67 Years ago today, at the Pailais de Chaillot in Paris. - A document was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.
The document was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inspired by President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress. The declaration reaffirmed the fundamental Human Rights: the basic minimum of care for everyone granted, without prejudice, to all citizens; a gift, for being human. It gives everyone the right to a free and fair trial, protection from torture, and from slavery, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to life - amongst other things.
It was signed on the back of the second world war; a war that saw over 6 million men, women and children slaughtered by the Third Reich for the crime of being Jewish, or gay, or Romany or Communist or Slavic ... It was a war that saw over 70 million people die. Not just men with rifles, but women in factories, children in schools and pensioners in parks. It was the war where innocence died.
And when that war was over, the gunfire had stopped, and humanity stepped back to look at the ashes. What they saw was so horrendous, so… implausible, that humanity could do nothing but say ‘never again’. Against this background, it was the forming of the United Nations in 1945, and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, that symbolised humanity's collective will to say never again.
But that was a long time ago, and the original message seems somewhat lost.
The current Conservative government seems intent on destroying the rights originally set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whether it is the right to a free and fair trial - maimed skillfully by the Justice and Security (Secret Courts) Act 2014, or the right to privacy - weakened by the Investigatory Powers Bill which will force internet companies to retain individual internet histories for the use of Government; or the recent GCHQ scandal - Government information gathering, alongside the American NSA, from private communications; or the good old-fashioned right to join and form Trade Unions, potentially undermined by the recent Trade Union Bill.
And more people than you would think seem to be in the same mindset as the Government. The amount of times I have heard people decry terrorists and criminals and say: “they shouldn’t have human rights - they’re not human!” Is this really what people think? Do they not understand that the rights of the criminals and terrorists are also their rights too? The right to a fair and free trial applies to ALL human beings - regardless of innocence or guilt. The prohibition of torture applies to ALL human beings - regardless of innocence of guilt.
This is not for the protection of terrorists and criminals, but for ours: if we remove the rights of criminals and terrorists, then we are removing the rights of ourselves. In February 2015, 75 UK citizens were imprisoned abroad, 23 of whom awaiting execution. The other 52 already on trial for capital offences, facing the death penalty. This includes British citizens who have either consistently maintained their innocence against the charges alleged, such as drug smuggling and alleged espionage, or suffer mental health conditions which under British law would render them unfit for trial. Clearly, certain of these individuals are guilty. But some of them are innocent. All of them are relying upon the British Government, acting with the buttress of Human Rights law, to either spare them the executioner's block or to them home safely - regardless of innocence or guilt.
Human Rights is not about the legal relationship between the criminal and the victim.
We already have criminal law for that purpose. Human Rights law is about where we draw the line between the state and the individual. Any individual and every individual. People are saying “Why should criminals get Human Rights!?” When instead, they should be asking “How much power should the state be allowed to exercise over the individual?”
But despite the determination of recent Governments to dilute Human Rights, the United Kingdom has always had a longstanding tradition of Civil Liberties. When Voltaire visited Britain in the early 1700’s, he was surprised at the level of freedom of speech we exercised, compared with his home-country of France. It was British Barrister, William Garrow, who in the late 1700’s was a pioneer of the idea that people should be innocent until proven guilty, and the adversarial court system - staples of a free and fair trial, now recognised by justice system’s all over the world.
The Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the English Bills of Rights, and a wealth of British common law offering protection of our liberties, including privacy, freedom of expression … I could list many more examples but I’d be here forever. And it was, primarily, British lawyers, with this innate heritage, who drafted the European Convention of Human Rights in the early 1950’s.
We as a nation have always had a proud tradition of Civil Liberties and Human Rights. We have fought long and hard for them, and on occasion blood has been shed in pursuit of them. So, let us not give up that tradition now, just because we have to treat criminals like human beings.
Governments come and go; it is not for individual governments to choose which rights you can and can not have and when you can have them. These rights and liberties were fought for. They were handed to us by our forefathers, and it is our duty to protect them, not only for ourselves, but so that one day we can hand them on to our children.
These Rights and Liberties are our birthright.
We have to fight to keep our long tradition of rights - which people, every day, take for granted. And we have to do it today - because the hard won rights we surrender today, will be gone forever.