Monday, 16 August 2010

UK versus USA and EU: Oceans apart on fundamental rights

After yesterday’s blog posts on a new pocket-sized version of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and basic information about the Council of Europe and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, it is time to turn to the odd man out among civilised nations: the United Kingdom.

In the Declaration of Independence (1776), by the Second Continental Congress, the thirteen united States of America turned the tables on King George III:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness ─ That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, ...

Principles of the English Bill of Rights (1689) and Enlightenment philosophy also flowed into the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), including the first ten amendments known as the United States Bill of Rights, which came into effect in 1791.

In the United Kingdom, absent the notion of citizenship and a codified constitution, subjects of the Crown enjoy certain rights based on a patchwork of domestic statutory provisions and common law rules.

The set of laws and principles under which the United Kingdom is governed form the uncodified constitution. According to the fundamental doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty, the UK Parliament can change any law including the constitutional rules by a simple Act of Parliament, so domestically the rights of a British subject hang by a thread, subject to the whims of each Parliament in Westminster.

English nationalists seem to worship a ragtag bag of domestic documents from Magna Carta onwards with fervour, as if these parchments and papers somehow conferred superior protection for Englishmen compared to the human rights enshrined in other EU countries or the United States. Have these fervent Crown subjects even read the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is a historically important document, but so is the Code of Hammurabi.

The Conservative election manifesto 2010 still saw superior human rights and fundamental freedoms as an encroachment [on Parliamentary sovereignty] and pledged to replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights (page 79).

Intellectually and politically an unqualified statement like that would have placed the United Kingdom on par with Belarus with regard to European human rights standards.

The latest general election led to a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, so the UK Coalition programme 2010 shows restraining influences on the government’s urge to gain the upper hand against judges and the people (page 11):

We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.

Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, rights under the ECHR will be given continued protection, and there is even talk of potentially extending the rights of British subjects.

It is still amazing: Where in the civilised world of today can you, as the Conservatives, emerge as the biggest party in free and fair elections on a promise to curtail human rights?

Without UK membership in the European Union (indirectly benefiting from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights despite opting out) and the Council of Europe, with the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) finally brought into force in 2000 by the UK Human Rights Act 1998, individuals in Britain would have few guarantees against excesses by government or parliament.

The media climate and the political atmosphere in the United Kingdom are still oceans apart from the fundamental rights traditions protecting citizens across the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel.

I wonder why.

Ralf Grahn

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