‘Safeguarding UK’s human rights law – partnership or challenge?’

Posted on Monday, June 1st, 2020

René Cassin virtual roundtable, 20 May 2020

with Rebecca Hilsenrath, CEO, Equality and Human Rights Commission

chaired by Daniel Silverstone (Chair of René Cassin Board of Trustees)

An invitation-only roundtable discussion to consider the current challenges and opportunities for human rights safeguards in the UK

Key framing questions

  1. To what extent (if at all) could/should we participate in the Government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (CDRC) without fundamentally weakening human rights protections and access to justice in the UK?
  2. How do we build consensus in response to COVID-19, especially with focus on socio-economic rights?
  3. What are the opportunities to change the narrative on human rights?

Wide range of COVID-19 related human rights issues

Key human rights issues that have emerged from restriction and guidelines imposed by government in response to COVID-19:

  • Right to health; right to life – disproportionate impacts of virus and government’s response
  • Elderly and care-homes
  • Disabled
  • Shortages of PPE and testing
  • Risk by returning to work (travel; BAME)
  • Right to privacy
  • Storage of data
  • Effectiveness
  • Equality issues
  • Right to education – access to education from low socio-economic background
  • Right to adequate standard of living – e.g. for disabled people
  • Civil and political rights – right to assembly; right to practice religion; right to family life
  • Socio-economic divide will become more entrenched

EHRC response

  • Measures enacted in crisis can become ‘hard-baked’. Human rights were designed to deal with crises – decisions informed by human rights are better decisions
  • Dialogue with government is vital
  • Enforcement powers
  • Ensure debate on key issues
  • Collect and provide evidence
  • An independent advisory role on CDRC
  • Dialogue with devolution actors
  • Explore ways of responding to / dealing with COVID-19 crisis in a way that would help deal with CDRC (e.g. climate justice)
  • Opportunity to change narrative on Human Rights Act that was very much coloured by 9/11 (because of proximity in timing)
  • In context of current pandemic, looking at human rights as different context of risk to life (not from terrorists but from a disease) but equally a threat
  • Important how checks and balances incorporate human rights
  • To gain / build on public opinion, need to show places where human rights have been helpful
  • Increase focus on social care – people weren’t aware of the level of neglect

Where go we go from here?

With COVID-19 we are experiencing an unprecedented ‘all society crisis’ not seen since 1930s-1940s.

From this emerges the need and more importantly the opportunity for a new narrative on human rights on what unites us, especially around socio-economic rights and how we given expression to those in policy decisions so that government views human rights as a helpful framework.

In the immediate and longer term, these are some of the opportunities and challenged that were identified:

  1. Careful understanding and learning of how the current human rights architecture (set in 1945 onwards) is responding to the unique ‘stress tests’ of COVID-19 (in terms of accountability, litigation, public buy-in)
  2. Should ‘right to life’ be extended to ‘right to livelihood’?
  3. Has the ‘right to live’ morphed into ‘right to life years’?
  4. How to we ensure that government views human rights as a positive aid in devising new policies e.g. re-designing social care?
  5. Socio-economic rights should be seen as purely a matter for the courts
  6. There is an opportunity to re-set the narrative by focusing on cross-over where socio-economic rights intersect in public sphere with traditional civil liberties e.g. policing and homelessness