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24 July 2014

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.

By 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.

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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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