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  • Jeremy Bourgais, PhD candidate

Protection of human rights was weak before the Human Rights Act

On 22nd of January 2019, the Royal Society of Arts hosted the latest Knowing Our Rights seminar; a research project based at Goldsmiths University of London and supported by the Britain in Europe thinktank.

Experts in human rights discussed the European Convention on Human Rights’ (ECHR) impact in the UK, from both legal theory and legal practice perspective. The discussions underlined the substantial increase in the protection of British citizens' rights since the Human Rights Acts 1998 (HRA) came into force (in 2000).

All along the seminar, experts aimed to provide keys to understanding the significance of the HRA in citizens’ lives at a time where the Act is being questioned by the government.

Jonathan Cooper OBE (Doughty Street Chambers) recalled how weak the protection of British citizens’ rights used to be before the adoption of the Act. When many fundamental rights, like the right to privacy, the right to equality or the right to protest, were not formally guaranteed by common law, minorities and vulnerable citizens did suffer from serious discriminations and denials (e.g. persecution of homosexuals, denial of LGBT identity, corporal punishment in schools...). Since the HRA was implemented, the proportionality test (balance between an individual’s rights and public interests) has been a key element in human rights’ effective protection.

from left to right: Jonathan Cooper and Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos

Nadia O’Mara (Policy and Campaigns Officer, Liberty) explained how Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like Liberty challenge the use of indiscriminate surveillance powers by British enforcement authorities, on the basis of Article 8 of the ECHR (right to respect for private life).

Maya Sikand (Head of the Human Rights team, Garden Court Chambers) went on by evoking her own experience at court, in order to point out the influence of article 8 (right to respect for family life) on British case law. She referred to the more extensive approach recently adopted by courts who take into consideration the defendant's children's right to respect for family life before deciding whether to send their primary carer (usually their mother) to prison.

After recalling the British government's reluctance to grant prisoners the right to vote and the European institutions' relative tolerance regarding this issue, Ruvi Ziegler (Associate Professor in Law, University of Reading) underlined the upcoming issues related to the right to vote for British citizens living outside the UK or in Northern Ireland after Brexit.

Nadia O'Mara and Ruvi Ziegler

Liora Lazarus (Associate Professor in Law, Oxford; Fellow, St Anne’s College and Head of Research at Bonavero Institute of Human Rights) drew attention on the tension between human rights protection and security policies that has characterized the last two decades. She condemned the tendency to draw a distinction between deserving and undeserving right-bearers (terrorists…).

This warning echoed Professor Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos’ (Law, Goldsmiths University of London) introductory speech. He had referred to the different theories of human rights: whether they should be considered as universal values or just as legal products with a ‘use by’ date…

Then, Adam Wagner (Doughty Street Chambers, founder of RightsInfo and UK Human Rights Blog) insisted on British citizens’ lack of knowledge of human rights (as to what rights actually consist of). A link could seemingly be established between the lack of education on rights (and misinformation spread by politicians and media) and people’s scepticism and hostility towards human rights.

from left to right: Liora Lazarus, Sanchita Hosali, Adam Wagner and Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos

That’s why it is necessary to make practical use of Convention rights, as Sanchita Hosali (Director, British Institute of Human Rights) explained. Once they are aware of their rights, citizens, in their everyday lives, are able to remind public institutions of their duty to respect those rights.

Concluding the seminar, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (Visiting Professor in Law, Goldsmiths University of London) called for public awareness of what is at stake as to the future of human rights’ protection. He invites us to ask ourselves: what’s best? Having our rights dealt with by British lawyers, OR having them guaranteed by lawyers and judges, not only from Britain, but from all across Europe?

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