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What justice, Mr Gove?

Human Rights
Michael Gove

Human rights are high on Michael Gove's agenda - but only because he wants to scrap them. Policy Exchange under a Creative Commons Licence

Following news that British Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed Michael Gove as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor under his newly elected Conservative government, we have learnt that Gove is charged with the task – although, I sense that for Gove it feels like more of a treat – of scrapping the EU’s Human Rights Act. Formerly Secretary of State for Education, Gove was sacked from that position amidst claims made by the chief election strategist for the Conservatives, Lynton Crosby, that his public image was toxic and detrimental to the Tory cause.

Given that scrapping the act is high on the list of Tory priorities, it is vital to take a look at the reasons behind Cameron’s desperation to break the link between the British courts and EU human rights. The Human Rights Act was first introduced in 1998, and later enforced under Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2000.

The two main aims of the act are: first, to ensure that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) applies directly to domestic British law, and second, that all public institutions, such as healthcare services and the police, must abide by these rights under British law. The rightwing press is suggesting that Cameron’s proposed alternative British Bill of Rights does not advocate poorer treatment of human beings, but this is a highly debatable assertion.

Those that are either making or buying into this dubious claim are not considering the fact that limited access to courts where justice is served amounts to limited access to human rights. The consequence of a missing link between British courts and the ECHR is that it will be made considerably more difficult for those who feel they are facing unjust treatment in breach of their human rights to have their case attended to. With no formal link between the two courts, British citizens can only argue their case as applying to the the Human Rights Act under a Strasbourg Court. Consequentially, the process through which justice is served is significantly slowed down, due to the inevitable failure of many of these cases being reached in time.

Rightwing support for the bill must be challenged, and the rightwing press needs to open its eyes: it is of no use arguing that there will be a new proposed bill in place to protect our rights when scrapping the Human Rights Act in the first place is an attempt at creating borders in order to restrict those rights. When cases pertaining to rights, as ensured by the act, are not being seen to, people are in effect not in possession of those rights.

When we analyse what the Human Rights Act itself covers, and why the Tories are keen to part ways with it, a principle that stands out as clashing with the Tory agenda is this: ‘Freedom from torture and inhumane and degrading treatment and punishment.’ The act, enforced under Labour, is notoriously unpopular among Conservatives, who do not deny their unease at European involvement in British law. But it is clear that much of their unease consists in this involvement obliging them not to dehumanize their prisoners – although we know that the act has not always prevented this from happening in reality – and ultimately preventing the carrying out of harsher, more severe punishments.

Gove, who in 1988 expressed his desire to bring back hanging during his time as a columnist for The Times, is no doubt one among the many Tories that are looking for a way to crack down on the deportation of prisoners to countries where torture is a routine part of their system, which under the Human Rights Act they are prevented from doing. Gove’s call for a US justice-style system – a system whereby the routine use of torture and institutionalized racism are just one among many morally abhorrent features – confirms this.

James Slack, writing for the Daily Mail, offered 15 reasons why Gove must not fail to axe ‘Labour’s hated Human Rights Act’, most of them highlighting times where alleged criminals had benefited monetarily from the act being in place – ‘monetarily’ being the key word here. This mindset highlights the loss of money as a greater threat than that posed by the vulnerability human beings face without the act in place to protect them.

Although I’m hesitant to say that the new Tory cabinet taking shape gives us reason to miss Nick Clegg*, it is beginning to feel that way. While Clegg did not keep to any of his promises (lest we forget student fees gate) one thing he did manage to achieve was blocking the scrapping of the Human Rights Act drawn up as part of the Tory manifesto. With a Tory majority and no-one to keep Cameron in check, far-right ideals are increasingly knowing no bounds.

*Deputy prime minister in the previous Coalition government and leader of the Liberal Democrats until he resigned on 8 May.

Neda Tehrani is a graduate of Religion, Philosophy, Ethics from Kings College London.

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