Joint Committee On Human Rights Sixth Report


233. Human rights are widely misunderstood. They tend to be seen only in terms of offering protection from the worst excesses of anti-democratic and despotic regimes, or as the concern only of those who are fundamentally at odds with majority views in society.

234. Properly and more widely understood, and made a reality in the practice and policies of public authorities, human rights have the potential to be agents of positive change. There is, however, a danger that this potential will be dissipated in imprecise aspirations and pious hopes, or that human rights will be perceived as marginal to the day-to-day concerns of the UK's citizens and solely of interest to lawyers.

235. More work needs to be done to promote human rights as a set of fundamental ethical standards—for the way the state treats its citizens and for all our social relations. We need to build a culture of respect for human rights.

236. Building such a culture is an ambitious vision, and there are many barriers to achieving it. The greatest of these is ignorance. In such a culture people would be better informed about what their rights were and what they could mean in practice. The most vulnerable would be better protected from violations of their human rights. Government and public authorities would promote and protect human rights standards and treat all people with dignity, fairness and respect. Human rights standards would be generally accepted as those by which we should all strive to treat each other; and people would recognise and value both their own rights and those of others.

237. In our public services the climate of legal compliance and risk avoidance too often inhibits the development of a human rights culture. With few honourable exceptions, human rights are looked upon as something from which the state needs to defend itself, rather than to promote as its core ethical values. There is a failure to recognise the part that they could play in the promoting social justice and social inclusion and in the drive to improve public services.

238. If it is left to the courts, the original vision that the Human Rights Act should bring about a cultural change will not be realised. Litigation is an essential tool to protect the rights of the individual or groups, but it is not an effective means of developing a culture of human rights. Parliament must defend human rights and must stand at the centre of a culture of respect for human rights, but it cannot itself do the work of educating, informing, encouraging and promoting that is needed to establish this culture more widely.

239. To carry the human rights message to the public authorities of the UK will require a more direct injection of knowledge and sense of purpose than is presently trickling down from Whitehall. We believe that a human rights commission, probing, questioning and encouraging public bodies, could have a real impact in driving forward the development of a culture of respect for human rights. We believe that human rights need a credible and independent champion which stands outside the Government.

240. Disadvantaged and marginalised groups are among the people whom the Human Rights Act was supposed most directly to benefit. Human rights should provide a framework within which to negotiate with public authorities for better conditions and treatment in individual cases as well as in wider policy campaigns. But the message about what human rights can do for citizens in their relations with the state is only faintly heard. Much of the cause for this state of affairs, we believe, can be ascribed to the absence of an independent voice to promote and help protect human rights in the UK.

241. We need a human rights commission. That commission must have a clear mission, and it must be given the powers and functions to fulfil that mission. It must have sufficient resources to do the job it has been given, and its budget must be set in an open and transparent way. It must be independent from Government, and seen to be so. It must belong to the people and be accountable to them through Parliament.

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