Libya stands on the brink of a new future, one that holds out the promise of democracy and freedom after 40 years of oppression. One of the most important tasks facing the interim government is the prevention of reprisals. That is why David Cameron and I have urged the National Transitional Council to exercise restraint and respect for human rights.
Britain has a proud history of international leadership on human rights. It was our political leadership and legal expertise that led to the creation of the European convention on human rights in 1950, a convention modelled on centuries of English law. That leadership matters now more than ever.
Yet something strange has happened in recent years: while governments have continued the call for greater rights abroad, they have belittled the relevance of rights at home. The Labour government that passed the Human Rights Act then spent years trashing it, allowing a myth to take root that human rights are a foreign invention, unwanted here, a charter for greedy lawyers and meddlesome bureaucrats.
This myth panders to a view that no rights, not even the most basic, come without responsibilities; that criminals ought to forfeit their very humanity the moment they step out of line; and that the punishment of lawbreakers ought not to be restrained by due process.
The reality is that those who need to make use of human rights laws to challenge the decisions of the authorities are nearly always people who are in the care of the state: children’s homes, mental hospitals, immigration detention, residential care. They are often vulnerable, powerless, or outsiders, and are sometimes people for whom the public feels little sympathy. But they are human beings, and our common humanity dictates that we treat them as such.
There is, of course, a sensible discussion to be had about the details of how the act operates. In November the UK takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, and the government wants to take the opportunity to advance the reform of the European court of human rights, for example to improve the timeliness and consistency of its decision-making. At home, the government has set up a commission to investigate the case for establishing a UK bill of rights. It has long been my party’s policy to use a bill of rights to deepen our commitment to the protections of the Human Rights Act, and also to protect other British liberties, such as the right to jury trial.
But the biggest problem with the Human Rights Act is not how it operates in the courts, nor how it interacts with other rights. It is how it is manipulated not just by the media but by overcautious officials. It was, for example, of no help to anyone when police spokespeople blamed human rights for a decision to deliver a KFC meal to a fugitive on a roof: this had nothing to do with the Human Rights act. There is no human right to fried chicken.
So, as Cameron has said, we need to “get a grip on the misrepresentation of human rights”. Too many people have succumbed to a culture of legal paranoia where common sense decisions are questioned – not by the courts, but by overcautious lawyers and officials. This creates an ever-worsening cycle: the more we perpetuate the myth that, in the words of Jack Straw, human rights are a “villains’ charter”, the more those dealing with lawbreakers curtail their behaviour because of a general sense that rights trump common sense. The friends of human rights have the most to gain if we get a grip on this. We must give public officials back the confidence that reasonable decisions taken in the public interest will be defended by the courts – as they usually are when they actually reach the courts.
Court judgments themselves tend to tell a very different story about our rights culture than tabloid papers. The Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights have been instrumental in preventing local authorities from snooping on law-abiding families, in removing innocent people from the national DNA database, in preventing rapists from cross-examining their victims in court, in defending the rights of parents to have a say in the medical treatment of their children, in holding local authorities to account where they have failed to protect children from abuse, in protecting the anonymity of journalists’ sources, and in upholding the rights of elderly married couples to be cared for together in care homes.
Some of these cases were decided in Strasbourg; many others were resolved by British courts thanks to the incorporation of the convention into domestic law under the Human Rights Act. I believe that was a hugely positive step which has done three things: it has ended the long delays people used to experience before they could get a hearing at Strasbourg, embedded the principles of the ECHR in our own courts, and sent a powerful message to the rest of the world about the value we place on human rights. So as we continue to promote human rights abroad, we must ensure we work to uphold them here at home. We have a proud record that we should never abandon.
Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister.