All three of the main parties in Britain are now committed to a new bill of rights, but the current “debate” on the issue (amongst Labour and the Conservatives, at least) is characterised by ignorance and confusion, much of it harmful. That is why it is helpful to have Francesca Klug’s essay, “Solidity or Wind?” What’s on the menu in the bill of rights debate?, which has just been published on openDemocracy. It does a great job of dispelling some of the popular misunderstandings of the Human Rights Act encouraged by the media and politicians. As Klug says, we are now in a quite remarkable position of being offered a new bill of rights on the basis that the state should have more power and not less, largely due to hostitility towards the HRA in the popular press exploited by the Tories, successive Labour Home Secretaries and now Jack Straw. We need to re-assert the principle that human rights are fundamental and universal entitlements, not to be diluted with talk of “responsiblities” or limited to citizens alone.
When we are told that we need “a clear articulation of citizen’s rights that British people can use in British courts” this suggests, even if unfairly, that eligibility for this new bill of rights might depend on ‘citizenship’ rather than ‘humanity’ – that individuals who live here might be subject to the power of the state but not the fundamental rights of its citizens. Above all it suggests that the global discourse on human rights, which has become the lingua franca of liberty struggles throughout the world, does not sit comfortably in these islands. Where have we heard this before; this argument for “exceptionalism” from universal human rights norms? In America after 9/11? In Zimbabwe following a sham election? In Israel in response to rocket attacks? If we were to become the first country in the democratic world to contemplate introducing a national bill of rights on the back of repealing a bill of rights which enshrines universal human rights norms, what does this say to the rest of the world?