Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
On 17 November 2000, two adults with learning difficulties were at home in their council flat. For 15 months, they had been victimised by a gang of teenagers. The council had visited their home, concluding that they were unsafe. But nothing was done; they were left unprotected. And on that night, the gang broke into their house and held them prisoner for three days. They were both physically and sexually abused.
Their compensation claims were rejected by the English courts. But this summer, they forced the council into a settlement. It was only because of the European Court of Human Rights that they were able to do so.
To many people in Britain, this would come as a surprise. After a sustained campaign in the right-wing media, ‘human rights’ has become almost a dirty term. Portrayed as arcane, illogical and bureaucratic, they are seen as the enemy of common sense and friend only of illegal immigrants and paedophiles.
Attacking the Human Rights Act has been a personal priority for David Cameron, who has repeatedly pledged to replace it with a ‘British bill of rights’. An independent commission was set up by the government in March with the aim of investigating how this might work in practice.
Before we embrace Cameron’s proposal, it might do good to consider how our human rights law actually works in practice.
The Human Rights Act 1998 was nothing short of a legal revolution. It incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) directly into British law. For the first time, you could argue human rights cases in British courts; public bodies could be taken to court for breaches of human rights; and if a law was passed in violation of the ECHR, judges could issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’.
Since then, the limits of the Act have been most consistently tested by the ‘war on terror’ – control orders, evidence gained through torture, detention without charge, trials where the case against the suspect is not fully declared. In many of these cases the outcome has been a messy compromise that satisfies neither supporters of the government’s security measures nor campaigners against them. But the only way to challenge such increasingly authoritarian government measures was the Human Rights Act.
Its impact doesn’t stop with terrorism cases. The effect of the ECHR stretches way beyond what you might consider their original remit. For example, it is Article 2, guaranteeing the right to life, that means family members must be involved in an inquest when someone dies in the state’s custody. Article 5 (the right to liberty) forces police to explain the reason for an arrest in a language a suspect can understand. And Article 3 (freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment) means a council must pay out compensation when it fails to protect vulnerable adults from a gang.
Since 2000, when the act came into force, our domestic law has developed in accordance with human rights principles. In housing law, they hold up evictions. In employment law, they have greatly expanded protection from discrimination. Even the freedom of the press to report on matters of public interest is based in human rights law.
Years of progress
These same rights might be protected by a British bill of rights. But the ECHR represents a document that has been unpacked by years of legal argument and judicial scrutiny, so that the full implications of each article can be enforced. And many of these implications are highly inconvenient for those in power. It is not unusual for Britain to be found in violation of the convention.
Wipe the slate clean with a new bill of rights, and you start all over again. Years of progress would be lost.
Perhaps more importantly, the Human Rights Act handed power to the courts. Backed up by the judges in Strasbourg, for the first time in English history they have had the authority to question parliament and the government of the day. And over the past decade, with the government progressively hacking away at civil liberties, this authority has been more important than ever.
In many ways the Human Rights Act is a British bill of rights. And unlike the one Cameron proposes, it gives someone independent of government the power to enforce it.
This is the real reason the Human Rights Act angers him: it places limits on what he can do. A new bill of rights would give him a free hand to redefine these limits. And that’s not the sort of freedom we need the law to be defending.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control.
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going