NAME CALLING, PROPAGANDA AND THE DEBATE OVER HUMAN RIGHTS LAW
1 July 2015
In early June, Professor Francois Crepeau, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, stated that the Government’s proposals to reduce human rights protection for groups who did not fulfil “civic responsibilities” was reminiscent of the actions of the Nazi government in Germany in the 1930s. To call or compare someone to a “Nazi”, is a gross insult. Responding to Professor Crepeau, Justice Minister Dominic Raab labelled him “ludicrous”, “ignorant”, and “offensive” and MP Andrew Percy said he was “ignorant and disgusting”. Historian David Starkey, who later that same month compared the members and supporters of the Scottish National Party to Nazis escaped a little more lightly. Whilst the SNP called for him to apologise he was granted numerous opportunities, including an interview on Sky News, to explain his assessment. It is not likely he will be visiting Scotland any time soon.
Name calling of this calibre does not advance the human rights debate at all. It would be more accurate to point out that a party, or government, has employed tactics which have been utilised by political parties, and governments, throughout history as a way of gaining, building, or holding onto power and imposing a particular ideology. But that would not send social media wild, or capture the imagination of the tabloid editor, so the short cut “you must be Nazis” is utilised. But whilst the label gets attention, the activity which prompted it does not. Professor Crepeau drew attention to a questionable aspect of the government’s plans for human rights law reform, but rather than further deliberation, debate on the morality of this proposal was shut down with vehement denials that the ideology was inspired by that of the Nazis.
Shutting down the debate
Shutting down the debate on human rights law reform is exactly what the Government would like to achieve. Whilst almost all liberal democracies comparable to the UK would treat reforming the protection of the human rights of British people through national and international law as the important constitutional question it deserves to be, here it has been turned into a political question and against a background of difficult economic times and austerity, particular tactics have been employed to ensure that the debate remains as one sided as possible. First, the villains have been identified. In the Conservative Party’s October 2014 proposals, Protecting Human Rights in the UK, which has now been confirmed as government policy, the villains are prisoners, foreign nationals who have committed crimes in the UK and those whom the British armed forces encounter abroad, whether civilian or military. If the wider narrative is included, added to the list of villains would also be asylum seekers and immigrants residing unlawfully in the UK. So the story goes, as the European Court of Human Rights provides assistance to these villains, it is also a villain and an enemy of the British people.
Second, a strong current of nationalism runs throughout the debate. With no explanation, national values are promoted as superior to international values, British law superior to international law. In the October proposals it is stated, without evidence, that “the UK’s protection of human rights has always been grounded in real circumstance, rather than simply a matter of abstract principle.” It has been repeatedly confirmed that should the Council of Europe not agree to the new British approach to the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK will leave the system. No national government intent upon breaching human rights likes to be told by a supranational body that it is doing so.
Third, limited respect for the rule of law forms a backdrop to the debate. Under the former government, disdain for the rule of national law started with drastic reductions in access to justice. In the October proposals, UK courts are criticised for not striking the appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities and interpreting laws to fit human rights principles with little respect for the sovereignty of Parliament. Contrary to a central tenet of the rule of law, equality before the law, as already noted it is proposed that the rights of those who do not fulfil “civic responsibilities” will be limited. Respect for the rule of international law is practically non-existent.
Finally, information of a biased or misleading nature is used to promote the view that there is something wrong with human rights law, and something very wrong with the European Court of Human Rights. David Cameron takes every opportunity to deliver a negative message about human rights, including at the recent Magna Carta celebrations at Runnymede, and the October proposals are replete with errors, lies and omissions. Whilst the Government is quite adept at running this propaganda campaign itself, it is ably assisted by most of the press who have no inhibitions about sneering at judges and lawyers. The narrative about the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act is now so embedded that most non-specialists, regardless of their politics, believe that human rights law only concerns Abu Qatada and prisoner voting or are so tired of this message that they have switched off altogether. A friend recently informed me that “human rights law is just for the bad guys.”
Is it possible to have a proper and reasoned debate about the reform of human rights law in such conditions? How are advocates for the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights meant to get their message across when the narrative, characterised by nationalism and disrespect for the rule of law, is already filled with tales of villains and threats to British values? Has the Government already won the propaganda war? Much has been done already, if you want to know more about human rights law and what it has done for the British people, just google RightsInfo. But even more importantly, when you read about human rights law, look for the villains, the nationalism, the lack of respect for law and legal institutions and the bias and ask yourself if you are being deliberately misled. We can only have a proper debate about the future of human rights protection if the truth is told, by both sides. The Queen has got the ball rolling with her recent speech in Berlin reminding us that “we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the post-war world”. Get behind that message, work a little harder and think a little harder than the Government would like you to do.