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When it comes to voting, remember that human rights are more important than ever

Sean Humber, head of the human rights department at Leigh Day, urges voters to consider the 'Mandela test' on 8th June

Photo: Rob Scott Photography
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Sean is a partner and head of the human rights department at Leigh Day.  He acts for individuals and campaign groups on a wide range of human rights issues including prisoner rights, environmental, discrimination and information law matters.
Theresa May’s recent threat to “tear up human rights law” in the light of the recent terrorist atrocities is wrong for a whole host of reasons.

First of all it appears to be being used in an attempt to deflect criticism, valid or otherwise, from the Government’s existing anti-terrorism policy, and whether the cutting of police resources or a failure to act on available intelligence information, played any part in the recent horrific events.  It is far easier to imply that human rights law is somehow to blame in preventing the security services from doing their job, and that the answer is to give them more powers.

It is important to note that, in an interview on Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’  yesterday evening, Lord Carlile, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, stated “I don’t think we need to rip up any human rights laws and I think it would be wrong to do so” and the existing anti-terrorism powers were adequate.

In fact, the current Conservative Party election manifesto clearly states that that, if elected, they will not seek to repeal the Human Rights Act until after Brexit, and that we will remain a party to the European Convention on Human Rights during the course of the next parliament.

So it is not clear where Theresa May’s recent comments leave us.  Perhaps she does now want to scrap the Act and come out of the Convention, even though it is far from clear what actual good this would do.  If so, this would definitely amount to yet another embarrassing U-turn and, while it is not unheard of for parties not to deliver on their entire manifesto commitments, it is much less common for parties to ditch them even before the election for which the manifesto was produced.

Alternatively, there are vague mutterings about abiding by the manifesto commitments but seeking a derogation (exemption) from certain parts of the Convention.  However, these can only be obtained at a time of war or “other public emergency threatening the life of the nation” and then are only permissible “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”.  It is hard to see how the present situation and any draconian new measures proposed would meet these tests.

Secondly, as Martha Spurrier, the Director of Liberty so eloquently points out "If Theresa May does what she threatens, she will go down in history as the prime minister who handed terrorists their greatest victory.  For cheap political points and headlines, she is willing to undermine our democracy, our freedom and our rights - the very things these violent murderers seek to attack."

And choosing politicians with the judgement to be on the right side of history is important.  For me, one highlight of the current election campaign was seeing a picture of Jeremy Corbyn being arrested at an anti-apartheid demonstration in Trafalgar Square in the 1980s when protesting against the then Conservative Government’s refusal to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime and the ban on protests outside the South African embassy.  He was campaigning for the rights and freedoms of the oppressed majority living in South Africa against the evils of the white-led apartheid regime.  A far from universally popular cause at the time.

So let’s contrast this with the actions, at the same time, of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS), the student wing of the Conservative Party from the 1940s through to the 1980s (until it was finally closed down for being too extreme in 1986). 

Mandela.jpgDuring this time it produced a particularly infamous poster and badge entitled "Hang Nelson Mandela". An extreme position that is presumably a source of some discomfort to the current Tory MPs who were members of the FCS at the time.  However, this unpalatable view needs to be understood in the context of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, describing the African National Congress (ANC) as “a typical terrorist organisation”, influential Tory backbencher Teddy Taylor, declaring that Mandela "should be shot" (although he later claimed he only said it jokingly) and an article in the Murdoch-runs News of the World accusing Mandela and the ANC of trying to establish "a communist-style black dictatorship".

So it seems to me that when we elect our politicians we certainly want them to listen to our concerns.  But, allied to that, we want them to consider the issues and make wise and informed decisions on the facts rather than base prejudice.  We want leadership that shows judgement, and, where appropriate shapes rather than blindly follows public opinion.

In short, and not without a certain sense of irony, we seek in our elected politicians many of the qualities exhibited by a then happily still alive Nelson Mandela, when, following his release from prison, he became the first President of a free South Africa in the 1990s.

So when you come to decide who to vote for tomorrow, mindful that our rights and freedoms are in their hands, then carefully consider whether the politician and party that you intend to vote for passes ‘the Mandela test’.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn courtesy of Rob Scott Photography

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