Human Rights: The thin end of the wedge

Tomorrow millions of people like me will vote in the 2017 UK General Election. It’s looking likely that the Conservatives—while not achieving the landslide they hoped for when calling the snap election two months ago—will still easily secure the 326 MPs they need to form a majority government in the House of Commons.

Politicians, in the run up to this election, have promised a number of things – some achievable, some completely fanciful. Such is the way of elections.

But this week, Theresa May, under increasing pressure from two terrorist attacks in the last two weeks, said something that shook me to my core. Here she is, at a Conservative campaign appearance in Slough on Monday night:

For those who’d rather read it, here’s a transcript:

We need to take on the ideology that unites and motivates the perpetrators of these attacks.

We need to get international agreements to regulate cyberspace, to stop the terrorists planning online. We need to stamp out extremism in our own communities, here in Britain. And as we see the threat changing, evolving, becoming more complex, we need to ensure that our police and our security and intelligence agencies have the powers they need.

[Applause]

Let me just tell you a little bit about what I mean by that:

I mean longer prison sentences for those convicted of terrorist offences.

I mean making it easier for the authorities to deport foreign terrorist suspects back to their own countries.

And I mean doing more to restrict the freedom and movements of terrorist suspects – when we have enough evidence to know they are a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court. And if our Human Rights laws stop us from doing it, we’ll change the laws so we can do it.

In case you missed it, just read that last paragraph again.

And I mean doing more to restrict the freedom and movements of terrorist suspects – when we have enough evidence to know they are a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court. And if our Human Rights laws stop us from doing it, we’ll change the laws so we can do it.

These simply aren’t the sorts of words that the leader of a civilised democracy should be saying.

Lady Justice statue at the Old Bailey, London

So, what are Human Rights?

Here in the UK, we have certain concepts that—I think most people would agree—constitute what it means to be a British citizen. Things like the right to a fair trial, or the prohibition of torture and slavery. Things we all agree apply to everyone, equally.

These things used to be fuzzily upheld as part of “English Common Law”. But in 1948 they were codified into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and later into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1988.

If you want to read the 15 rights to which you—as a UK citizen—are legally entitled, then you can check out Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act, here. It’s actually quite readable!

Theresa May

But what Theresa May is saying here, is that she believes the government, in some cases, deals with people so dangerous, that they no longer deserve these human rights.

Effectively that everyone has these rights, but some people—like Theresa May—have more of these rights, and some people—like people the government is suspicious of—have fewer of these rights.

Anyone who’s ever read or watched George Orwell’s Animal Farm will be getting flashbacks right about now.

Animal Farm: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others

Why does this matter?

Surely, if bad people do really bad things, but our clumsy laws are providing a loophole through which those people are evading justice – surely then Theresa May has a point?

These bastards, after all, are the kind of angry, troubled, vindictive men, who detonate explosives at children’s pop concerts, or crash vans into innocent crowds on London Bridge.

Flowers and letters of condolence laid out in a Manchester street

But the truth is—even with the hideousness of these terrorists’ crimes—stripping them of their human rights is not an acceptable reaction.

Universal rights protect us all, every day. But they can only protect us all if they really do protect all of us.

As soon as you have made an exception, you have opened the door to exploitation.

If you give the government power to charge or detain British citizens without trial—even mass murderers—what’s to stop them slowly increasing the net of ‘undesirables’ to include people like you, or your family? How do you know you’re not on one of the government’s lists? Maybe a data entry clerk made a typo. Or maybe you once criticised the government in a private message to a friend.

Prisoners at the US Guantanamo Bay facility, many of whom were held for years without trial

It is ridiculous to even have to say these things, but they are the fat end of the wedge that Theresa May is right now trying to jam under our radar. And we—as British citizens—simply can’t let her get away with it.

A Britain without universal human rights protections, isn’t a Britain worth living in at all.