How should the UK protect human rights?

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A few years ago I had a conversation with a British ex-police officer who had worked in an international team investigating war crimes that occurred in Bosnia during the 1990s. One day he and his interpreter came to a warehouse in an industrial estate on the edge of a small town.

Going inside, they found rows of long tables, along which were placed piles of what had once been human beings. These had been unearthed from a local mass grave. All had been civilians living in the area. At some time in the 1990s they had been rounded up from their homes by local militia, taken outside the town and shot.

Teams of forensic scientists were working on separating human remains from the mouldering clothing, looking for evidence which might help identify the victims.

Ordinary people...

For a while the police officer and his interpreter looked at the shocking scene in silence. Then the police officer turned to his companion and asked "what kind of people did this?" For a moment the interpreter reflected on the question. Then he replied: "Postmen...refuse collectors...primary school teachers..." In short, ordinary people did this to ordinary people. The victims had been living in a community that was torn apart by ethnic resentments and dehumanising nationalist propaganda. These particular victims were Bosnian Muslims, slaughtered by ethnic Serb militia.

Incidentally, as recently as 2016, a good friend of mine visited Bosnia. They travelled a little further north, into a Croat area of the country. Two contrasting characteristics struck them: the warmth and hospitality of the people they met; and the fact that every family kept an assault rifle at home, ready for if it all kicks-off again.

At about the same time that the killings were taking place in the former-Yugoslavia, the American historian Christopher Browning wrote a book which catalogued the activities of 'Reserve Police Battalion 101' in Poland in 1942. The unit was not made up of ardent Nazis. Rather, they were middle-aged men, mostly from working class backgrounds in Hamburg. They had been conscripted but judged unfit for regular military duty. Consequently, they had been sent to the German 'Order Police,' and had been responsible for mass shootings as well as round-ups of Jewish people for deportation to death camps. Browning titled his book "Ordinary Men".

These examples are, of course, extreme. But they remind us of what ordinary people are capable of doing to other ordinary people when these have had their humanity reduced by being seen as a threat, a 'problem,' 'not like us,' an 'alien other.' This does not always take the extreme form of genocide. Discrimination, callousness, insensitivity to the suffering of others, passing by "on the other side" (Luke 10:25-37 NIV) are more common expressions of inhumanity and indifference to the plight of other people.

Protecting human rights

October 2021 marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1946. For all the shortcomings of these trials – and despite the fact that many of those who had committed the worst crimes in European and world history were never brought to trial or were released after shockingly short sentences – these had made legal history in their confronting of the appalling abuses of human rights during the Second World War. And the most senior surviving Nazis had been condemned.

After this, there occurred a remarkable initiative to ensure that human rights in Europe would be protected in the future. In 1946, in a speech delivered at the University of Zurich, Winston Churchill called for the creation of a 'Council of Europe' which would rebuild the shattered continent, maintain peace, and defend democracy and civilised values. In 1949 the Council of Europe was created by the Treaty of London. Its headquarters would be in Strasbourg, France. It eventually gave rise to the European Court of Human Rights or ECHR (initially established in 1959 and sitting permanently in Strasbourg since 1998).

This international court interprets the European Convention on Human Rights and is empowered to hear applications alleging that a contracting state has breached the human rights that are enumerated in the convention. The 47 member states (including the UK since 1949) have pledged to defend these human rights. They aim to maintain a rule of law which establishes these rights in their country. In short, we commit to a set of standards and encourage other states to commit to the same standards.

This is not the same as the European Union, which the UK left in 2020. Nor is the ECHR the same as the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is the supreme court of the European Union in matters of EU law, and which sits in Luxembourg. The 47 states who are part of the Council of Europe, and who are covered by the ECHR, are far in excess of the current 27 members of the EU.

However, the two are often confused in the UK because the EU has adopted the original flag of Europe which was created by the Council of Europe in 1955, along with the Anthem of Europe. In addition, no nation has ever joined the EU without first belonging to the Council of Europe. And, of course, both have the word 'Europe' in their title; but then so does the Eurovision Song Contest. The key thing is that they are quite separate organisations and the UK's decision to leave the EU does not affect its membership of the Council of Europe or its relationship with the ECHR or the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights, overseen by the court in Strasbourg, was incorporated into UK law in the Human Rights Act in 1998.

The future of human rights in the UK

On October 17, the new Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, outlined how the government wants to overhaul the existing UK Human Rights Act – so that the UK Supreme Court has the final say on matters of human rights, rather than taking into account judgments by the ECHR, which may declare British laws incompatible with human rights.

This intention is being, contrastingly, viewed as either: a further attempt to assert national sovereignty in the wake of Brexit (although, theoretically, it has nothing to do with Brexit); or an attack on international law and the commitment to the institutions which are designed to maintain it.

Interestingly, it was only in July of 2021 that an inquiry by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that there is "absolutely no justification" for the proposed changes and that "The [Human Rights] act both respects parliament and makes our courts powerful in enforcing human rights." Clearly, not everyone agrees with the findings of this parliamentary inquiry.

As with any court, there will be judgments made by the ECHR that people are unhappy with; although, arguably, these are often misrepresented by some UK tabloids. And, sometimes, one person's 'human rights' can feel like impingements on another person's values. One can understand the appeal – both emotionally and ideologically – of the concept of 'supreme sovereignty'. The problems lie in the application of this – both morally and practically – in a complex world.

Imagine a strategic arms limitation treaty with no verification, or climate change targets to which nations are not held to account. Many people who feel positive about the UK pulling away from the decisions of the ECHR will have been shocked by Trump's unilateral pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords and relieved when Biden signed up to them once more. Can a nation pick and choose when it comes to the international rules-based order?

One wonders how the UK decision will be viewed in Moscow or Minsk? The example it sets to states with poor human rights records should be a matter of concern. Arguably, to this writer, it would be best to stay connected, and influence and even reform it (if necessary).

Most of what currently exists in the UK's Human Rights Act will probably continue into any proposed UK 'bill of rights.' So, those wishing to see major revisions of these rights will probably be disappointed. What will have changed is the membership of an international rules-based system and the legal review of UK actions. That is the crux of the issue.

The problem, to this writer at least, seems to lie in the cyclical way that people respond to threats to human rights, cooperation and peace. It feels like the following pattern repeats itself over time:

Stage 1: Separate states, unilateral behaviour.

Stage 2: Fragmentation, division and conflict.

Stage 3: Repentance, commitment to cooperation and teamwork.

Stage 4: Disillusionment with externally overseen rules and regulations.

Stage 5: Repeat Stage 1, etc.

The UK is not Bosnia in the 1990s. London is not like Moscow or Minsk. Nevertheless, no nation can be complacent when it comes to the protection of human rights. Only last week reliable reports (carried in The Guardian and then The Times) indicated that the home secretary is seeking to introduce a provision in the Nationality and Borders Bill aiming to give legal protection to Border Force staff who "push back" migrant boats, if a refugee drowns as a consequence of this policy. Human rights are a very current, and hot, issue.

Whatever your verdict is on the government's intentions regarding the UK's relationship with the European Court of Human Rights – a necessary correction in favour of national sovereignty or an undermining of the international rules-based system – pray for wisdom for those making this decision as it will impact on the UK; and also concerning its wider implications for how human rights are viewed across the continent of Europe. And, whatever you feel is the best response to the migrant crisis, pray for those entrusted with enormous responsibilities as members of Border Force; and for those desperate people in the boats. They too have human rights.

Our shared humanity means that we all have a stake in the issue of human rights, their definition, protection and enforcement. And no single nation can achieve this alone, as it is a cooperative venture. History, after all, has shown that human rights will not defend themselves.

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-three books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021) and Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021).