Human rights law already takes account of responsibilities

Cait Reilly, whose legal challenge to being made to work for benefits was used as an example of the fact judges weren’t taking account of people’s responsibilities – until the Supreme Court ruled her human rights had not been breached.

Legal journalist and blogger, David Allen Green, appears to have got hold of a press release detailing Tory plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. It’s not an encouraging read as it becomes clear that despite the rhetoric the purpose is to curtail human rights. I was particularly disappointed to see the following:

The plan provides a proper balance between the rights of citizens and their responsibilities in our society, and in particular to limit the ability of those who threaten British citizens or society to use human rights laws to protect their interests at the expense of the victims or potential victims.

The reason that this is so depressing is that the Conservatives had appeared to get that it was a pernicious idea to encode ‘responsibilities’ into human rights law. The Commission on a British Bill of Rights established as a result of the coalition agreement failed to reach consensus on very much at all – including whether their should even be a British Bill of Rights – but there was agreement amongst its members (including the Conservative ones) that:


….it is in the nature of  human rights that they exist for all human beings equally without reference to whether they are ‘deserving’ or not and that they cannot be made directly contingent on the behaviour of the individuals concerned. We thus do not believe, if there were to be a UK Bill of Rights, that the rights it contained should be made conditional upon the exercise of responsibilities. We do believe, however, that the formulation to be found in a number of the existing Articles in the European Convention on Human Rights whereby the rights in question are subject to such exceptions as are necessary in a democratic society for, amongst other things, the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, is one which should be emphasised in any UK Bill of Rights. We also believe, for reasons which are set out in the body of our report, that a UK Bill of Rights, if there were to be such a Bill, should contain a jurisdiction for a court to award damages but that this course should be discretionary and that in reaching such decisions the courts should be directed to take into account the conduct of the applicant.

It went on to explain that:

Many respondents [to the Commission’s consultation] also argued that responsibilities were in practice already present within the fabric of our present human rights legislation, not least by reference to many of the balancing tests in the European Convention itself. They noted that there were very few absolute rights under the Convention and that both the Convention and the Human Rights Act already focused, correctly in their view, on the rights of others and the wider public interest. For example, the human rights charity, René Cassin, said in response to our consultations that Convention rights are constantly weighed “against the general good of society, such as public health or national security. This is responsibilities by another name.” Others made the point that responsibilities were already embedded in our legal system by virtue of individuals who break these laws being subject to punishment through the normal criminal justice system.

I suppose that one could conclude from this that recognising responsibilities would simply be redundant and therefore harmless. If only that were true.

Reading the list of cases the Conservatives claim they will stop human rights being applied in makes it clear something more sinister is going on. I fear that talk of ‘responsibility’ in this context is dog whistle politics: a way to right-wing voters that ‘of course people like you deserve human rights but not those travellers, terror suspects or immigrants.


One thought on “Human rights law already takes account of responsibilities

  1. Pingback: There is no such thing as a trivial breach of human rights | Matter Of Facts

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