The European Court of Human Rights. Photo: Getty
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It is crucial that Britain takes the lead in defending human rights

Some Conservatives are desperate to see Britain withdraw from our international human rights obligations. They are wrong, argues the Justice Minister Simon Hughes.

It is crucial that Britain takes the lead in defending human rights

In recent days Britain’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights has been in the spotlight.

Some Conservatives, perhaps fuelled more by their anti-European views than familiarity with the Convention, are desperate to see Britain withdraw and pull away from our international human rights obligations.

They are wrong. The Convention is part of the mark of a civilised society and these international standards for human rights benefit all of us.

 It doesn't take long to look around the world and see basic liberties and rights under threat in other countries.

It is crucial that Britain takes the lead in defending what should be an international consensus around the basic rights which we ensure all people are entitled to.

Among the fundamental rights and freedoms safeguarded by the convention are:

  •  The right to life
  •  Freedom from torture
  •  Freedom from slavery
  •  The right to liberty
  •  The right to a fair trial
  • The right to respect for private and family life

These and all the other Convention rights are all rights which I believe all rational minded people would agree should be protected. It is small minded and dangerous to sacrifice the principles and protections which the ECHR provides at the altar of ideological Europhobia.

This is not a foreign, or alien, Convention imposed on us but something drafted by British lawyers in the aftermath of the Second World War. Amidst the aftermath of the horrors of that conflict Britain and her allies set about building what has become a central pillar of democracies across Europe.

The Convention works to protect citizens in their everyday lives. In the UK almost all cases are settled in our own courts, as the Convention has been incorporated into domestic law.

Of the cases that are brought against the UK, the vast majority are ruled in the UK’s favour. But for countries with a worse record on civil liberties, such as Russia, the court plays a crucial role in holding them to account.

The judgments of the European Court of Human Rights have helped to improve British law. For example, the Court decided that national rules prohibiting gay men and women from serving in the military were contrary to the Article 8 right to private and family life. As a result the UK and other Member States changed their policies.

The Court has given judgments which have protected the right to a fair trial of those charged in criminal proceedings. It means that generally the disclosure of all material evidence to the accused is required.

The Conservatives have a problem with Europe. They don’t know where they stand. That is why we see them offering an arbitrary referendum on our membership of the EU and talk of withdrawing from the Convention in favour of some Bill of Rights as yet undefined. Many Conservative members want to pull up the draw bridge and turn our backs on our international commitments.  These attempts may be in the interests of the Tory party but are not in the interests of Britain.

Liberal Democrats are clear. We will not consider walking away from our commitments to human rights.

We will make sure that our membership of the European Convention continues, so we can from a position of strength confront those countries and regimes which do not live up to these international human rights standards.

As long as Liberal Democrats are in government there will be no withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights.

Simon Hughes is Lib Dem MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder