Saturday, October 08, 2011

Rights and Wrongs

Several days after the Home Secretary - Theresa May literally let the cat out of the bag (bad joke I know), I thought I'd take a fresh look at what all the political angst is all about... namely The Human Rights Act 1998.

Many Tories including Theresa May and the Prime Minister David Cameron, are opposed to the current legislation because they believe it hampers the immigration service by protecting criminals and stopping them from being deported. Those who are against the Human Rights Act propose instead that the UK should have a bill of rights (similar to the USA), that outlines responsibilities as well as entitlements under law.

Before I go on, I just want to take a look at a summary of the Human Rights Act that you can find on the DirectGov website:
The Human Rights Act 1998 gives further legal effect in the UK to the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. These rights not only impact matters of life and death, they also affect the rights you have in your everyday life: what you can say and do, your beliefs, your right to a fair trial and other similar basic entitlements. 
Most rights have limits to ensure that they do not unfairly damage other people's rights. However, certain rights – such as the right not to be tortured – can never be limited by a court or anybody else. 
You have the responsibility to respect other people's rights, and they must respect yours.
Your human rights are:
  • the right to life
  • freedom from torture and degrading treatment
  • freedom from slavery and forced labour
  • the right to liberty
  • the right to a fair trial
  • the right not to be punished for something that wasn't a crime when you did it
  • the right to respect for private and family life
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom to express your beliefs
  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of assembly and association
  • the right to marry and to start a family
  • the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights and freedoms
  • the right to peaceful enjoyment of your property
  • the right to an education
  • the right to participate in free elections
  • the right not to be subjected to the death penalty
If any of these rights and freedoms are breached, you have a right to an effective solution in law, even if the breach was by someone in authority, such as, for example, a police officer.
I wonder... can you seriously look at that list and see anything wrong in principle? No. There isn't a single thing I would disagree with. As a Christian, everything I see in that list is covered by Christ's command to love our neighbour as ourselves.

You see in my opinion the problem often isn't to be found in laws themselves... but in the people who interpret them. I don't believe swapping out one law and replacing it with another would find any permanent effective solution. There will always be people who seek to manipulate law or exploit a loophole or create a legal aberration for their own devices and eventually civil case law gradually ushers common sense away and we find ourselves back at square one. This is not something that is limited merely to criminals and their defending lawyers... judges, prosecutors and lawmakers are equally guilty.

Take Theresa May's own words for example. She took the case of a Bolivian immigrant and cited cat ownership as the deciding factor in preventing his deportation. In fact it was not... even in her own quote she refers to a "they". In context, the Bolivian had an unmarried partner and the acquisition of a cat was merely used as an example of the things they had done together as a couple... it was not the driving force behind the judge's decision.

None of this is new... politicians, authorities and legal experts have been worming their way around laws and statutes ever since the gleaming rays of the dawn of civilization first warmed mankind's cheeks.

Christians should be acutely aware of this because in the Bible, The Pharisees practically turned it into an art form! I was reading up on Matthew 23 while writing this blog and it struck me that a lot of the patterns that Jesus criticised the teachers of the law for, are common to those in authority who are drawn to power and use legislation as a way of procuring or preserving it.

This is the problem you get in society when you literally "enshrine" the law but neglect to leave room for grace. The letter of the law takes over and the spirit of the law diminishes. Pretty soon you find yourself straining out gnats and swallowing camels or painting whitewashed tombs. Jesus summed it up perfectly... the most important matters in law are justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Sometimes I wish judges or people in the right circumstances just had the conviction and authority to just metaphorically tear up legal papers pertaining to a case and call it on its common sense merit. People aren't stupid, they often know when someone is feeding them a bucket of manure, they don't need a piece of paper to tell them. If a criminal or lawyer is twisting the words of the law to apply a level of protection or prosecution to imply something it doesn't actually mean... then I say it is this that needs to be changed and not the laws themselves.

I don't necessarily oppose the composition of a bill of rights... but I don't see why it should need to replace the Human Rights Act. The Act doesn't just defend your rights; if you abuse the rights of another, then the Act works against you too. In fact technically, the legislation could be protected against the politicians who wish to do away with it:
If any of these rights and freedoms are breached, you have a right to an effective solution in law, even if the breach was by someone in authority, such as, for example, a police officer.
That kind of suggests to me that if a politician (being a lawmaker and source of authority), tries to repeal the Act, then they are actually violating all of our human rights and are prosecutable themselves.

In conclusion then, I would support a bill of rights that accompanied and worked alongside the Human Rights Act, one that clarifies what society finds acceptable behaviour and expected responsibility... without removing or diminishing the rights of citizens under the current set up.

After all... the Human Rights Act is not just a bureaucratic bundle of papers imposed on Britain by the European Union. It finds its origins in the Declaration of Human Rights that Britain signed up to as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with powers of veto. We helped lead the way... how great would the burden and sense of shame be if we turned our backs on it?

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