Could Changes To The Human Rights Act Help Stop Terrorism?

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The UK has been hit hard with terrorist attacks over the last three months.  First Westminster Bridge, the Manchester Arena and most recently London Bridge.  All in all, 35 people have tragically lost their lives, and many hundreds have been injured. 

Following the latest attack on London Bridge, Prime Minister Theresa May stated she would change human rights laws to defeat terrorists if her government is elected on 8th June. 

As reported in the Guardian, Ms May says she intends to enact, “longer prison sentences for people convicted of terrorist offences … making it easier for the authorities to deport foreign terror suspects to their own countries [and] doing more to restrict the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court.”

“If human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it,” May said.

She subsequently failed to gain a majority in the election but has formed a government by relying on Northern Ireland’s DUP support to get legislation through the House.

How effective are the UK’s human rights laws now?  And will restricting human rights help prevent terrorism or encourage it, at the same time as taking away the rights of many vulnerable people, especially immigrants and asylum seekers?

The human rights Act 1998

The human rights Act 1998, which mostly came into force in 2000, was intended to incorporate the European Convention on human rights (ECHR) into UK law.  Under the ECHR, it is unlawful for a government to act in a way that contravenes the Convention.

The Conservative manifesto committed the party to remaining in the European Convention on human rights (which is separate to the EU and which the UK helped to establish after World War Two) for the whole of the next Parliament.

The ECHR is broken up into the following Articles:

  • Article 1 – Rights – signatory states are bound to secure the rights under the Convention for citizens “within their jurisdiction”.
  • Article 2 – Life – every human being has a right to life
  • Article 3 – Torture – torture is prohibited as are "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
  • Article 4 – Servitude – slavery, servitude and forced labour are banned under the Convention
  • Article 5 – Liberty – everyone has the right to liberty and security of person
  • Article 6  - Fair trial – every person has the right to a fair trial, including the right to the presumption of innocence and the right to be tried in public before an independent and impartial court
  • Article 7 – Retroactivity – criminal legislation cannot apply retrospectively
  • Article 8 – Family life – everyone has the right to private and family life
  • Article 9 – Religion – everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion
  • Article 10 – Expression – everyone has the right to freedom of expression, except if it needs to be restricted for reasons of national security, public safety, a person’s reputation, etc
  • Article 11 – Association – protects the right to freedom of association and assembly, including the right to form/join a trade union
  • Article 12 – Marriage – protects the right of men and women to marry and establish a family
  • Article 13 – Remedy – national authorities must provide an effective remedy for breach of the Convention’s rights
  • Article 14 – Discrimination – prohibits discrimination
  • Article 15 – Derogations – countries can detract or suspend some of the rights guaranteed in times of war or national emergency
  • Article 16 – Aliens – States can restrict the political activity of foreigners (EU member states cannot consider an EU national aliens)
  • Article 17Abuse of rights – the ECHR cannot be used as a tool to restrict other rights
  • Article 18 Permitted restrictions

As you can see from the outline of the Articles, signatory States do have the flexibility to suspend or even ignore the ECHR in instances where national security or the public good outweigh the rights of the person relying on it.

The human rights Act and terrorism

Shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, told the Guardian Britain’s human rights law does not prevent the successful capture and prosecution of terrorists, warning that hard-won freedoms should not be traded unnecessarily. 

Mr Starmer is the former Director of Public Prosecutions.  In this position, he oversaw dozens of terror-related cases.

“There is no incompatibility between protecting human rights and taking effective action against terrorists,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

 “If we start throwing away our adherence to human rights in response to what has happened in the last three months, we are throwing away the values at the heart of the democracy, everything that we say we believe in.”

He went on to add that in his five years prosecuting individuals who were a threat to British security, he never found the human rights Act a barrier to putting, “a lot of people away for a very long time”.

Theresa May “detest human rights

In an insightful piece in the New Statesman, Maria Norris and Jillian Terry comment on Mrs May’s long desire for “unbridled security power”.

They mention that scrapping the human rights Act has been a Conservative policy for many years and Mrs May loathed the restrictions it put on her ability to deport immigrants back when she was Home Secretary.

The fact is, the United Kingdom Borders Act 2007 provides for the automatic deportation of foreigners who have been sentenced to a minimum of 12 months in prison.  Only a small minority of deportations have been stopped under Article 8 of the ECHR (the right to family life), an Article often vilified as providing a vehicle for those who are due to be deported to remain in the UK.

Few people realise that even the best Immigration lawyers must fight very hard and present incredibly strong evidence to succeed in an Article 8 based appeal.

In summary

Martha Spurrier, a British barrister and human rights campaigner, stated it perfectly in an article featured in the Guardian when she said, “human rights are not there for the powerful to dispense with when it’s politically convenient.  They’re there to protect ordinary people and uphold the basic standards of a civilised society.”

The ECHR provides ample flexibility to allow governments to protect their national security interests.  But the interests of immigrants and vulnerable asylum seekers must also be defended.

Defending terrorism should involve actions that bring the country together.  Making comments that can lead to division and discrimination is lazy politics and a convenient distraction from more serious failings such as cuts in public services, especially the police.

Britain has a strong reputation for protecting the rights of all its citizens and of those seeking asylum.  If this was hampered in anyway by a knee-jerk reaction to restrict human rights, then the terrorists have truly won a victory against us all.

OTS Solicitors is one of the most respected immigration law firms in London.  Our immigration team dealing with human rights and asylum comprises of Smit Kumar, Hans Sok Appadu, and Maryem Ahmed, any of whom would be happy to talk to you about making an application for asylum or challenging an immigration decision on human rights grounds.

By making an appointment with one of our Immigration Solicitors, you can be assured of receiving some of the best legal advice available in the UK today. 

If you wish to discuss any of the points raised in this blog, please phone our London office on 0207 936 9960.

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