Is the UK government serious about protecting human rights?

by Nando Sigona

For those who have been following the UK government’s relentless undermining of the Human Rights Act (that incorporates the EHRC in the UK legal system) over the last months, its grand commitment to ‘the promotion and protection of human rights’ at the top of the UK’s agenda during its Chairmanship of the Commettee of Ministers of the Council of Europe  (November 2011 – May 2012) will definitively have a bitter sweet taste. It seems hard to reconcile the coexistence of such divergent positions within the same government. It springs to mind the so-called catgate when the Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clark, publicly contested the Home Secretary, Theresa May, for caricaturing yet again the Human Rights Act in her speech at the annual conference of the Conservative Party. As a refresher, in her speech, Theresa May said:

We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act. The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here. The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend. The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had pet a cat.

Mr Clark called Theresa May’s claim ‘laughable’ and ‘childlike’, causing havoc among Conservative colleagues and cheers among human rights advocates – incidentally no wonder the Daily Mail took it personally as it they has been running similar stories for years.

The row was solved within a couple of days. Were the ministers’ positions not so irreconcilable at the end of the day? A closer look at Kenneth Clark’s response may provide some clue. He said:

They [the cases Theresa May had referred to in her speech] are British cases and British judges she is complaining about. I cannot believe anybody has ever had deportation refused on the basis of owning a cat.

It seems that Clark’s main complain is for the Home Secretary’s disrespect for the British judicial system rather that for the Human Rights. He is keen to claim the Britishness of these cases that to him (as a Justice Secretary) is an unquestionable guarantee of fairness vis-à-vis what happens abroad instead.

If we take this a step further and return to the UK’s list of priorities for the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the details of the measures for which the UK will seek consensus to implement its main goal to promote and protect human rights give some insights on the matter: first, limit the involvement of the Court to ‘the most important cases’ making it subsidiary ‘where member states fulfil their obligations under the Convention; second, transfer the primary role for the implementation of ECHR to national courts.

It is apparent that we are seeing here a novel permutation of an argument very familiar to Cameron’s government, namely ‘we will get our sovereignty from international/European institutions back ’. But in order to succeed, the Justice Secretary cannot afford a wholesale attack on the European Human Rights Convention, on which the Council of Europe is based. This would certainly antagonises the members of the Council of Europe and reduces sharply the chance of success. The handling of the Dale Farm’s case has already raised some concerns internationally that the government had to patch up. It is therefore legitimate to wonder if Kenneth Clark’s stance in the catgate was merely tactical and ultimately he shares with Theresa May more than the catgate left people believe.

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