The terrorist attacks in London have once more brought our
commitment to fundamental rights into the sharpest focus. In
particular, it is often now suggested that these values may be
relics from safer happier times and a positive obstacle to the
Article three of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),
now part of our Human Rights Act 1998, prohibits the use of
torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Drafted in
the aftermath of the Holocaust, its authors knew all about terror,
conflict and insecurity when they decided to make torture one of
the very few non-negotiables.
The prime minister now argues that pragmatism justifies watering
down this most fundamental of rights. In the aftermath of the
London bombings he promised that “the rules of the game are
changing”. The rules, it appears, are the human rights standards
adopted across the globe after the second world war.
Many of us believe that deportation of suspects to places where
torture might be used is a policy unlikely to make us safer from
terrorism. But such a triumph of populism over principle may have
even further reaching consequences. In fact, as many legal
commentators have already pointed out, the government may not be
able to “amend” the act in the way they would like. Therefore, to
get their desired result, the whole act or even the ECHR might have
to be abandoned.
Both the act and the ECHR itself have empowered many of the most
vulnerable people in our society to improve their quality of life.
For example, the case of Z and others v United Kingdom has had
widespread implications for vulnerable adults. In that case the
European Court of Human Rights held the UK in breach of article
three, because of the failure of a local authority to take any
effective action when they had been aware of serious ill-treatment
of a vulnerable adult over a period of years. At a time when there
is widespread emotional, sexual, and physical abuse of vulnerable
adults, this has given those working to stamp out this abuse a law
to use against councils, where before there was none.
Earlier this year Liberty launched a human rights advice service
for people working in the voluntary sector to assist them with
understanding the implications of the act for their clients or
service users. We have since begun to see the true scope of ill
treatment suffered by vulnerable people. From older people in
nursing homes being abandoned on the toilet for hours, to providers
of accommodation for disabled people imposing a blanket ban on
visitors, the act, and specifically the rule against degrading
treatment, provides much needed protection for vulnerable people.
Unsurprisingly populist politicians and most parts of the media
don’t cite such cases when attacking human rights.
If the government decides to restrict these rights in relation to
one group of people, we must ask how long it is before others lose
this protection. If politicians are allowed to rely on the greater
good to justify torture and ill-treatment, how long before
over-worked and under-resourced staff can use the same
justification for leaving an elderly person stranded in degrading
The act is of course a living instrument that develops with modern
circumstances. Further, many rights such as privacy and free speech
allow justified and proportionate interference for the greater
good. But the prohibition on torture and degrading treatment must
remain unconditional. If expediency can be used to erode it, the
political precedent will be set, and the dismantling of the entire
human rights framework will not be far behind. It would be the
bitterest irony of all if the UK’s most vulnerable people, and in
particular, those who fought to achieve human rights, lost the
ability to rely on them in their time of need.
Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty
“The act provides much needed protection for
vulnerable people. Unsurprisingly populist politicians and most
parts of themedia don’t cite such cases when attacking human