Our human rights: post-Brexit are they safe?

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. Human rights are relevant to us all, and protect each of us in many areas of our daily life, including our right to have and express our own opinions, our right to an education and our right to a private and family life. Modern Human Rights legislation comes from the Universal Declatation of Human Rights.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1945, in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War, the United Nations was founded. The protection of human rights was an international priority. More than 50 member states contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the first attempt to set out at a global level the fundamental rights and freedoms shared by all human beings. Adopted in 1948, the Declaration consists of 30 articles affirming an individual’s rights which, although not legally binding have been the basis for subsequent international treaties and laws.

European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is an international convention to protect human rights and political freedoms in Europe which drew inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted in 1950 by the newly formed Council of Europe, the convention came into force on 3rd September 1953. All Council of Europe member states, including the UK, are party to the Convention.

The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 to protect human rights and the rule of law, and to promote democracy. It is completely separate from the European Union, with 47 members compared to the EU’s 27. The UK became a Council member 24 years before it joined the EU and on leaving the EU it will remain a Council member. The European Court of Human Rights applies and protects the rights and guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Convention secures:

the right to life (Article 2)
freedom from torture (Article 3)
freedom from slavery (Article 4)
the right to liberty (Article 5)
the right to a fair trial (Article 6)
the right not to be punished for something that wasn’t against the law at the time (Article 7)
the right to respect for family and private life (Article 8)
freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9)
freedom of expression (Article 10)
freedom of assembly (Article 11)
the right to marry and start a family (Article 12)
the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights (Article 14)
the right to protection of property (Protocol 1, Article 1)
the right to education (Protocol 1, Article 2)
the right to participate in free elections (Protocol 1, Article 3)
the abolition of the death penalty (Protocol 13)

Charter of Fundamental Rights

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union brings together the fundamental rights of everyone living in the European Union. It was introduced to bring consistency and clarity to the rights established at different times and in different ways in individual EU Member States.

The Charter sets out the full range of civil, political, economic and social rights based on:

the fundamental rights and freedoms recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights
• the constitutional traditions of the EU Member States, for example, longstanding protections of rights which exist in the common law and constitutional law of the UK and other EU Member States
• the Council of Europe's Social Charter
• the Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, and
• other international conventions to which the EU or its Member States are parties.

The Charter became legally binding on EU Member States when the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force in December 2009. The Charter is sometimes confused with the European Convention on Human Rights, but although containing overlapping human rights provisions, the two operate within separate legal frameworks, the former drafted by the EU and interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union, the latter drafted by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Social Charter

The European Social Charter is a Council of Europe treaty that guarantees fundamental social and economic rights as opposed to Human Rights. It guarantees a broad range of everyday human rights related to employment, housing, health, education, social protection and welfare, with emphasis on the protection of vulnerable persons such as elderly people, children, people with disabilities and migrants. “No other legal instrument at pan-European level can provide such an extensive and complete protection of social rights as that provided by the Charter, which also serves as a point of reference in European Union law; most of the social rights in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights are based on the relevant articles of the Charter.”

Concerns at loss of rights

The Human Rights Act 1998 made the rights set out by the European Convention on Human Rights part of UK domestic law. So cases can be heard in UK courts. However, the UK parliament voted against including the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU Withdrawal Act causing concern in human rights circles that Brexit, despite assurances to the contrary, could lead to a reduction in human rights.

The six main concerns arising from the loss of the Charter of Fundamental Rights are:

  • Less power to protect rights
  • Less flexibility to create new rights and reflect change
  • A lower level of protection for fundamental rights
  • Creating gaps in basic human rights
  • Losing the Charter principles
  • Legal uncertainty and confusion

It was said prior to Brexit that in practice Parliament would nearly always make sure new laws were compatible with the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (although ultimately Parliament is sovereign and can pass laws which are incompatible). But what happens now with the UK government insisting it no longer wishes to comply with EU laws, rules or standards, and with the Home Secretary a believer in capital punishment, and an MP openly stating the European Working Time Directive, which regulates hours worked, needs to be reconsidered? The MP feels people should be working for long hours in care homes in order to gain experience for nursing. “I genuinely think we need to have a serious look at the Working Time Directive”, says Tory MP, Scott Mann on BBC Politics South West. (12:23 PM · Mar 3, 2020)

Come 1st January 2021 how safe will our rights be in the UK? Out of the EU, will our ultra right wing Tory government believe it can tear up such laws to suit itself and its backers to allow the accumulation of larger profits? Human rights in the UK are taken for granted. Maybe it’s time we paid them, and their potential loss, more attention.

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