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
- How can we effectively engage with the government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (CDRC) without fundamentally weakening human rights protections and access to justice in the UK?
- How do we build consensus in response to COVID-19, especially with focus on socio-economic rights?
- 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
- Shortages of PPE and testing
- Risk by returning to work (travel; BAME)
- Right to privacy
- Storage of data
- 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
- There is considerable uncertainty regarding when the CDRC will be established but when this happens the EHRC is committed to protecting human rights standards. There will be different implications across the three nations and the three governments have differing views on human rights. Covid-19 is not just a threat but also an opportunity and we must find strategies and a narrative to approach the challenges of Covid which will help us work with the CDRC.
- Measures enacted in crisis must not become ‘hard-baked’. Human rights laws were designed to deal with crises – decisions informed by human rights are better decisions
- Dialogue with government is vital
- Using our enforcement powers where necessary
- Informing duty bearers on how to protect rights and equality
- Ensure debate on key issues
- Collect and provide evidence
- Seeking 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
- 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 at least equally a threat
- Important that government responses are balanced and incorporate human rights in them
- To gain / build on public opinion, need to show places where human rights have been helpful
- Demonstrating how human rights support better decision-making which balances public health and individual freedoms, and ensure adequate care
- Increase focus on social care – people were not 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 of human rights on what unites us, especially around socio-economic rights..
In the immediate and longer term, these are some of the opportunities and challenged that were identified:
- Unprecedented ‘all society crisis’ not seen since 1930s-1940s – this kind of scenario was very much in the minds of the people who founded the human rights framework
- Human rights framework faced with ‘stress test’ (accountability, litigation, public buy-in)
- Opportunity to re-focus on socio-economic rights e.g. right to life as ‘right to secure livelihood’
- With loss of EU Charter – need to observe developments in EU post Brexit
- A lot depends on leadership and government space. Currently very fractured across many departments. Need for more ‘joined-up’ government thinking and more efforts to include age in the equality brief (e.g. setting up an Older People’s Commissioner, like the model in Scotland)
- Current crisis revealed consensus on NHS, state’s responsibility to protect etc. challenge and opportunity to use this to reframe the narrative around human rights (what unites us) especially around socio-economic rights and how we give expression to those in policy decisions; shift focus from what is required by courts to what is required by government
- 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