Government and Rights – Ignorant or Malign?

Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s has published his green paper on rights and responsibilities:

In the face of promises by David Cameron to repeal the Human Rights Act, Straw made clear that the government was proud to have introduced it: “We will not backtrack from it or repeal it. But we believe more could be done to bring out the responsibilities which accompany rights,” he said. “Any new bill of rights and responsibilities might subsume the Human Rights Act, or preserve it as a separate act.”

And this is where we return to New Labour doublespeak. Again. Great that they brought in the Human Rights Act, great that there is a commitment not to repeal it (despite their longstanding refusal to stand up for it). But in his penultimate sentence he merges citizens’ rights with human rights. Is he really saying that a future Bill of Rights would codify them alongside one another, and would that be because he’s merely conflating them or does he really just not understand the difference? Lib Dem Home Affair spokesman Chris Huhne responded to the green paper, saying:

As a political response to this populist nonsense from the Tories, the green paper muddles rights and responsibilities. Human rights (such as the right to a fair trial) are not and cannot be conditional, because by definition they are the minimum we should enjoy as human beings. So the idea that they might be made contingent on responsibilities mixes up the concept of human rights with citizens’ rights. And this is the second element of danger: when the Tories talk about a British bill of rights, instead of human rights, do they mean more or fewer rights? I think we can reach our own conclusions from the recent words of shadow home secretary Chris Grayling, who said there should be “fewer rights, more wrongs”.

He illustrates very well the dangerous area in which Straw appears to be playing. There are no responsibilities which accompany human rights – to even imply there is a need for a bill of rights and responsibilities because of some deficiency with the human rights act is in effect to trample on the importance of human rights. Citizens’ rights will always have qualifications, that’s why there is the need for an understood minimum standard of universal human rights, which the state can under no circumstances meddle with. Huhne acknowledges the push for this proposed bill has been entirely based on the Tory drive to abolish the Human Rights Act altogether – Straw needs to tread carefully not to do the Tories’ dirty work for them. If he really wants to bring together citizens’ rights, currently scattered across the legal and political landscape, he needs to make sure such a bill would be a sister project to the Human Rights Act and would fulfil an entirely different and very strategic political purpose.


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