Sadiq Khan speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Sadiq Khan tries to shoot the Tory fox on human rights reform

Shadow justice secretary pre-empts expected Tory move by promising new guidance on the Human Rights Act. 

After cases such as the Abu Qatada affair and votes for prisoners, the Tories have made much of their commitment to reform human rights law. Theresa May has pledged that the next Conservative manifesto will include a commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act (something the Lib Dems have so far prevented them from doing) and has hinted that a Tory government could withdraw from the European Convention altogether. 

But after an inner-cabinet battle, sources suggest that the final reform package is likely to be more modest. William Hague, Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke are among those who have warned that it would be untenable for Britain to become the first country to leave the convention (which it helped to invent) and to join Belarus as the only European state not under the Strasbourg court's jurisdiction. Michael Heseltine put it well when I interviewed him earlier this year

"I get as irritated as everybody does about the European Court of Human Rights, but of course that’s got nothing to do with the European Union. It’s a very difficult one, the European Court of Human Rights, every so often they come up with some absolutely gut wrenching decision and, in the end, you’re asked as a minister, and I was asked, 'well shall we get out?'

"And then of course I remember why we’re in in the first place, and we’re in in the first place because in the 40s, long before the European Union come into existence in any form, we signed up to sending a signal to the countries, the peoples behind the Iron Curtain, that to the west was a rule of law and certain enshrined rights for people. So 'yes minister , the question is, we do understand how furious you are with this judgement, do you want to be the first country to abrogate the treaty of human rights and send a signal, not just to the people of Europe, but to the rest of the world, whom you’re trying to improve, increase, encourage to improve their democratic and human rights records, do you want to be the first country to have torn up the treaty that made this all possible and led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain?' And as a minister you tend to go a bit quiet at the stage."

More likely, I'm told, is a British Bill of Rights, including a rewritten version of Section 2 of the Human Rights Act. This stipulates that UK courts must "take into account" Strasbourg's decisions when making judgements, but is often thought to be misinterpreted. It is notable, then, that Sadiq Khan, Labour's shadow justice secretary and a former human rights lawyer, has used a piece in today's Telegraph to outline his plan to reform precisely this part of the law. 

He writes: "The wording, contained in Section 2 of the Human Rights Act, very clearly states that our courts only have to take into account Strasbourg judgments, not be bound by them. This was extensively debated at the time in Parliament, and as the records clearly show, the Tories tried to change Labour’s wording, which would have actually resulted in our judges being bound by Strasbourg’s rulings. Thankfully, Labour defeated the Tories’ crazy plans.

"But 16 years on, I think we have to acknowledge that, at times, our courts haven’t always interpreted section 2 in the way we’d intended. Too often, rather than “taking into account” Strasbourg rulings and by implication, finding their own way, our courts have acted as if these rulings were binding on their decisions. As a result, the sovereignty of our courts and the will of Parliament have both been called into question. This needs sorting out.

"And it’s not just me saying that. Senior judges and former Law Lords have also raised concerns. Former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine both believe there’s a problem with how our courts have interpreted Section 2 of the Human Rights Act."

He adds that Labour will use the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta to make it clear to judges that "they’re free to disagree with Strasbourg, that it’s sometimes healthy to do so, and that they should feel confident in their judgments based on Britain’s expertise and strong human rights standing." Khan believes that this could be achieved through guidance alone, but does not rule out legislation. 

In the piece, he also confirms Labour's existing support for the Human Rights Act and the European Convention. While the Tories will undoubtedly seek to portray their support for a British Bill of Rights as a radical alternative to Khan's proposals, the reality is that there may end up being little difference between them. 

A Labour spokesperson told me: "Not only is this the right policy but it shows Labour has a positive reform agenda on human rights issues. We remain passionately committed to the Human Rights Act and to the European Convention, and these reforms will strengthen human rights here and abroad. On the other hand, the Tories are obsessed with doing down anything to do with human rights. They never tire of trying to outdo Ukip. Labour's measured move will pre-empt any attempt from the Tories to claim to be fixing a problem which we have already sorted. But don't be surprised if they still try, in an attempt to portray it as some grand negative attack on judges, courts, human rights and Strasbourg."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here