I often remember the words of a late friend; a kind, wise north London professor who passed away two years ago. I’d been speaking to a group of his pals; engaged in lively debate about whether to afford fair trial protections to suspected terrorists. He stood and interjected. “My wife was in a concentration camp,” he said. “I was in a labour camp. I don’t need to think too deeply about why I believe in human rights.”
I’m recalling that moment because today marks 60 years since the European convention on human rights came into force. It’s a fact far too easily forgotten that the convention was the continent’s answer to the horrors of the Holocaust of which my friend spoke. Around a globe reeling from the second world war, it dawned that human rights concepts were of little use to the persecuted without protection. The convention duly enshrined our most precious values – freedom from torture, slavery and arbitrary imprisonment; of speech, association and belief. Respect for private and family life and equality under the law. Values that have cost millions their lives, and for which many still struggle. Values worth fighting for.
Yet in 21st century Britain the European convention has become a political punchbag, with sections of Westminster and the media resorting to myth and spin to attack and devalue it. Confronted with such a toxic debate, it’s instructive to remember that this treaty was a response to genocide at the heart of Europe; our pledge to ensure that such inhumanity was never repeated.
We might also appreciate that the convention remains a beacon – not only at home, but for those in newer democracies. It is our great contribution to the rule of law; as important as ever. Over the past six decades – together with its guardian, the court of human rights – it has proved an essential check on oppressive and arbitrary government throughout Europe. In Britain it’s given us our very own bill of rights – the Human Rights Act.
At Liberty we’ve used these powerful tools to deliver justice for victims of state abuse and neglect who would otherwise have had no hope of redress. A woman subjected to years of abuse and forced labour, ignored by police. A mother whose daughter was murdered after an astonishing series of authority blunders. A sister whose brother choked to death in custody while officers watched and joked nearby. The list goes on.
Why then are senior Tories preparing to head for the polls in 2015 advocating convention withdrawal? Perhaps it’s just the “European” label. Disturbingly, though, it’s more likely that its fiercest critics balk at protecting all human beings, rather than just citizens. Ironically, these detractors are often far more comfortable with military intervention abroad than legal protection at home. They would also do well to reflect on universal values – not dependent on sex, race, nationality or any other status – and the ultimate sovereignty of the human being.
That Britain has spent much of the last 60 years at the forefront of the movement for rights and freedoms makes current efforts to derail our framework all the more depressing. Winston Churchill recognised that great horrors could be redeemed only by the “enthronement of human rights”. And British lawyers – Conservative minds at that – helped draft the convention itself. Surely those who fought and defeated Hitler deserve a little better from modern-day ministers than transparent attacks on Churchill’s legacy to try to tempt voters back from Ukip?
With the mindsets that made possible the evils of the Holocaust unlikely to disappear, we can never lose sight of the potential consequences. When we talk of rights with responsibilities; of freedoms contingent upon citizenship; of “British bills of rights for British people”, we embark upon a dangerous road. It is the road to Guantánamo Bay; a road along which the Holocaust’s lessons, and Britain’s postwar vision, will be fatally lost.
Today we should celebrate the European convention, and wish it a very happy 60th birthday. But in the face of criticism as unprecedented as it is misguided, anyone who still believes in freedom must also resolve to resist political cynicism and protect the convention’s cherished values of individual human dignity and equal treatment for generations to come.
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