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Not Just For Criminals: Why We Need A Human Rights Act


Nat Jester finds herself defending something she didn’t think needed defending… human rights. So, why do we need them to be law? She investigates.

The UK actually signed this voluntarily 50 years ago…

Last weekend, I went to see friend and fellow PhD researcher Gilberto Algar-Faria give a TEDx talk about human rights. After a long day, a few of us decided to go to the pub (of course), and we were soon joined by a stag party. They asked what we were doing there, and Gilberto told them that we were there because he had given a talk about human rights. ‘Uh, oh,’ I thought, here it comes: the inevitable rant about how human rights are only for criminals (more on this below). What came next totally surprised me:

Stag’s mate 1: Human rights are great. No one says ‘nah, I’m good for human rights, do they?’

Stag’s mate 2: Exactly. If you run out of human rights you need to get some more.


every conversation…has involved some variation of ‘human rights are for murderers, paedophiles and rapists’.

The reason I was so surprised is because literally every conversation I have had about the subject of human rights over the last month has involved some variation of ‘human rights are for murderers, paedophiles and rapists’. I really wish I could tell you that this was a bad taste joke, but unfortunately it’s not. I have had this conversation dozens. Of. Times. So, in order to explain some of this (and for the sake of my own sanity), I’d like to briefly explain what the Human Rights Act (HRA) is, and go through some of the main criticisms of the HRA, explaining why these are complete rubbish.


The HRA protects your right to: life, liberty and security, education, free elections, fair trial, marriage, privacy and family, property, freedom from torture/ discrimination/ slavery, and freedom of thought/ expression/ association.

Those of you who don’t like technical stuff can look away now and skip to number 1: the Act passed in 1998, taking effect from 2000, and made a treaty called the European Convention on Human Rights part of British law, rather than just being something we signed up to somewhere else. The UK actually signed this voluntarily 50 years ago, but I’ll say more about that in point number 2. More info on what the HRA is can be found here

1) The Human Rights Act is only for criminals

The HRA is the strongest method for ordinary people to challenge the government.

This is surely the Godwin’s Law of human rights, so I’ll clear this up first. It is not the case that the HRA is just for criminals. The HRA is the strongest method for ordinary people – some of whom are really, really vulnerable – to challenge the government. For example, the HRA has recently been used by the family of Joanna Michael, a victim of domestic violence, after her death at the hands of an abusive partner, in order to sue the police for failing to protect her. The HRA protects people in the armed forces, too, and has been used by the families of several soldiers who killed themselves at Deepcut Barracks to make the government hold an inquiry, as well as forcing the government to send servicepeople to war with correct equipment after 37 soldiers died in cars nicknamed ‘mobile coffins.’ In addition, the HRA has been used by disabled people to gain access to housing that meets their needs, and Liberty, one of the main organisations trying to save the HRA, is using it to stop the government snooping through our emails. I could go on: there are many more examples of how the HRA benefits all of us every day, and you can read more in this excellent article by the Daily Mirror.

…which of these could you do without? Freedom from torture?

Look at the list above of stuff protected by the HRA and you’ll see that all of these rights are important to ordinary people. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this: which of these could you do without? Freedom from torture? Nah, don’t need that one. Freedom of expression? Bin it. No? Didn’t think so, so why on earth would anyone want to get rid of an Act that guarantees this stuff?

So, having shown you how the HRA is for ordinary people, I’d like to offer a bit of a caveat (hear me out here). Yes, it is true that the HRA does offer protections to some awful human beings, but the state must be better than the people it contains – the state should especially be better than the worst people it contains – and it must be the very best example of how to behave. As this blog (written by lawyers) points out though, it’s tough to know how what percentage of cases raised under the HRA are brought by criminals because no figures are released. This is made worse by the fact that these extremely individualised cases are complicated, and both of these things leave the media free to speculate however they like

Hopefully I’ve convinced you so far; some of you might have heard about this British Bill of Rights thing the Tories are talking about. So why don’t we have that instead? Well may you ask…

2) The Human Rights Act has been imposed on us by Europe: a British Bill of Rights would be better

The HRA was drafted by British lawyers…

Nope again. The HRA was drafted by British lawyers, and the previous version (the European Convention on Human Rights) was proposed by this guy you probably haven’t heard of – one Winston Churchill. You can read more about the history of the HRA here. Despite this, the Tories think the HRA has been forced on us by ‘Europe,’ so they’ve proposed a British Bill of Rights instead, which seems like a pretty blatant attempt by the government to take rights away from people it doesn’t like. The point of human rights is that they apply to everyone: they are a base level of decent treatment. When governments get to decide that, actually, some people aren’t actually full human beings, bad things tend to happen.

The slightly bizarre thing about this is that with the HRA in place it becomes British law; if we ditch it, that won’t take us out of the European Convention on Human rights. What this basically means is that someone can still use the law to challenge the government, but the case will have to go aaaaall the way to Europe to be heard, instead of being heard in the UK. Liberty has an excellent graphic showing why the British Bill of Rights isn’t as good as the HRA (it explains this far better than I could, so take a look here).

3) Yeah, but how would you feel if someone did [insert awful thing here] to [insert family member here] and they got [take your pick of light sentence/prison perk etc] because of the Human Rights Act?

This is such a delightful question – let’s deal with it quickly. Of course, I would be devastated and likely filled with rage, but that is the point of the law: it takes emotion out of the equation in order to provide rules for the way we live. Without these rules, people would be able to do whatever they liked, and I hope we can all agree that that is a pretty terrible way to run a society.

What can we do about this?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that the Human Rights Act is worth saving. Here are three suggestions as to how you can help make a difference:

  1. 1. Perhaps the easiest, but one of the most important things we can do is spread the word about the HRA and why it’s important. My Facebook friends have had to endure countless posts about this (sorry guys) and I’ve learned a lot from what my friends have posted, too. I think people are more likely to listen to something their friend has posted than some random news story, so share, share, share.
  2. 2. Join the organisations working to keep the HRA. Two of the most prominent are Liberty and Amnesty International UK – when I renewed my Liberty membership this year, they send me campaign materials, and they send me regular emails keeping me up to date on the HRA. The money they get from your membership allows them to fight for the HRA, as they have done every time it’s been threatened.
  3. 3. Protest. If a demonstration against scrapping the HRA is being held anywhere near you – or even if it’s not – then try to go. The government may not always listen to the will of the people, but at least they won’t be able to give public opinion as a reason for scrapping the HRA and we want to make it as difficult as possible for them.

The fight for the Human Rights Act is essentially a fight for the soul of this country that I urge each of you to participate in. Well? What are you waiting for? Get started.

Do you agree? Do we need a Human Rights Act? Or are you with the government on this? We need to know. It’s our human right to know. Tell us your thoughts: @rifemag

More From The Author:

‘We Need To Talk About Gender (And The Media)

Related Links:

‘”What Am I Suspected Of And On What Grounds?”: Know Your Stop And Search Rights’ by Sammy Jones

‘To Vote, Always To Vote’ by Huw James

External Links:

Amnesty International Bristol Group

Bristol City Youth Council

1625 Independent People