Human rights under threat

Human rights are under threat in the UK, warns the Northern Ireland Human Rights Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick.

While the immediate question is whether the British government will change the law in order to remove large numbers of asylum seekers to Rwanda, this is in the context of proposals for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. This would have significant, negative, implications for Northern Ireland, given that this is one of the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.

The future of human rights legislation is the subject of the latest Holywell Trust Conversations, our podcast series looking at contentious challenges facing Northern Ireland. This latest podcast contains an in-depth interview with Alyson Kilpatrick, along with contributions from the new director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Daniel Holder, and Queen’s University Professor of Human Rights, Colin Harvey.

Both Alyson and Daniel express real concern about the threats to human rights in all the UK. Colin shares those concerns, while suggesting that much of the rhetoric from government ministers is to create a political environment for exploitation in the next General Election, and may not be realised in the actual legal changes that will be approved by Parliament.

It is important to recognise that the context is about much more than deporting asylum seekers to Africa, including those who are fleeing from wars and oppression in places such as Afghanistan, Syria and the Horn of Africa.

Questions were raised about the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights – and being subject to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights – during the Brexit referendum debates. This is despite the ECHR being separate from the EU; pre-dating the creation of the EU and its predecessors; having a much larger membership; and it having been an initiative of British Conservative Second World War Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Three government Bills affect – diminish, argue human rights lawyers – human rights in the UK. The most profound of these is the Bill of Rights Bill, which was a pet project of former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab. Whether the Bill of Rights Bill will proceed given Raab’s resignation over bullying allegations is not yet clear. If it does, it will remove some protections included in the Human Rights Act.

In addition, the Illegal Migration Bill seeks to limit the European Court of Human Rights’ role in adjudicating over British actions to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda. And the Government’s Troubles Bill, often called the legacy bill, puts an end to prosecutions and investigations into Troubles deaths in Northern Ireland.

Removing human rights protections is of serious concern to lawyers, but is relevant to the daily lives of much of the population. Indeed, the failure of successive British governments to deliver the promised Northern Ireland Bill of Rights is blamed by the podcast interviewees for holding back our society in achieving greater progress towards social equality within NI.

Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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