The European Convention on Human Rights is not, as we have seen, universally popular in Britain. Neither is the UK’s Human Rights Act (1998). Not everyone agrees that these rights should be in place for everyone. Some argue that it is foolish to give the same rights to foreigners or to criminals and many within the current coalition government are vehemently opposed to any European legislation affecting what goes on within these shores.
I first wrote this in June 2011 – sadly government hostility to the ECHR remains just as strong two and a half years later.
From my perspective these arguments are all rooted in what is known as ‘special pleading’. The idea is that some people are somehow ‘special’ or more deserving of rights and consideration than others. As is probably clear by now I see things a little differently – and I hope that you will too.
I believe that history (including some very recent history throughout Europe) has shown us that none of us are really safe from the abuses of those who would exploit or abuse us. The International Court has issued a warrant just this week for the arrest of the Libyan leader ‘Colonel Gadaffi’ on charges of war crimes. Libya, of course is not a European state but the former Yugoslavia was and it’s hard to forget the religiously motivated ethnic cleansing that happened there in recent years.
Less extreme is the way that our current government portrays disabled people (especially those with mental disorders) as ‘benefit scroungers’. The discrimination that seems to be inherent both in the benefits system and the wider job market against people with mental ill health combines to prevent them from finding work and then to penalise and vilify them for their failure to do so.
Hate crime is on the increase in our country, presumably as a reaction to economic austerity (that seems to happen whenever people’s livelihoods are threatened) and intolerance of all kinds seems gradually to be becoming more widespread and socially acceptable. Perhaps now, more than ever before, we need the ECHR to keep the UK ‘on track’ as a civilised country.
The assault on prisoners’ rights and their proposed disenfranchisement (as though losing their liberty wasn’t punishment enough) is worrying, but not so worrying as the increasing calls for a return to capital punishment. There has even been some limited support in this country for an American organisation called ‘Project Prevention’. This ‘charity’ aims to sterilise substance users, as much upon moral and economic grounds as upon any platform of compassion.
It is interesting that Vince Cable MP, a current UK government minister threatened earlier this month that the law prohibiting strike action may be ‘tightened’ to prevent aggrieved workers from taking action to protect their interests. However many argue that without the ability to withdraw their labour workers have no effective means of asserting their rights. It will be interesting to see if workers’ industrial safeguards are removed as Cable threatened and if so whether or not the new restrictions are challenged under article 4.
However that turns out in the future it is already the case that a good deal of our UK employment law is based upon ensuring that working conditions are reasonable and do not become so exploitative that they fall foul of article 4. It is Europe that gave us limits to the amount of overtime we can be forced to work and the national minimum wage (also unpopular with the current government) is based as much on article 4 principles as it is upon anything else. This article, along with article 14 which outlaws discrimination, has also done much to assist minority groups such as women or disabled people to achieve both employment and comparable pay and conditions.
In my own field of health and social care it is amazing how many hard working people are barely able to make ends meet as they exist on minimum wage, regardless of how difficult, exhausting and sometimes dangerous their work may be. Without a strong legal framework to protect them how much more exploitative would their working conditions be? As I write this I’m aware that a private members bill aimed at removing the minimum wage itself has recently been tabled in parliament by a coalition MP.
I don’t know what the future holds for UK but I do know this. Without the ECHR it would be far easier for exploitative and abusive people, especially those in positions of power and authority, to walk roughshod over the rights of citizens who already are struggling to survive in this tough economic climate.
Whatever generalised, unrepresentative illustrations cynical politicians may make about illegal immigrants or ‘loony lefties’ please remember that for most of us – and that almost certainly includes you, the reader – life would be far less secure and a great deal more difficult without the ECHR.
Thankyou for reading this.
Stuart Sorensen (June 2011)
About ‘The Convention’
This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here: http://stuartsorensen.wordpress.com/amj-freebies-downloads-and-services/