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UK: Forthcoming reforms to human rights law must not weaken protection

“The repeatedly delayed launch of the consultation process for repeal of the Human Rights Act has created much speculation and an atmosphere of anxiety and concern in civil society and in some parts of the devolved administrations. There is a real fear of regression in terms of rights’ protection in the United Kingdom” said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at the end of his six day visit to the country, which focused on the government’s forthcoming plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and create a revised Bill of Rights, as well as the implementation of the few remaining judgments from the European Court of Human Rights.

The visits to Edinburgh and Belfast provided an opportunity for the Commissioner to assess first-hand the views of the devolved administrations, parliaments and local civil society on the planned reform to the human rights system. “The European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg Court are generally viewed positively in Scotland as accelerators of change. I welcome the fact that the Scottish government is looking at going beyond the Convention, by implementing other international human rights treaties directly into Scottish law.  The Scottish National Action Plan for Human Rights is also a good example for other parts of the UK.”

Another regional example is the rights based approach to making policy for children and young people in Wales where all Welsh Ministers have a duty to have due regard to the substantive rights and obligations within the UN child rights convention when exercising any of their Ministerial functions. “My impression is that the debate over the HRA in Westminster is not a true reflection of concerns outside England”.

The Commissioner noted the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights has a particular resonance in Northern Ireland where it is part of the Good Friday Agreement, and where the Human Rights Act underpins key policing institutions. "I urge the UK government and other parties concerned to return to negotiations on mechanisms for dealing with the past in the Stormont House Agreement, including setting up the Historical Investigations Unit, as soon as possible. Disagreements over the national security veto concerning disclosure of information need to be resolved."

Concerning the legacy inquest cases, the Commissioner welcomed the appointment of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland as President of the Coroner’s Court and the beginning of a major review by a senior judge to assess the state of readiness of each case. He noted that the coronial inquests system would need to be changed to deal with the remaining cases because the prospect of waiting another 25 years for justice was untenable. He also urged the necessary government funding to sustain this initiative.

The Commissioner encouraged more consultation with the devolved governments over the Human Rights Act reform proposals and underlined that this consultation period should not overlap with the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly and the pre-election period. “Each member state of the Council of Europe has the freedom to decide the best way in which to ensure that the European Convention on Human Rights is implemented domestically. The Human Rights Act is not the only model available, but a Bill of Rights or any other substitute should in no case weaken protection of human rights.”

London 22/01/2016
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