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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.