Friday, 21 May 2010

Whilst the state exists, we need the Human Rights Act

On Tuesday, one of the first acts of the new coalition government was to create a commission to review the Human Rights Act. A day later, Home Secretary Theresa May admitted that the point of this was to reconsider the shelved Tory plan to scrap the act.

The ostensible reason for this is the court victory of two "al-Qaeda operatives" against their deportation. As the Daily Mail foamed, "yet again, the law has turned justice on its head, protecting the guilty and exposing the innocent to mortal danger." Abid Naseer and Ahmad Faraz Khan "permission to remain in the Britain they want to destroy" and "there are no prizes for guessing which statute we have to thank for this perversity."

Ignored is the fact that Operation Pathway, in which the men were arrested, has "not been able to present sufficient evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service on which it could lay charges against any of the 12 arrested." No explosives, no bomb-making equipment, just hype.

Instead, Douglas Murray of the Telegraph demands that someone explain to the government "that it matters far far less to us whether Mr Naseer is tortured than it does that the British people are safe from being blown up." His is a common complaint, and a central point in the charge against the Human Rights Act. As the Daily Mail blog puts it, "the ghastly Human Rights Act twists the principle of 'rights' into 'privileges for criminals,' and HM's law-abiding subjects find their ancient rights have been swept aside."

Pushed for specifics, however, nobody can tell us exactly what "ancient rights" we have lost due to the Act.

Over the last thirteen years, there can be no doubt that civil liberties have been severely encroached by the police and state powers granted in the Terrorism Act. Section 44 allows for police to stop and search anyone without the previous "reasonable grounds" requirement, and "we have seen Section 44 powers used against anti-war, anti-weapons and anti-capitalist protestors." Not to mention that "there was a three-fold increase in the use of the power, but fewer than 0.1% of those stopped were arrested for terrorism offences" and "if you are black or Asian, you are around four times more likely to be stopped than if you are white." There are also "unacceptably broad speech offences," which amount to "criminalising careless talk and banning non-violent political organisations."

With the Human Rights Act, there are instances where liberties are curtailed, but they are unlikely to be cited by the right. For example, the fact that Article 15 of the European Convention on human Rights (on which the Act is based) allows states to derogate from guaranteed rights in conditions of "war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation," or that Article 16 allows states to restrict the political activity of "aliens."

Whilst these real examples are ignored, the examples continually touted as proof that the act is easily abused turn out to be right-wing myths. The common tactics of attributing something done for entirely different reasons to "human rights" and of citing cases that were actually rejected by the courts rear their ugly heads. As Liberty point out (PDF), the very nature of the Act is also subject to myth and deliberate misunderstanding.

This serves the same propaganda function as "political correctness;"
The ideology of the ruling class is power and profit, and dissent threatens that. That’s why they mobilise it in reactionary, controllable ways. It doesn’t harm their interests to have people rally against political correctness, or an imaginary “left-wing bias,” because those things don’t really exist. As long as we’re dissenting against the irrelevant, that’s fine. We’re controllable. But when we dissent against their hegemony of power, we’re a threat.
The double-whammy, of course, is that having a populist campaign against the Human Rights Act gives the government a constituency not merely distracted but actively supporting its own oppression.

The Tories want to replace the Act with a British Bill of Rights, but we have no idea what this entails. One point, noted by Charlotte Gore, is that it is likely "foreign nationals – including illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and people on temporary visas would have no protection from our Government at all. Murder, torture, punishment without law, unfair trials – even preventing them getting married – all these options suddenly become available to the Government of the day."

The other major point of contention is that conservative opposition to the Act centres upon the fact that the rights enshrined therein are universal and that they cannot deport terrorists to face torture. But, as we have see in the case of extrordinary rendition, such torture often takes place on our behalf and for our benefit. We also know that, in the hands of governments, words such as "terrorist" and "extremist" can have very lax definitions which allow for the suppression of free expression and dissent.
The Human Rights Act has its limitations. It is certainly not a catch-all guarantee against violations of civil liberties and basic freedoms. But it offers people away to challenge the abuses of the state and other sectors of established power. And as long as the state exists, the Human Rights Act will remain neccesary.