guts the core principle of universality in favour of parochial exceptionalism?

This comes coupled with a refocus of political hostility to the European Convention on Human Rights. If the UDHR is our Human Rights Act’s grandparent, then the Convention is its parent. As with the Government’s approach to the Human Rights Act over the past 18 months, this turning of the crosshairs on the Convention relies upon, and often reinforces, confusion and obfuscation. Again, we are dealing with a sleight of hand, a distraction, a solution in search of a problem.

Civil society will again rally. We will tell the stories that need to be heard about why our human rights and the Government’s accountability matters, today just as it did 75 years ago. 

This Human Rights Day, more than 75 of us, representing millions across the UK, have called on the Prime Minister and political leaders to do what we should be doing in 2023: using words and actions to protect everyone’s universal human rights at home. The time for human rights most certainly is now.

Sanchita Hosali is the CEO of the British Institute of Human Rights 

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