04:42, November 09 34 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-09 04:42:08
Twenty years on, the Human Rights Act has proved its worth

Do you remember 1998? On many fronts a forgettable year, but allow me to take you back. Across the world people were morbidly glued to the televised unravelling of President Clinton’s “sexual relations” denial, as he faced a very public impeachment inquiry over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Construction was under way on the Millennium Dome, stamps featuring Diana’s face went on sale to mark a year since her death, Cher released the hyper-processed earworm Believe, Armageddon was the biggest-grossing film worldwide.

Those things seem horribly dated now, of course, and most of them have been confined to the bonfire of history. But it’s worth remembering that 1998 was also notable for something that had a far bigger impact on Britain than Cher – the passing into law of the Human Rights Act.

Back then, it made a simple but significant change by allowing people to seek justice here in the UK, rather than waiting years to go to court in Strasbourg. It wasn’t about new rights, it was about bringing home the rights we already had under the European convention on human rights.

Championed with cross-party support, it seemed a no-brainer, frankly. This was an obvious natural extension of the rights set out by British lawyers after the second world war, neatly making them applicable in domestic courts, rather than international. It was the people’s charter, championing the little guy against the state. Indeed, it has done just that in a number of important cases in which other avenues of justice had let people down. In fact, it’s probably fair to say some of the UK’s biggest justice fights of the last two decades have only been possible because of the Human Rights Act.

For example, the Snatch Land Rover case brought under the act by the families of some of the 37 soldiers who died in the sub-standard vehicles (labelled “mobile coffins” by relatives) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence fatally failed to adequately equip those soldiers, essentially sending them into the line of fire without the proper protection – but it took a case brought mainly under the Human Rights Act to force the MoD to admit it had made mistakes and issue an apology to the soldiers’ families.

Then there’s the case of John Worboys – the “black-cab rapist” – where the police failed to adequately investigate the reports made by some of his earlier victims in 2003 and 2007. Worboys is believed to have gone on to sexually assault and rape many more women before eventually being convicted in 2009. It took a challenge by his victims under the Human Rights Act to uncover the true extent of police failures and get the justice they deserved.

Hillsborough. A single word that is synonymous with torturously prolonged tragedy and injustice. In 1989, police directed football fans into already-overcrowded terraces via a single tunnel and, in the ensuing panic, 96 people died, many asphyxiated in the crush of bodies trying to escape. One man at the game that afternoon lost both his teenage daughters. Denied justice for almost three decades, it was the Human Rights Act that helped the victims secure the inquest that found the police were not only responsible for causing the tragedy but that many lied about what had happened – blaming the very victims they had fatally failed to protect.

It’s a constant source of amazement that the Human Rights Act isn’t more revered among the general public. Worse still, recent successive governments have threatened to remove it. Cynical commentators might point to the survivalist imperative of an establishment trying to whip up hatred of, and support for dismantling, the very vehicle by which they are able to be scrutinised and made accountable.

The act’s detractors might not like every single case or ruling associated with it, but they should consider their niche gripes against the overwhelmingly positive impact the Human Rights Act has had. Tolerance is a low price to pay to live in a society where justice is available to all.

Another significant document was also signed up to in 1998; the Good Friday agreement. Significantly, the Human Rights Act underpins that settlement.

The act might have been a useful pantomime villain for politicians who could deflect discontent from their own governance, but it’s important to remember the vital role it has played in forcing a reckoning, often from a reluctant state.

From Hillsborough to the Mid Staffs hospital scandal, the Human Rights Act has proved its worth over the past two decades. And with modern scandals such as Windrush and Grenfell continuing to occur, there’s every reason to believe we will need it just as much in the next 20 years.

Scott Dawes is the government relations manager for Amnesty International UK

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