Human Rights

Bahrain: A troubled relationship

On Monday morning, a leading Bahraini human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested. On Tuesday, the Bahraini courts suspended Bahrain’s main political opposition party. The arrest and suspension immediately provoked the condemnation of a number of international human rights organisations.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regularly publishes a list of human rights priority countries. Human rights priority countries are “human rights trouble spots” where the FCO deems the UK has the ability to influence change. In 2014, Bahrain was not included in the last of priority countries. After significant criticism, including from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the FCO did include Bahrain on its 2015 list.

Despite its inclusion on the FCO’s human rights priority list, Bahrain remains a key UK trading ally. Only this week, for example, reports emerged that Bahrain is paying the bulk of the costs of the construction of a new Royal Navy base in its country.

This blog reviews the evidence behind human rights violations in Bahrain in three key areas: freedom of expression, torture and the rule of law.

Freedom of expression

The Bahraini Government claims that the country permits freedom of expression. For example, Bahraini ministers have claimed that Bahrain has one of the freest press industries in the world.

However a number of international observers have contradicted this claim. The Human Rights Watch 2015 report noted that King Hamad, the Bahraini head of state, ratified laws which significantly increase the sentences for individuals who are adjudged to have offended the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem. Such crimes now carry a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini dinars (£18,500). In addition, the report found that a number of photographers were arrested for carrying out professional activities. For example, Hussain Hubail, was sentenced by a court to a five-year prison term in April 2014 on charges that he used various social media accounts to “incite hatred of the regime,” promoted ignoring the law, and called for illegal demonstrations. The sentence was upheld in September 2015.

Similarly, Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report found that the Bahraini authorities “severely curtailed the rights to freedom of expression and association”. Amnesty offer the example of Nabeel Rajab who was arrested in April 2015 for posts on Twitter about the use of torture in Bahraini prisons and for criticising Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen. In May, an appeal court upheld his earlier six-month sentence for “publicly insulting official institutions”. Rajab was then re-arrested early Monday morning this week. The exact reasons for the re-arrest remain unclear.

Crucially, the FCO’s 2015 human rights report notes that “there are continued concerns regarding freedom of speech and expression and peaceful assembly”. Numerous rankings of press freedom also indicate that Bahrain heavily restricts freedom of expression. The Freedom of the Press Index 2015 - published by the nonpartisan US NGO, Freedom House - found that Bahrain ranked 84th of 97 countries for press freedom. Similarly, the 2016 World Press Freedom Index - published by Reporters without Borders - found that Bahrain ranked 162nd of 180 countries.

Torture

The Bahraini Government claims that it has significantly reduced the use of torture in the last 10 years. In 2014, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior published a report in which they denied the systemic use of torture by government.

This view is challenged by a number of international organisations. Human Rights Watch finds that torture of detainees continued, and worsened, in 2014. They report that individuals detained by the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) - a government agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminals - were routinely tortured. Detainees reported a range of torture methods used by the CID. These included electric shock, prolonged suspension in painful positions, severe beatings, threats to rape and kill, forced standing, exposure to extreme cold, and sexual abuse. They also note that Bahrain continues to use torture in its prisons.

Amnesty International found that torture and other forms of ill-treatment, remained routine, particularly within the CID. They report that police and other security officials frequently beat or otherwise abuse people when arresting them and transporting them to police stations. At Jaw Prison, one of Bahrain’s main prisons on the southeastern coast, detainees faced repeated beatings. They were also forced to sleep in tents. Following a disturbance at the prison in March 2015, prisoners were denied any communication with their families for several weeks.

The US Department of State human rights report concludes that the use of torture is widespread in Bahrain.

Rule of law

The Bahraini Government has argued that it fairly implements the rule of law. For example, it has stated that civil society institutions, human rights organizations, and media representatives are allowed to attend trials. However, Human Rights Watch reports only organisations which are sympathetic to the Government are offered such privileges.  

Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report finds that hundreds of Bahraini people were convicted in unfair trials on a number of charges such as rioting, illegal gathering or committing terrorism-related offences. Accordingly, many prosecutors in cases related to terrorism relied exclusively on the evidence of “confessions” which defendants claimed that interrogators had forced them to make under duress; some received death sentences.

Amnesty highlight the case of Abbas Jamil al-Samea’ and two other men who were sentenced to death in February 2015. The three defendants had been convicted of a bombing in March 2014. Amnesty states that, during the trial, the court failed to adequately pursue their allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by CID interrogators. The defendants were also denied access to their lawyers until their trial began; their lawyers were prevented from viewing the full case file, and their pleas to cross-examine prosecution witnesses were ignored.

Moreover, Amnesty also find that public officials often benefit from lenient sentences and frequent acquittals. For instance, in April 2015, a court acquitted a police officer of causing the death of Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon, who had been shot January 2014. The officer was jailed for only three months for shooting a man in the stomach who was accompanying Abbas.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch finds a number of examples of unfair trials. For example, in February 2016, a Bahraini court convicted the secretary general of the largest legally recognised opposition political party, which was suspended this week, of three speech-related crimes and jailed him for four years. Human Rights Watch states that the presiding judge prevented defense lawyers from utilising evidence which may have prevented his prosecution. For example, the judge refused to allow defense lawyers to play recordings of the secretary general’s speeches for which he was convicted. The judge stated that “the intent of them is to raise doubts about the substantiating evidence that has persuaded the court.”

Conclusion

Most international observers find that Bahrain commits systemic human rights violations. More worryingly, many observers find little evidence of Bahrain reducing the number, or severity, of its violations. Yet, a Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy report, published this week, claimed that the UK has become “an unconditional ally” of Bahrain

This has significant implications for the FCO. It is always extremely difficult to measure the impact of the FCO’s ‘soft’, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Working closely with foreign government’s may be the most effective way of reducing human rights violations. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, argued in a recent Bright Blue publication, “megaphone diplomacy and noisy condemnations will always be heard, but may not always be effective with the key decision makers”.

Yet, if the Bahraini Government is not reducing its human rights violations then the effectiveness of this ‘soft’ diplomacy must be questioned. The FCO risks being perceived to be “downgrading” human rights in favour of trade, particularly as it continues to permit Bahrain to fund a Royal Navy base.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

What should be in the British Bill of Rights?

The inclusion of a British Bill of Rights’ in the Queen’s speech has become something of a running joke among many lawyers who are hostile towards the Government. Each year it’s mentioned, and each year little seems to happen to bring a bill into fruition. How, then, can we be optimistic that this year is different?

For one thing, by the end of the summer the European question will have been settled. It’s fashionable to say that there’s no link between the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), but of course being a signatory to the convention is a prerequisite for membership of the Council of Europe, so like most things it isn’t as simple as it seems. If we remain in the European Union, there is little to no prospect that the Government will have any appetite for upsetting the consensus that ECHR membership is a requirement.

Bright Blue hopes that the British Bill of Rights better enshrines and enforces the Convention than the Human Rights Act, while bringing human rights into the 21st century. A British Bill of Rights should be an opportunity to toughen up human rights, and reset public attitudes towards them. If there has ever been an over-conflation of the European Union and the ECHR then the British Bill of Rights will resolve that.

Constitutional tinkering does not seem like David Cameron’s style, despite what feel like the constant referenda on constitutional issues, so hopefully the British Bill of Rights can do more than reinforce the status of Strasbourg jurisprudence as non-binding. The British Bill of Rights offers the opportunity to reaffirm Britain’s commitment to human rights, a renewal of vows after a rocky time in the public’s marriage to the principles behind them.

Right now there is a hot dispute about privacy and press freedom in the UK, and the invention by the courts of something like a right to privacy is ripe for assessment by our legislators. The boundaries of personal religious freedom and the provision of services are another hot-button issue. Enshrining a right to individual privacy would be a smart response to the technological changes of the 21st century.

Ideally, the British Bill of Rights will achieve cross-party support and agreement from the devolved assemblies. Only with full cooperation and consent can it become a truly British Bill, and one which avoids the constitutional perils of the devolved administrations. For this to happen, lawyers need to set aside their personal political gripes with the Government and contribute to the proposals. A British Bill Of Rights which reaffirms and renationalises rights should not be a controversial topic, but a source of enthusiasm. The question shouldn’t be “why scrap the Human Rights Act?” but “how do we improve upon the Human Rights Act?”.

Rupert Myers is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue and political correspondent for British GQ

 

 

Conservatives should support the Human Rights Act

The Government is promising a consultation on repealing the Human Rights Act (HRA)  and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. Arguments about this proposal have been raging for the best part of 10 years. The policy stems from David Cameron’s time as Leader of the Opposition – initially a useful soundbite to wrong-foot the Labour Government of the day and then during the Coalition years to outflank the UKIP challenge. 

But the plans were hidden away on page 93 of the 2015 Conservative election manifesto. Originally believed to be a vote-winner, they didn’t feature in the General Election campaign after private Conservative Party polling revealed it wasn’t popular and Lynton Crosby decided to bury it. 

Instead of trying to turn a piece of political trickery into a coherent policy for constitutional reform, there are many reasons – political, principled and pragmatic – that the Prime Minister would do much better to quietly dump this policy. 

From its inception, this project has been about downgrading human rights protection. To date, every policy suggestion from Ministers would see crucial protections and enforcement mechanisms swept away. Yet this agenda badly undermines past Conservative thinking on rights and freedoms, sits at odds with the national interest and public attitudes, and threatens our delicate constitutional settlement. It also faces fierce opposition in both Houses of Parliament and on the Conservative backbenches, and would set a dangerous global precedent with untested repercussions.

Conservative human rights

From the campaigning activism of William Wilberforce and Winston Churchill’s desire to see “the enthronement of human rights”, to the heroic efforts of the Conservative shadow home affairs and justice teams in stopping the worst excesses of Blair and Brown’s authoritarianism, there is a proud tradition of Conservative support for human rights. 

In 2010, the Conservative-led Government made some good early moves. Proposals for ID cards were scrapped, the 28-day pre-charge detention limit reduced, equal marriage was passed and a Modern Slavery Act enacted. At the Foreign Office, William Hague set in train new initiatives around sexual violence in conflict. But Cameron’s misnomer, ‘Labour’s’ Human Rights Act, deliberately misrepresents a mixed political heritage. It ignores the vital role that Conservative politicians and lawyers played in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), creating momentum behind its incorporation into UK law and then in helping to shape the HRA as it passed through Parliament. 

Incorporation of the ECHR had previously been attempted by key Conservative figures. In 1976 the Society of Conservative Lawyers recommended that “the ECHR should be given statutory force as overriding domestic law”. In 1987, Conservative MP Edward Gardner introduced a “Human Rights Bill to incorporate in British law the ECHR”. By the time the HRA reached its concluding stages in 1998, the Conservative front bench expressed the hope “that it will be implemented effectively, to the benefit of the citizenry as a whole”. In 2009 Conservative Jesse Norman found it was “impeccably Conservative” .

A successful modern Bill of Rights

The HRA is a modern Bill of Rights that has worked extraordinarily well in protecting the rights and freedoms of ordinary people in the UK. While the headlines dwell on cases concerning suspected ne’er-do-wells, the real story is the countless people who have held the State to account where it has overreached or failed to protect – most recently, the families of the Hillsborough victims. 

Liberty uses the Act every day to fight injustice. Many cases are resolved with a letter to a public authority concerning their perceived failings under the Act. But where cases do progress, the Act works to end injustice and bring about crucial changes in law and policy that make Britain a fairer and freer place. 

Over the past 15 years, it has benefited thousands of individuals, from victims of rape, slavery and domestic abuse, to journalists, minority ethnic groups, members of our armed forces and those with disabilities and mental health problems.  

Nevertheless, since its inception there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism of the HRA in the tabloid press and unsubstantiated charges are repeatedly made against it, including that there has been ‘rights inflation’, that trivial cases succeed where they shouldn’t, and that the Act undermines parliamentary sovereignty. 

Rights inflation is a myth. Our courts and Strasbourg have stuck doggedly to the 15 rights contained in the Convention and genuinely trivial cases don’t make it past the court-room door.  

The bogus idea that the HRA threatens parliamentary sovereignty is thankfully gradually being demolished. Yet the notion that Strasbourg judgments could be treated as advisory-only still carries favour. In his essay for Bright Blue’s recent publication, Conservatism and human rights, Damian Green MP advocates the motto “ECHR yes, ECtHR not always”. Yet elsewhere Green states that any replacement British Bill of Rights must not put the UK in breach of its Convention obligations. Both ideas cannot hold. It is simply not possible to be part of the Convention system and pass primary legislation that requires Strasbourg’s judgments to be ignored by the Legislature. The Council of Europe confirmed this in a rare response to the Chris Grayling strategy paper in 2014.

Dangerous attack

Of all the proposed reforms, the most dangerous is the switch from a ‘Human’ Rights Act to a ‘British’ Bill of Rights. This change is neither pedantic nor cosmetic. The animating force of the campaign for the British Bill of Rights has been a desire to rip up the universal nature of human rights protection - removing it from certain groups, including non-citizens and members of the armed forces serving overseas. These policies are contained both in Chris Grayling’s 2014 strategy paper and a draft Bill penned by Martin Howe QC and annexed to the Bill of Rights Commission report. 

The Howe Bill separates human beings into three categories and identifies different sets of fundamental rights protections for each. UK citizens are given full rights, EU citizens are entitled to rights provided by core EU treaties and the third category, ‘non-citizens’, will be entitled to only “the rights and freedoms in the Bill of Rights save for those set out in Articles […]”. The rights non-nationals would be denied is left ominously unspecified. 

Far from injecting ‘common sense’ to the human rights framework, this constitutes an ideological attack on it. In 1930s Europe, the problem was not that nobody’s rights were protected, but that rights protection varied wildly depending on status, race, gender, religion and other arbitrary features. The Convention and the HRA were our continent and our country’s response to the atrocities that can be inflicted when rights are divided and apportioned in this way. The heroic wartime generation intended that human rights would be universal, inalienable and indivisible for all of time. 

Human Rights have public support

As the substantive policies put forward by Chris Grayling and others have been examined and rejected, the Government has started justifying its plans on the basis that human rights are unpopular. 

But there is no evidence of this. When the Bill of Rights Commission consulted nationally on replacing the HRA they found that the majority were not in favour of repeal. This really is unsurprising. The Act encapsulates values and principles with deep roots in the national psyche, and exists to hold the power of the State to account for abuse, negligence and mistreatment. 

Everyone can pick an individual judgment they disagree with, but no Bill of Rights anywhere in the world can boast to have produced universally popular judgments. Bills of Rights by their nature must protect those at the margins, including those with odious views and behaviours. 

If Government is genuinely worried about the Act’s ‘bad press’ and supports human rights as it claims, it could use its platform to put the record straight. Government spent £150.7 million on its own PR last year, and recently found £9 million to controversially fund a leaflet putting forward its view on the EU. Yet the British people have never received any Government information on the rights they have under the HRA. 

Division in an already shaky United Kingdom

Worse than being unpopular, repeal of the Act could trigger nothing short of a constitutional crisis. The HRA was woven into all three original devolution statutes and integral to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Human rights matters are devolved, which means that it is likely impossible to alter, let alone repeal, the HRA without the consent of all three devolved legislatures. Yet in the past 18 months, they have all have passed motions opposing repeal, with the Scottish Government making clear it won’t negotiate on this issue. 

Without this consent, the Government’s only feasible option for delivering the weaker model of rights protection it desires would be to repeal the Act in England and create an 'English Bill of Rights'. Surely English MPs and their constituents wouldn’t stand for this – why should someone have lesser human rights protection in Carlisle than in Cardiff? If the ‘One Nation’ Conservatism to which the Prime Minister lays claim means anything, he must rethink this policy.

In Westminster

Many believe that if Britain votes to stay in the EU on 23rd June, 2016, the PM will sacrifice the HRA to satisfy the frustrations of his Eurosceptic colleagues. But on this again he would be wise to reflect. The EU is nothing to do with the Council of Europe and the ECHR. One of the rallying cries of the various Leave campaigns has been suspicion of unaccountable Government and the perceived democratic deficit it creates. The HRA is one of the few instruments that holds government to account and levels the playing field between the State and the individual. 

You don’t need to look far to see that Eurosceptics can and do support the HRA. The famously Eurosceptic conservative commentator, Peter Oborne, co-wrote The Conservative case for the HRA for Liberty in 2009. Fellow Outer Boris Johnson MP has commented that it was “very hard to see how individual MPs would want to give their constituents less protection than they currently enjoy under the HRA”. Trenchant Eurosceptic David Davis MP has written that “the proposed British Bill of Rights would do nothing to improve the liberty or security of British citizens; indeed, it may do much to weaken them”. 

And Conservatives that do oppose the Strasbourg Court would be unwise to support scrapping the HRA. A weakened British Bill of Rights would result in increased supervision of the UK by the Strasbourg Court, likely leading to many more judgments against the UK Government.

It is widely believed that repeal would not  pass a vote in the Commons, let alone in the House of Lords. This was certainly the feedback received by Conservative whips immediately following the 2015 election and the reason Government abruptly stopped briefing that the HRA would be repealed in the first 100 days. 

Britain’s reputation

Beyond our borders, scrapping the Act would send a regressive and dangerous message. Britain played a huge role in the birth and development of the universal human rights movement, which despite some glaring setbacks has over the past 60 years transformed lives across the planet. 

Surely our best answer to the nihilistic murder-fuelled ideology of Daesh and other despotic regimes is to promote these values all the harder. When you step back, isn’t it faintly absurd that the leaders of a country which gave the world Magna Carta, defeated the Nazis and drafted the European Convention on Human Rights may choose to repeal it and inadvertently set in train the dismantling of human rights systems worldwide?

The Government tries to claim that Britain’s actions do not have global consequences. But this is simply not true. Russian citizens have pleaded with the UK Government to change policy. In December of last year, the Russian Duma passed a law to permit its judges to ignore the ECHR. Surely, that our Government is inspiring Putin’s assault on the Rule of Law is enough to stop this policy in its tracks. 

Conclusion

Bills of Rights by their nature are intended to safeguard universal rights in a permanent fashion, outlasting individual administrations. They are meant to represent a set of values that all democrats can unite around and agree upon. As Toby Young has argued, if a Conservative Government re-drafts it, what is to stop future governments doing the same? 

There is no historical precedent in the democratic world for one political party drawing up a Bill of Rights and introducing it, to widespread political opposition, on the ashes of another. 
If Cameron has his mind on his legacy, he would do well to remember that history is kinder to PMs who prioritise the national interest over party politics. Attempting the repeal of a world-leading and staggeringly effective Human Rights Act that is supported across the world would show an arrogant disregard for his forebears and his Office.

Bella Sankey is the Director of Policy at Liberty

 

Why conservatives should defend human rights: The case of racial equality

Considering the experience of black and minority ethnic people in the UK, conservatives have at least two reasons to support human rights. First, human rights should amend if not replace conservative support for a narrow vision of basic freedoms. Racial discrimination has been historically defended on grounds of individual liberty, an argument that that was explicitly affirmed by the Conservative Party until at least the 1970s. Second, human right principles are a philosophically and pragmatically better response than a prominent conservative alternative to what John Rawls calls ‘reasonable pluralism’.

Conservatives since Burke tend to be sceptical of the idea that human rights might be grounded in universal claims about human nature, claims that appear to rest on curious metaphysical claims or ‘nonsense upon stilts’.[1]

At the same time conservatives are deeply committed to the rule of law, and in most cases support the actual content of human rights, even where there is scepticism about their grounding in abstract philosophical claims. Instead, conservatives point to custom or tradition, and suggest that in England (and Britain) a long tradition of rights can be traced back to Magna Carta and further elaborated through incremental parliamentary and social change, notably including the ‘Glorious Revolution’.

There is reason to doubt the accuracy of this standard Whiggish account – an account shared by many liberals and conservatives alike. Instead, I will suggest, conservatives should much more explicitly defend human rights based on the experience of the treatment of ethnic minorities in Britain. 

The need for race relation legislation 

Conservatives should be wary of interpreting common law as inevitably protecting people’s civil liberties and viewing human rights as a corrupting influence on this superior tradition. Under common law English men had the freedom to discriminate on grounds of race, a freedom that was unfortunately exercised over the course of history until the 1960s. As related by Hon. Justice Rabinder Singh, The West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine had in 1944 challenged the Imperial Hotel for refusing to serve him, but the case carried no further weight or protection under common law. At a reception marking the 50th anniversary of the first race relations act in December, Paul Stephenson, the leader of the Bristol bus boycott, related how he was kicked out of a pub for daring to order a half pint of beer, and how numerous police arrived to escort him to prison and then charged him in court with refusing to comply with the publican’s racist demand that he leave.

Cases like these explain why Parliament passed various race relations acts in 1965, 1968 and then 1976. The legislation needed updating in such quick succession because the first act was so weak (in part because of vocal Conservative opposition to it), failing to protect black and minority ethnic people even from the infamous ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs, or from discrimination in the labour market, where it remained legal not to employ someone because of the colour of their skin until the 1968 Act.

At that December reception Conservative MPs including Maria Miller and Kwasi Kwarteng expressed their disappointment but also bafflement at their predecessors’ rejection of race relations legislation. In one way today’s Conservative MPs are right to think that many of their predecessors (and some Labour MPs of the day) were more motivated by explicit racism, but there’s two further lessons for contemporary conservatives.

First, that high-minded or general reference to the ‘rule of law’ or even ‘basic liberties’ have historically proven insufficient to protect the rights and freedoms of disadvantaged and less powerful groups. It’s worth reminding ourselves that rights are always claimed by the less powerful against overweening authority – whether barons on the fields of Runnymede, sans-culottes against the ancien regime, ethnic minorities against racist landlords, or indeed those who today appear vulnerable to mistreatment or even torture by another state, typically (though not always) minorities.

Individual liberty and discrimination

The second lesson for conservatives is that there is a serious danger in appealing only to custom or, indeed, historic Englishness to defend minimalist civil liberties, and not to support human rights. In arguing against the 1968 Act, Enoch Powell’s argument that the black man would have the ‘whip hand’ over the white man was grounded in a view that white English men had the ancient liberty or freedom to discriminate. Powell’s argument was that liberties were for English men only, and not universal.

But however noxious Powell’s particular phrasing, his view that race relations legislation was contrary to English liberty was a key plank in the Conservative Party’s opposition to the 1968 Act. In his intervention in the Commons on 23 April 1968, Reginald Maudling explained the Opposition’s view: “we believe that it definitely encroaches on individual freedom and individual liberty”.[2]

The point of going over this history is not to condemn the Conservative party of the 1960s, or to gloss over reasonable concerns about the efficacy of the 1968 Act. Rather, these arguments are simply a recent example of the argument that liberty entails or requires the ability to discriminate. This was in fact, the more historically common interpretation of English (later British) civil liberties, and not only among conservatives, stretching back at least as far as parliamentary debate and popular pamphlets in the late 17th century that defended the expansion of the enslavement of African people.[3] At the same time as the Glorious Revolution Parliament followed democratic opinion in arguing that the Royal Africa Company’s monopoly on the slave trade was an infringement on English men’s liberties, in this case the freedom to trade in enslaved Africans.

Conservatives after Powell have of course rejected his claim that liberties are somehow unique to or prior for white English men, and it was Harold Macmillan whose ‘winds of change’ speech heralded the freedom of British colonies in Africa. At the same time, however, many conservatives hold to a version of the Whiggish view of the natural or inevitable development of rights first set into train at Runnymede 800 years ago, and have simply placed the various race relations acts within this wider story.

Universal rights 

Instead of seeing race relations acts as an organic and subtle change, we should probably agree with Maudling and view this legislation as a genuine break from a prior tradition. English men previously had the liberty to discriminate against others as a fundamental principle, with Magna Carta and later legislation clearly rejecting the idea that rights and liberties were universal or could be exercised by all. The idea of universal rights, is of course, a core plank of human rights.

By contrast, conservatives from Herder to Burke to Powell might be called ‘multiculturalists’: they believed that rights and customs were not universal, but rather attached to particular peoples and cultures with particular institutions and ways of doing things. An important strand of conservative thinking is resistant not only to the thought that human rights can be universally grounded, but also doubtful that non-English (or non-German or non-American or whatever) people will ever generally affirm English values and customs, including respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, unless they fully assimilate culturally and dispositionally. Powell was perhaps the ideal-type: he supported civil liberties because he was an Englishman, not the other way round. This is quite far from Kantian-influenced arguments about the role of reason in recognising the universal claims of all humans, and ably defended more recently by James Griffin

And it’s not just philosophers who agree about the universality of human rights. The United Nations now has a range of human rights treaties, including the first 1965 Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the vast majority of nation-states have signed up to these. Significantly, British conservative lawyers (including David Maxwell Fyfe) were the authors of much of this international legal framework, and remain some of its strongest defenders.

English (or British) Conservatives should therefore reject the idea that rights uniquely originated in the fertile soil at Runnymede, both because this tradition has proven inadequate for protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and because those rights are now accepted globally.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the conservative affirmation of liberty of opinion is understood to result in a diversity of views about what matters most, or what John Rawls has called ‘reasonable pluralism’.[4] Reasonable pluralism is a hallmark of an open society; it obtains when reasonable and rational people come to different conclusions or judgments about some of the most significant matter in our lives. Conservatives and liberals, atheists and Catholics may all have reasonable views about such matters, but cannot reasonably expect those with opposing views to simply conform to their position – at least not in an open society.

By way of a conclusion it is perhaps worth clarifying an important difference between the modern ‘multiculturalist’ tradition and the older conservative one. One of the things conservative critics of multiculturalism miss is that most of its defenders in fact hold quite strongly to a conception of universal human rights. While Runnymede and others have argued that we should recognise the historic and ongoing contribution of different cultures to British society, we have explicitly argued, most notably in the 2000 multi-ethnic Britain report[5] that human rights set a limit on how permissive the state can be with respect to cultural difference. In other words, we have argued that practices cannot be accommodated where they violate universal principles of human rights.[6]

The alternative is rather to view non-English or non-Christian cultures as being less committed to rights which instead originate in and can only be contingently grounded by dispositional deference to tradition. Conservatives are right to be sceptical of high-minded metaphysical arguments, but they should be equally sceptical of a fable in which civil liberties have naturally and uncontroversially evolved since 1215 (a fable described by the historian and Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption as ‘high-minded tosh’[7]). Especially in a context where ethnic minorities were denied their basic rights in recent memory, and where ethnic minorities will grow to one-third of the population by mid-century, conservatives should instead affirm the value of universal human rights as the best way to protect civil liberties and ultimately to ensure the long-term stability of British society and democracy.

Omar Khan is the director of the Runnymede Trust

[1] The phrase is Jeremy Bentham’s. See Waldron, J. (2009) Nonsense Upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man. London: Routledge.

[2] HC Deb 23 April 1968 vol 763 cc53-198; Maudling at column 154 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1968/apr/23/race-relations-bill

[3] Pettigrew, W. (2015) ‘Civil Liberties and the Genesis of Racial Inequality: Freeing the Trade in Enslaved Africans’ in O. Khan (ed.) How Far Have We Come? Lessons from the 1965 Race Relations Act. London: Runnymede. http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/Race%20Relations%20Act%20Perspectives%20report.pdf

[4] Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[5] Often called the ‘Parekh report’ after its Chair, Lord Bhikhu Parekh. Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain (2000) The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain: The Parekh Report. Profile Books.

[6] As summarised in 2000, the Commission explained: ‘Negotiations over contested issues – for example, the content of the national curriculum, sensitivity to cultural diversity in the health service, the wearing of religious clothing at work, equality for women in the home – cannot take place in an ethical vacuum. They require ground rules that provide a minimum guarantee of protection for individuals and a framework for handling conflicts of interest. The argument in this chapter is that such ground rules are provided in part by international human rights standards’ http://www.runnymedetrust.org/projects/meb/reportPartOne.html#building

[7] Sumption, L. (2015) ‘Magna Carta then and now’. Address to the Friends of the British Library, 9 Marchhttps://www.supremecourt.uk/docs/speech-150309.pdf

The disability employment gap: trends and barriers

Getting more disabled people into employment is one of the central aims of this Government. This piece reviews the trends in the employment rates of disabled people and the barriers, which they face when attempting to find work.

Trends

There is a significant employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people. In 2015, 48% of disabled people were in employment. This compares to a 79% employment rate for the rest of the population.

Yet, this gap between disabled people and the rest of the population has decreased by around 12 percentage points since 2000. Though it seems progress has been made, it is worth highlighting that the gap between disabled people and the rest of the population’s employment rate has remained largely static since 2006.

The current Government has a stated ambition to halve the gap in employment between disabled and non-disabled people. To do this, the Government have to understand and mitigate the barriers to employment that disabled people face.

Barriers

There are a wide variety of barriers to employment for disabled people. These barriers will vary significantly for each individual. However, there are two broad types of barriers that emerge: physical and attitudinal.

Physical barriers

Physical barriers denote when an individual’s disability prevents them from applying for or undertaking a particular job. This could be because:

Attitudinal barriers

Attitudinal barriers relate to the attitudes of prospective or current employers, or the attitudes of disabled people themselves.

On prospective or current employers:

  • Employers may believe that disabled employees are not as productive as other employees. This may be because employers, wrongly, believe that disabled employees are more likely to have days-off or are more likely to not stay in the job;
  • Employers may also believe that the associated costs of hiring a disabled person, such as the adjustments required, are too high;
  • Employers may be unaware of the assistive technology that is available.

On disabled people themselves:

  • Lack the confidence when applying for jobs because they may have been rejected many times before
  • Lack confidence in their own abilities to meet the requirements of a job or lack the skills by which to ‘sell themselves’ on paper or at interviews
  • Fear that employers will not offer them the required support, or might discriminate against them

If the Government is to meet its ambition of halving the gap in employment between disabled and non-disabled people, then it must do more to reduce these two broad types of barriers.

James Dobson is a Researcher for Bright Blue.

Image: Anjan Chatterjee

 

Protecting human rights in the UK

There will rarely be a time at which the law could not more perfectly protect or enforce the rights and responsibilities of those who are obliged to follow it. The framers of the law are never flawless, nor do they do have complete knowledge. In political systems they have agendas, and the practices within the jurisdiction change. Despite these obvious statements, open-mindedness about upgrading the legislation that protects human rights is in short supply.

Public perception

Reform to the Human Rights Act has been continually delayed. In December, the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, announced that the plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights had been delayed for a second time. The consultation on the proposed changes is now expected later this year.

This is despite the fact that human rights reform would cost little, could be implemented almost immediately and should lead to a fairer, cheaper legal system. It has been a long time in the works, and has faced opposition ever since David Cameron made plain his concern over the Human Rights Act in 2007 by suggesting that Britain should "abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, which sets out rights and responsibilities. The fact that the murderer of Philip Lawrence cannot be deported flies in the face of common sense. It is a glaring example of what is going wrong in our country. What about the rights of Mrs Lawrence? The problem for this Government is that the Human Rights Act is their legislation and they appear to be blind to its failings."

There is a long tradition of newspapers, media outlets and politicians damning the results of the Human Rights Act. The cumulative effect of these attacks has been to diminish the perception of the Act in the minds of the public and to raise alarm bells within the Human Rights industry at the Government’s appetite for reform. As Ken Clarke has warned, "It is the duty of politicians to stand up to the tabloids, to turn around and argue, not let them whip up feelings that are inaccurate.” This matters to more than just the public mood. Those looking to reform Human Rights law should begin by recognising the achievements of the Human Rights Act in protecting and advancing the rights of the least fortunate, and sometimes most unpopular.

An ongoing process of review and reform

Today, the Human Rights Act is the best legislation we have for ensuring the rights of individuals. Opponents to a British Bill of Rights have some grounds to be suspicious of change, given the sustained attacks that the Human Rights Act has received. Any good instrument which protects the most vulnerable will produce results which are unpopular. There is no point pretending that a British Bill of Rights will be a solution fit for all time, or one which will not protect those we love and loathe in equal measure. A British Bill of rights will, if it is well designed, lead to some results which are deeply unpopular.

To engage with the Human Rights industry, we must be honest in acknowledging the rights protected by the original Human Right Act, and not seek to pretend that a British Bill of Rights will be any more permanent a solution. Rather than tie ourselves to a document which claims to be perfect, the ambition of those drafting the British Bill of Rights should simply be to produce a better iteration in an ongoing process of review and reform. The British Bill of Rights should be the Human Rights Act 2.0, and as such its designers must appreciate, respect, and celebrate the features of the original where they work well. Only by doing that will we hold a serious debate in which a spirit of cautious optimism can replace entrenched concern from many human rights practitioners.

Rupert Myers is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue and political correspondent for British GQ

Conservatism and human rights

Today, we’re launching this new website for our project on Conservatism and human rightsOver the next year, this website will be the home of ideas from a centre-right perspective on how human rights can be strengthened both in the UK and abroad.

We’ve established a commission of high-profile opinion formers and decision makers to gather evidence and brainstorm policy, which will ultimately lead to the publication of a final report with recommendations. We’ll invite the learned and the passionate to contribute essays. And our research team will summarise the latest trends and evidence on human rights through regular blogs. Next month, we’ll be publishing an essay collection and the former Attorney General, the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP, will be delivering a keynote speech.

Our project focuses on three key areas: ensuring the new British Bill of Rights strengthens human rights and is compatible with being a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); advancing human rights in British foreign policy; and tackling discrimination - including gender, sexual, religious, disability and racial discrimination.

This is difficult territory, of course.  There is a growing scepticism towards human rights, especially among parliamentarians and activists within the Conservative Party. The Party is now officially committed to replacing the Human Rights Act (HRA). This is despite conservatives such as Jesse Norman MP and Peter Oborne arguing that it is an “exquisitely conservative document”. Indeed, the HRA is is silent on so-called rights to economic status, possession or material comfort – rather, it is about limiting state power against individuals. It incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law, a document that derives from English common law.

But note some positives: polling of Conservative voters, for example, finds that a majority support all ten of the key rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In general, Conservative scepticism towards human rights focuses on their application, not on the principles behind them. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, protecting individual liberty was seen as an important Conservative principle. As Margaret Thatcher put it, “human rights did not begin with the French Revolution...England had 1688, our quiet revolution”. Furthermore, the Prime Minister - in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2015 - outlined his agenda for social reform over this parliament, highlighting in particular the need to tackle racial and gender discrimination in the UK.

The current majority Conservative government is pursuing fundamental reforms to social and foreign policy. So it is a critical time, especially with the upcoming publication of the draft British Bill of Rights, to ensure that human rights are protected and enhanced. But it is essential that any policy suggestions are rooted in the language and thinking of the centre-right to be compelling and impactful. That will be Bright Blue’s focus over the next year.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue