We need to talk about human rights

When Theresa May pledged to correct the ‘burning injustices’ in modern society, she indicated that the Government would be happy to have difficult conversations to help address unfairness wherever it exists. The Prime Minister's commitment provides us with an opportunity to debate how we create a fair society.  For me, human rights must always be at the core of any vision of a ‘shared society’ – whether we are seeking to address unfair treatment, discrimination or improve social mobility. Indeed both the domestic and international human rights frameworks provide us with valuable tools to address and resolve all these issues. I would like to see a more open and honest conversation about the value of human rights and how they can be used to make Britain fairer.

More importantly, this isn’t a conversation that the Conservative Party should shy away from. Not just because they are the party of Government, but because they have a strong historical record in this area – whether it was Disraeli’s extension of the franchise or Churchill’s pivotal role in advocating for the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), a document drafted by Conservative MP, David Maxwell-Fyfe.

It is well known that the human rights debate amongst Conservatives has not always been straightforward.  Uncertainty in many quarters has resulted in calls for the UK to leave the ECHR and to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. These debates have been postponed until after Brexit but they are definitely not going to go away and we must ensure that everyone is properly equipped to participate in this debate.

As Great Britain’s national equality and human rights body, the Commission is the guardian of human rights and equalities. These areas of our parliamentary mandate have rarely felt more relevant. Yet, as the Prime Minister’s ‘burning injustices’ speech showed, Conservatives are far more at home addressing inequality than human rights. Equality is an easier concept to understand and to promote; it's essentially about fairness. Who wouldn’t support the desire to create a level playing field whether its focus is tackling the gender pay gap or improving employment prospects for ethnic minority communities and disabled people?

Human rights on the other hand are altogether more nuanced. Fairness doesn’t transpose quite as straightforwardly to human rights. For example, some people feel it isn't fair for prisoners to have the right to vote. For many, human rights feel like a zero-sum game. The fact that human rights apply to everyone and are universal is also a tricky concept for some. Indeed recent research by Bright Blue has shown universality is a divisive issue for many Conservatives.  As such, many people prefer a ‘pick and mix’ approach to human rights and are happier supporting the right to a fair trial for suspected criminals than ensuring convicted criminals have the right to a private and family life.

To look more closely at public attitudes towards human rights the Commission has recently worked with ComRes. Our survey has thrown up some encouraging findings. For example, we found that 90% of people surveyed support human rights as a concept. This is valuable evidence for Conservatives who want to change the nature of the debate and show that people aren't quite as opposed to the concept of human rights as some media reports might lead us to believe. We also tested views about the continued protection of rights after Brexit. Tellingly, there was strong agreement with 79% of people in favour of maintaining current protections. This is valuable information about where we need to focus our attention.

My anxiety, however, is that the polarising political environment of Brexit means that the Government’s attention is narrowly focused on economic matters at the expense of human rights. Clearly economic and trade issues are vital to the future of our country – but so too are our values.  How we treat others will define us as a nation and for this reason we have argued passionately that rights must be protected in British law once we leave the EU.

I'm certain that people didn’t vote for Brexit in order to have their rights at work weakened or to lose protection of their personal data – both elements of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights that the Government currently plans to remove from UK law.  Although the House of Lords recently voted to secure amendments to maintain these protections we must wait to see how these amendments fare in the House of Commons.

The Commission will continue its important work to understand how people perceive human rights and how we can build wider support for their role. I am keen that the Commission facilitates a wider debate beyond those who are supportive and those who are opposed to human rights. We need to move beyond these echo chambers by providing real life examples of how human rights help all of us.  Human rights are a force for good and we should not be afraid to say so - not just to people who agree with us but to the wider public too.

David Isaac is the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

In whose best interests?

Best interest cases, where life-sustaining treatment “can lawfully be withheld or withdrawn from a patient who lacks capacity in circumstances where commencing or continuing such treatment is deemed not to be in their best interests”, tend to garner widespread attention. Most recently, the plight of the parents of Alfie Evans, who died following a tumultuous legal battle with the doctors of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, has attracted global interest.

The legal grounding

Medical cases concerning terminally-ill children are usually resolved by parents and doctors behind closed doors. However, a spike in the number of high-profile legal battles in recent years has raised questions about the need for clearer legislation.

Currently, the legal foundation for the withdrawal of parental rights relies on the 1989 Children’s Act, which permits state intervention if a child is “at risk of harm”. The Act, whilst broadly providing parents with the right to choose what happens to their child, can be challenged if doctors believe their decision could lead the child to suffer from significant harm (defined as ill-treatment or the impairment of development). Parental rights may only be overturned by a ruling from the Royal Courts of Justice, which depends heavily on complex medical opinion to determine what lies in the child’s best interests.

Legal disputes of this nature have become increasingly prevalent as advances in paediatric medicine provide new opportunities for successful treatment. The case of Charlie Gard, who died from a rare genetic condition in 2017 following a five-month legal battle, draws many parallels to that of Alfie Evans. Charlie’s parents believed that their son could receive life-saving treatment in the US, but his transfer was prevented when a decision by the Royal Courts of Justice found that they had been misled on the treatment’s success rates by a doctor from Great Ormond Street Hospital. The decision, which generated public outrage, has raised questions about the ethical implications of judicial involvement in such cases. 

Alfie’s case

Alfie Evans was seven-months old when he began to suffer seizures and was admitted to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool in December 2016. A year later, in December 2017, disputes over Alfie’s treatment between staff at Alder Hey and Alfie’s father Tom Evans resulted in the involvement of the Family Division of the High Court, overseen by the Hon. Mr Justice Hayden. Legal representatives for the doctors at Alder Hey believed that Alfie’s condition was untreatable, and any further medical intervention would be futile. Alfie’s parents argued that they should be allowed to fly Alfie to Rome’s Bambino Gesu Paediatric Hospital to pursue further treatments.

Following an extensive review of evidence from medical professionals at Alder Hey, doctors from Bambino Gesu and paediatric specialists from around the globe, Mr Justice Hayden ruled against the wishes of Alfie’s parents, stating that the child should not be removed from Alder Hey. Further appeals by Alfie’s parents were rejected by Supreme Court justices and judges from the European Court of Human Rights, and Alfie died on the 28th April, five days after the removal of life-support.

State vs. individual rights

At the centre of the dispute over Alfie’s case lies a deeply philosophical and politicised conflict regarding the role of the state versus the rights of the individual. The state, represented by the court and the doctors of Alder Hey, determined that transporting Alfie to Italy would not be in the child’s best interests. This was due to extensive medical evidence which indicated that Alfie could not be cured due to significant, irreversible brain damage. Indeed this was even accepted by the doctors at Bambino Gesu who were only able to offer Alfie an alternative form of palliative care. Furthermore, medical professionals believe that moving Alfie was likely to induce further seizures, and there was a very real chance of Alfie dying while being transported to Italy.

Nonetheless, some observers believed that parents should always have the final decision on the welfare of their children. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson believes that “bad law” like this should not be allowed to stand in the way of a parent’s choice – especially when other sources of care are proffered from around the globe. When it comes to human rights, he argues, the removal of fundamental parental choice is markedly regressive. Simultaneously, a campaign led by MEP Stephen Woolf is calling for the introduction of ‘Alfie’s Law’, to allow parents to make the final decision regarding their children’s care. Similar to the legal initiative started by Charlie Gard’s parents, the campaign seeks to prevent prolonged legal disputes between hospitals and families and return full rights to the parents of sick children. 

However, there remains significant concern about this ‘parents know best’ approach. A good proportion of best interest cases, so far, have involved parents who are Jehovah's Witnesses. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that their religion requires them to refuse certain medical treatments, such as blood transfusions. Allowing parents to always have the final say on their child’s medical treatment could therefore lead to the unnecessary deaths of many children of Jehovah's Witnesses – even when they require relatively simple medical procedures.


High-profile quarrelling - especially that which inspires vitriol and abuse – should not overshadow the suffering of a vulnerable, grieving family, and the medical professionals who face a barrage of conflicting opinions as they make life-changing decisions on the welfare of very vulnerable children. In almost all cases, both doctors and parents obviously hold the child’s wellbeing in the highest regard. It is important that, when reviewing or challenging the legislation surrounding these cases, those with significant public profiles are more respectful of those most closely involved. 

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Britain can lead the way in protecting civilians in conflict

Even wars have rules. One of the rules, grounded in moral ideas about mercy, compassion and restraint, is that civilians should be protected – and protecting children from the worst excesses of armed conflicts they played no part in creating is surely a test of our shared humanity.

We are failing that test. Millions of children have had their lives torn apart by unimaginable acts of violence. In some cases, these children are the target of murderous attacks, rape, kidnapping and forced recruitment into armed groups. In others, they are viewed by warring groups as expendable collateral damage by military commanders who oversee indiscriminate bombardments in high-density urban areas, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, or the destruction of schools and hospitals.

Save the Children is dealing with the everyday realities of modern conflict – and with the culture of impunity surrounding attacks on children. In Yemen, the organisation’s staff are responding to the needs of children suffering extreme malnutrition as a consequence of war, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, and economic dislocation. In Syria, Save the Children’s partners have had schools and health clinics bombed. From South Sudan to Iraq, Yemen and the DRC, programmes are responding to the needs of children who have been traumatised or separated from their families.

The UK can play a leadership role in combating the impunity surrounding attacks on civilians. This is not about convening one-off summits. Leadership requires a carefully thought out strategy aimed at strengthening the three critical pillars of civilian protection: humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law. It is also about projecting the norms and values that underpin these instruments through the UK’s distinctive voice in international affairs.

This is not a theoretical debate. What you get with the erosion of universal values is chemical attacks in Syria, indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen, and the use of civilians as human shields in Iraq. When combatants are unrestrained by rules, laws and norms, you get 400,000 children left on the brink of starvation in Yemen, schoolgirls being abducted in Nigeria, and young children raped by armed groups in South Sudan.

No one demonstrates the need for civilian protection better than 13-year-old Noran from Yemen. In 2015 the blast wave from four airstrikes nearby knocked her down, irreparably damaging her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, her life has never been the same. She loved going to school but now struggles to even hold a pen. Her future prospects are greatly diminished and her poignant words a reminder to us all that we must do more to protect civilians, especially children, just like her. 

In the past I used to go to school on foot,” she says. “My life was beautiful because I could walk and write. Now, I can’t walk to school. I can only go with the wheelchair. I was able to go out, play and go to school absolutely fine and normal. I was able to sit on a chair at my desk and write but now when I try to write, my hand hurts because of the injury in my back. And on top of all that, I am not able to play like I used to. I dream of finishing school and becoming a doctor.” 

That is the story of just one child – but millions of children are today at risk because of a failure to protect civilians in armed conflict. That is why RUSI and Save the Children have come together to address what we see as one of the defining challenges of our generation.

On Tuesday May 8th we launched Ensuring the Protection of Civilians in Modern Conflict’, which examines how a combination of British leadership in military expertise, soft power, and humanitarian response can drive responsible military practice and accountability measures that protect civilians in conflict.  

We know that it is possible to make a difference. Previous initiatives like British leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict and global campaigns on landmines have demonstrated that changes in policy, practice and global norms can limit attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. They also strengthen the existing international frameworks and norms that are in critical need of protection – which is why last month’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK will endorse the Safe Schools Declaration was so welcome.

Through the UK’s membership of key multilateral groups and its world-class diplomatic service, high-quality overseas aid and some of the world’s best trained armed forces, it is uniquely placed to champion civilian protection. As the Government prepares to leave the European Union, it is presented with a unique opportunity to step forward on the global stage and play a leading role in protecting civilians in conflict based on its expertise, values and priorities.  

Tackling one of the most difficult challenges facing millions of children and their families is no easy task. But it is possible – and we owe it to children like Nora.

Kevin Watkins is Chief Executive at Save the Children UK