Human rights are there to protect the individual from the overzealous and often politically expedient actions of a bullying State.
All sensible uncontroversial stuff you would have hoped. What’s not to like unless you are a particularly unpleasant despot planning, perhaps quite literally, to take liberties with the rights of your citizens unencumbered by pesky judges telling you that you need to behave.
Therefore you might expect that it would be political suicide for a serious political party to announce to the electorate its intention to take these rights away from those it seeks to govern.
However, as heavily trailed to frenzied acclaim at successive party conferences and now set out in their manifesto, the Conservatives propose, if elected, to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with some ill-defined inferior own brand alternative.
In a wheeze that Kim Jong-un would surely admire why bother using human rights from an international treaty recognised in 47 separate countries across the continent if you can simply make up your own less troublesome ones.
They also propose to ignore European Court of Human Rights judgments they don’t like.
Doesn’t that defeat the whole point of having an international law protecting the rights of the individual against the unlawful actions of the State.
Any policy along the lines of “Dear Court, we are willing to gracefully accept all your judgements in support of our actions but need to respectfully inform you that you we reserve the right to ignore all judgments that find that we have behaved unlawfully” is so contrary to the whole point of the Convention that it cannot but end in tears with an ignominious exit from the Council of Europe.
Presumably to be followed by Putin and others at the bottom of the class who really never wanted to come to the party in the first place.
Future historians may therefore scratch their heads as to how the stock of human rights has fallen so far that we have a mainstream political party actually proposing to take away the rights of its citizens to such deafening indifference.
Sadly, it appears to be based partly on genuine ignorance but more often on deliberate misrepresentation of human rights, usually by those in power and their media cronies.
Peddling downright lies that human rights law entitles criminals to hard-core porn in prison or, unforgivably from a senior Government Minister with barely concealed aspirations to lead this country, that having a cat stopped an illegal immigrant being deported embeds in the public consciousness and does nothing to add to a rational debate on the matter.
Human rights belong to all of us – the good, the bad and the ugly. They are ours by dint of being human.
Yes - criminals, foreigners, terrorists (alleged or otherwise) have them too because, and stay with me here, they are also human. But they don’t have some special “extra” rights, simply the same ones as everyone else.
Yes people have responsibilities as well as rights. However, the criminal law is already there with a range of sanctions at its disposal for those amongst us in society who choose not to satisfy these obligations.
Importantly such behaviour doesn’t lose you your human rights. Therefore, it spectacularly misses the point, as was suggested to me at a recent Select Committee hearing on Older Prisoners, to seek to pit the human rights of a convicted prisoner against the human rights of their victim.
It is not some kind of competition and believing in human rights for one, is not somehow at the expense of the other.
Believing that a person has the right to a fair trial and, if convicted and imprisoned, the right to decent (if pretty spartan) conditions and the opportunity of rehabilitation and eventual release in no way condones their crime.
Human rights law is just as important in giving rights to victims to be protected and have crimes against them investigated.
UKIP’s “Mini-Me” policy echoes that of the Conservatives, save for an even more unequivocal promise of an exit from the European Convention of Human Rights.
On the other hand, the Labour Party, together with the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party have confirmed their intention to keep the Human Rights Act and remain in the Convention.
To its great credit the newly elected Labour Government brought in the Human Rights Act in 1998.
Following this, its track record on human rights was distinctly patchy, becoming ever more authoritarian with each successive re-election.
The failed attempt to increase the period of detention without charge to a whopping 90 days (by comparison the limit in the USA is two days) in 2006 being a particular low point for me.
It also began the regrettable practice, continued ever since, of Ministers misrepresenting judgments they didn’t like, thus undermining human rights laws, and criticising the judges making them, all the more cowardly in the safe knowledge that these Judges couldn’t answer back.
The Labour Government also behaved disgracefully on the whole issue of prisoner voting. Despite a clear judgement of the European Court in 2005 that the blanket ban was unlawful, it chose to embark upon two lengthy, self-serving consultations over the next 5 years – less a case of kicking it into the long grass and more like wellying it into the Amazon – rather than do anything about it.
What was so depressing about the evidence given by a succession of senior politicians of all political stripes to last year’s Select Committee Enquiry into prisoner voting was how much politicians (most of whom should have and did know better) simply couldn’t resist playing politics with the issue.
All the hoary old chestnuts were trotted out. This included that unaccountable judges, foreign at that, have no right to tell us what to do.
Well it is true that judges in Strasbourg, aren’t directly elected (albeit they are chosen by parliamentarians drawn from all the member states) and are not accountable in that sense, but that is part of the strength of an independent judiciary holding the executive to account.
Similarly, the argument of mission creep and the Court now far exceeding its original remit. Well, the Convention is a living document that moves with the times so as to apply our rights in the modern world. Otherwise, what could it say on subjects such as the internet, DNA fingerprinting or surrogacy.
Similarly it rightly reflects changes in attitudes of society where issues such as what constitutes acceptable treatment of people with disabilities has changed over the last 60 years.
The message to me from all of this evidence (including from politicians who appear to have travelled a depressingly long way from their firebrand student days into the warm embrace of the establishment) is that it actually emphasises quite why human rights are so important.
With ever one eye forever on electoral advantage, politicians simply cannot always be relied on to stand up for most legally vulnerable in our society, especially if the group are unpopular and demonised and will cost them votes.
Human rights are here to protect us all from the tyranny of the majority for the simple reason that torture doesn’t stop being torture, even if the majority of our elected representatives (or even the majority of the electorate) want to torture someone.
Despite all of this, a public meeting in Central London last week also gave me reason for genuine hope.
On Wednesday evening I was part of a panel discussing human rights issues. The event was organised by the British Institute of Human Rights, a small independent charity, as part of its work explaining the importance of human rights and challenging the misconceptions surrounding the subject.
The event was expertly chaired by Sir Nicholas Bratza, a British lawyer and past President of the European Court of Human Rights, who surely must despair at the misrepresentation of the Court and its work.
The indefatigable Sanchita Hosali of BIHR kicked events off with a clear summary of the importance of human rights.
During the course of the evening, Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a human rights barrister from Doughty Street, movingly summarised her recent success in the Supreme Court in a domestic violence case. This found that the police’s failure to investigate the urgent calls of Joanna Michael of threats from her ex-partner, which culminated in Joanna being stabbed to death, may have breached Joanna’s right to life and the matter should now go to a full trial.
The evening ended with Shoaib Khan, a solicitor and social media commentator, summarising his Herculean efforts to extract corrections and apologies from Fleet Street’s finest for the occasions when they have, deliberately or otherwise, got things wrong.
The audience contributed very considerably to the event by posing interesting and probing questions which generated a series of lively discussions.
I cycled home affterwards buoyed up by the occasion and with a feeling that all is not lost.
When given the facts and issues are discussed in a fair way, the public does appreciate the importance of human rights. What is needed is for lawyers, activists and individuals with an interest in human rights to get these arguments across. Something to date we have not always been very good at doing.
Overall, it seems to me that, whatever the past disappointments with the performance of particular parties, where the hard-nosed reality has fallen so dispiritingly short of the heady rhetoric, there is a fundamental difference between those that that are willing to be held to account by the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights and those that aren’t.
Therefore, if you believe human rights are important then make sure that you vote on Thursday, holding your nose if necessary, in a way that protects them.