As opposition to the Nationality and Borders Bill grows, there is also the spectre of an attack on the Human Rights Act by the Conservative government. As Maria W. Norris explains, this is likely to have a disproportionate effect on people of colour and raises fundamental questions about equality in the UK.
This week the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, launched a consultation on a new British bill
of rights, a pet project of the Tory right for decades. Condemned as a “blatant, unashamed
power grab” by leading human rights organisations such as Liberty, it is important to
understand the roots of the Tory antipathy to human rights. A mere glance at this
government’s legislative agenda reveals why they want to get rid of the Human Rights Act,
with several bills before parliament which are likely to clash with existing human rights
obligations. At the core of any attempt to limit human rights is a simple and sinister
proposition: the belief that not all human beings are equal, and some are worth more than
The human rights framework rests on the foundation that everyone is worthy of basic
human rights, rights we all share because of the universality of human dignity. No matter
what we’ve done or who we are, where we come from, we all have certain rights which
should not be violated. Most of these rights are qualified, meaning they can be breached in
certain specifically determined circumstances. For example, Article 5, the right to liberty, is
qualified because freedoms can be curtailed if you break the law. But there are two rights
which are absolute and cannot be qualified under any circumstances: Article 3 – Freedom
from Torture, and Article 4 – Freedom from Slavery. And it is precisely the absolute nature
of some rights which irks the government.
To fully understand why this is the case, look no further than one of the legal cases at the
core of the UK’s opposition to human rights, that of Chahal vs United Kingdom 1997.
Karamjit Singh Chahal was an Indian citizen whose asylum application was rejected and
deportation proceedings were put in place for reasons of national security related to the
international fight against terrorism, though no evidential basis was revealed for the
decision. Chahal appealed against his deportation, claiming that he would be tortured if sent back to India. Chahal had indeed been tortured during a trip to India in 1984, with the same
happening to his parents and relatives in 1989. His appeal reached the European Court of
Human Rights (ECtHR) in 1996, when it was ruled that his deportation would be in breach of
Article 3, the prohibition against torture.
“But why have these deportations been stopped? Because the prohibition against torture is absolute. Because to deport these individuals would have left them vulnerable to cruel and unusual punishment and that is something that can never be accepted, no matter what evil that individual themselves has done”
Chahal v United Kingdom solidified the absolute prohibition of torture provided by Article 3,
with judges reaffirming that neither the conduct of the individual nor the danger they
represent are sufficient grounds for voiding the prohibition against torture. Torture is such a violation of human dignity, that, like slavery, its prohibition can never be qualified no matter what. As a result, the UK could not rely on its national security interest to justify deporting
Chahal to a place where there was a possibility of torture. The Chahal case has become a
key part of the jurisprudence in deportation cases and a significant irritation to successive
UK governments, who have regarded it as posing an untenable limit on the state’s rights to
deport non-citizens in the name of national security. As human rights professor Conor
Gearty argues, there is probably no single case that has driven the government’s animosity
towards human rights more than Chahal.
Tony Blair made his dislike of the Chahal ruling public by declaring that the ‘rules of the
game are changing’ in a speech after the 7/7 terrorist attacks, saying “should legal obstacles arise, we will legislate further, including, if necessary, amending the Human Rights Act, in respect of the interpretation of the ECHR. In any event we will consult on legislation specifically for non-suspensive appeal process in respect to deportations.”
Soon after 7/7, while David Cameron was still Shadow Home Education Secretary, he gave a
speech singling out Chahal as problematic: “Under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and in particular through important cases such as Chahal, it has become close to impossible to deport foreign nationals that may pose a threat to the UK.”
But why have these deportations been stopped? Because the prohibition against torture is absolute. Because to deport these individuals would have left them vulnerable to cruel and unusual punishment and that is something that can never be accepted, no matter what evil that individual themselves has done. But this basic level of equality and human decency is unpalatable to this government, who as part
of this consultation wants judges to consider the conduct of an individual pursuing a human rights claim during their decision making.
“Opposition to human rights is fundamentally opposition to the belief that human beings are equal. Opposing human rights means that instead, the government believes that some people can have their rights violated, if it serves the national interest”
But the state has a legal duty to protect your human rights regardless of your conduct and opposing this basic fact reveals that this government at its core does not believe that human beings are equal. Instead, they want a hierarchy of rights, a hierarchy which is becoming more racially stark by the day. There are several bills currently before parliament with powers which will very likely clash with human
rights obligations, disproportionally affecting minority groups, such as limiting the right to protest, reducing our obligation to asylum seekers, and possibly introducing voter ID. Those at risk of deportation and torture are overwhelmingly black and Brown.
With the expansion of the denationalisation powers proposed by the Nationality and Borders Bill, it is Black and brown British citizens who are more vulnerable to human rights violations. Let’s not forget that as we speak there are dozens of British women and children languishing in refugee and prison camps in Syria, in conditions which human rights campaigners are akin to torture and degrading treatment.
Opposition to human rights is fundamentally opposition to the belief that human beings are equal. Opposing human rights means that instead, the government believes that some people can have their rights violated, if it serves the national interest. Irritation at the absolute prohibition against torture in particular, and human rights as a whole, demonstrates a stark demarcation between two groups – between the privileged ones whose human dignity is inviolable, and the few whose dignity is fair game.
Maria W. Norris is an academic researching white supremacy and terrorism in the UK. She hosts the Enemies of the People Podcast.
Follow Maria on Twitter
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For ideas about how you may resist the bill use BID Detention’s template to email your MP that the #BordersBill will criminalise refugees, erode the meagre rights of those subject to immigration control & sow further division into UK society. Click here for the petition. opposing clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill. Sign, and share on your social media channels.