Enforcing human rights Contents

7The need for a culture of human rights

133.Effective enforcement of human rights requires:

134.But as Professor Vernon Bogdanor put it: “In the last resort, the preservation of our rights depends on popular support, not on institutional mechanisms.”128 This chapter looks at the support for human rights and the extent to which there is a “human rights culture” in the United Kingdom.

135.Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty told us why she felt a human rights culture is integral to the enforcement of human rights:

“[ … ] while rights need not be popular, a sense of legitimacy and democratic buy-in is important. If there is a sense that such rights are in some way illegitimate or not credible, we will run into all kinds of obvious problems around how to enforce them and make sure that within communities the rights of others are respected.”129

136.We asked our witnesses whether such a culture currently exists in the UK. In response, they tended to draw a distinction between support for the values that underpin human rights, such as fairness, equality and protecting vulnerable people; and support for the legal frameworks that seek to protect and promote them. While there was consensus that the values underpinning human rights are deeply embedded in our national psyche, there was less confidence that there is a culture of human rights that cherishes the legal protections intended to ensure those values are translated into enforceable rights. Adam Wagner, Barrister and Founder/Chair of RightsInfo told us: “I do not think that the Human Rights Act and the European Convention are part of our national culture yet, and that is what we should be aiming towards.”130 In the sections below, we examine some of the possible reasons for this and how a stronger culture of human rights can be established.

Public attitudes towards human rights, and differences across the UK

137.A number of our witnesses cited research carried out by the Equality and Diversity Forum in 2012 on public attitudes towards human rights across the UK. This research found that while there are some (26%) who hold ‘strong hostile attitudes’ to human rights and human rights laws, and a similar number (22%) who hold ‘strong positive attitudes’, by far the largest proportion of those polled (over 50%) hold conflicting or neutral attitudes to human rights. This group are unsure whether human rights are relevant to their lives, but when this relevance is made clear their attitudes become more positive.131 There is also a widespread lack of understanding about how the HRA works; for example, about the fact that the Act does not permit courts to strike down primary legislation.132

138.In Scotland and Northern Ireland there are generally higher levels of support for human rights. In Scotland, a similar study to that described above, commissioned by the Scottish Human Rights Commission, found that 42% of those polled agree with positive statements about human rights and disagree with negative statements, while only 13% agree with negative statements and disagree with positive.133 In Northern Ireland the Human Rights Act enjoys high levels of support with 84% of the population believing it is good for Northern Ireland.134

139.We agree with the conclusion Dr. Alice Donald draws from this data that, “[i]t is therefore not true to say that there is a large core of people who are implacably opposed to rights.”135 However, the data also shows that at least in some parts of the country, there is work to be done to educate and persuade people that human rights are relevant to their lives and important enough for them to want to actively preserve them as a central feature of our democracy. Adam Wagner set out what he thinks needs to be communicated to achieve this:

“What you want to get to is a position where certain basic tenets, possibly just a couple, are popular enough to sustain the political architecture that protects human rights. First, human rights are universal. Secondly, they are a safety net for the most vulnerable in society. Thirdly, human rights are a bulwark against the overactive state.”136

140.Many of those submitting evidence felt that some influencers in the media were responsible for pushing an unbalanced negative image of human rights. There is evidence that the negative framing of human rights has a demonstrable impact on public attitudes.137 In research carried out by the Equality and Diversity Forum, focus group participants regularly cited high-profile examples of negative media stories on human rights when discussing problems with human rights and human rights laws. Their reactions to media headlines were often emotive and led quickly to vitriolic statements and positions being taken.138

Media reporting of human rights

141.Analysis of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, political blogs and parliamentary speeches shows that the dominant media narrative links human rights with “undeserving” groups, such as foreigners, criminals or prisoners. They are frequently portrayed as undermining traditional freedoms and legal protections, rather than empowering and enhancing citizenship. The graphic below shows the frequency of different frames139 being used to discuss human rights in the media broken down by country.

Graph 4: Frame Frequency

Source: Building Bridges: Connecting with values to reframe and build support for human rights, Equally Ours, Counterpoint and the Public Interest Research Centre (2016)

142.Free speech is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In our recent report on Free Speech and Universities, we underlined its fundamental importance to democratic society and we strongly support the right of media organisations to express views that are negative or even hostile towards human rights. But it would clearly be problematic if reporting were deliberately inaccurate or misleading.

143.According to Professor David Mead, inaccurate reporting of human rights cases issues is a serious problem:

“I am not alone in thinking that there is a problem with the way that some sections of the media portray human rights cases. They are either false or inaccurate in that they have just got things wrong or they misrepresent the totality either of the human rights world or of a particular case so that the readers of a specific [ … ] case or, I would argue, over time through the drip-drip preponderance of stories about X and not about Y, get a misleading view of what human rights are about.”140

144.News values do not necessarily translate into giving a full account of the big picture. This is particularly the case in relation to the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights where there has been a disconnect between media narrative and report and reality. Official statistics show that the number of ECtHR judgments against the UK finding a violation of the Convention has declined in recent years and that the UK’s ‘rate of defeat’ in Strasbourg is extremely low. But what is reported are the cases that the UK loses, which gives the public a dramatically different perspective.

Box 2: Example of misleading reporting

The front page of the Daily Mail on 15 December 2017 ran the headline “Another human rights fiasco!” The article claimed that an Iraqi ‘caught red-handed with bomb’ won £33,000 because he was kept in detention too long. In reality the claimant was awarded damages because of unlawful detention, beatings in custody, and inhuman treatment. The Court also found that the soldier’s claim that the individual had a bomb was a false embellishment. Following complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organisations, the newspaper issued two separate corrections
(on 20.12.17 and 18.01.18).141

145.We invited the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, and the editor emeritus of Associated Newspapers, Peter Wright, to give evidence as part of our inquiry but they both declined. We had hoped that they would grasp this opportunity to engage with the Committee on the interrelation between the media and human rights.

146.The Convention recognises that not all rights are absolute, and that sometimes rights have to be balanced one against another. Under the rule of law, it is the courts who have the job of deciding the balance in individual cases. It is perfectly legitimate for editorial content to argue that in a particular case a court has got that balance wrong, and that for example, action should be taken to change the law, or to defend existing law. But reporting itself should be accurate and enable readers to understand the broader context.

147.The Editors Code of Practice places a requirement on newspaper editors to correct issues ‘promptly and with due prominence.’142 It is essential that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), as the regulator, should exercise its powers to ensure that the ‘due prominence’ condition is met in accordance with its own guidance.143 We agree with Shoaib Khan that: “[i]t is not unreasonable to say that if an inaccurate article about human rights can be published on the front page, then the related correction should appear there too.”144

148.Media organisations and commentators should be accurate in their reporting of human rights cases. Where reporting is inaccurate, corrections should be published with the same due prominence as the original article.

A hierarchy of rights?

149.The Committee received submissions indicating that some rights are not given sufficient weight compared to others, which could undermine confidence in the human rights framework as some individuals feel their rights are not protected.145 ADF International commented that: “Freedom of conscience appears in all of the major human rights treaties” and submitted that “while freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right … the lack of a clear legal test to assess whether it has been violated in practice means that it is difficult to enforce.” and “recommends that the Government advances a legal test to evaluate claims of conscience to ensure the robust protection and enforceability of freedom of conscience in practice.”146

150.The Barnabas Fund raised specific concerns that the culture within some public bodies, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), “appears to conflate the promotion of human rights and ‘equality’ with promoting the ideological agenda of particular minority groups [ … ]”147 When asked in oral evidence about how the EHRC prioritised cases, David Isaac, Chair of the EHRC told us that:

“Where we think there are areas, particularly in relation to legal intervention, which are unclear or need to be resolved, we will support those, irrespective of which group it most impacts on, or whether it disadvantages a particular group. From our perspective, there is no hierarchy.”148

151.David Russell, Chief Executive of the NIHRC echoed these sentiments and told us that: “[r]ights are for everyone. There is no hierarchy; they are universal. If non-discrimination and freedom of religious belief are in the balance, the commissions have an important role to play” and spoke of the:

“[ … ] commission’s important role of ensuring that the public space for human rights is opened up to everyone. [ … ] Often, the commissions have more in common with faith-based communities than we have differences, particularly around [ … ] social and economic rights, and social justice matters, such as housing and health. There is lots of room for partnership where the perception of there being a dichotomy does not stack up in practice. That has to be voiced.”149

152.However, when asked to address concerns as to whether the EHRC had not got the balance right in recent years when considering freedom of belief alongside other rights, David Isaac said:

“I know that there are anxieties. The commission has various stakeholder groups and one is on faith and belief. There are all sorts of discussions, and we have frank but respectful debate on areas where people disagree. We listen, wherever we can, to those differing views, but I am sure we can do more.’’150

153.Government, NHRIs and human rights advocates should seek ways of engaging more effectively with the public about how different human rights are balanced, in order to address the perspectives that human rights are “for others and not for us” and that “political correctness” stifles debate. The Government should consider the introduction of a legal test to ensure that claims of conscience and faith are reasonably accommodated within the human rights framework. The rights of minority groups will always be vulnerable, and the acid test of an effective human rights system is that it must protect these groups, while ensuring the rights of the majority are also respected.

Human rights culture in public authorities

154.Section 6 of the Human Rights Act obliges public authorities to act in conformity with Convention rights unless primary legislation requires them to do otherwise. According to written evidence received from Dr. Alice Donald, “Section 6 is–or should be–the primary driver of a human rights culture in the UK.”151

155.The degree to which section 6 is performing this function appears to be patchy as it depends on awareness and training of public officials, which can vary according to the public authority. Martha Spurrier gave the example of the police’s approach to policing protests, as one where a human rights-based approach is embedded in public service delivery.152By contrast, the evidence we heard recently in our inquiry into the detention of members of the Windrush generation suggests that this culture is not yet embedded in the immigration system. The Home Office’s approach to, and handling of, Windrush immigration cases suggests a culture in the Home Office that is not aware of s 6 and not informed by a human-rights based approach.

156.Public authorities are under a duty to act compatibly with the Human Rights Act (s.6), including in administrative decision making. However, as the case of the Windrush generation detainees demonstrates, this is does not always happen. Public authorities must comply with their duty under s.6 of the Human Rights Act in order to prevent breaches of individuals’ human rights.

The role of human rights education and public legal education

157.For an individual to enforce their human rights, they firstly need to know that they have rights, and secondly need to have a basic understanding of the rule of law. This knowledge is also a pre-condition for a thriving human rights culture. The central importance of education in relation to the legal system in general, and human rights in particular, came up repeatedly in the course of the inquiry. Currently levels of knowledge and awareness are very low. As Gareth Pierce told us:

“It is imperative, through any forum or opportunity, to begin to educate. National comprehension is at a very low level. We do not have a written constitution, so in our schools we do not grow up thinking, “I have rights”, with an understanding of why.”153

158.In schools, human rights are currently part of the national curriculum at key stages 3 and 4. However, they are covered only ‘fleetingly’ as part of citizenship education and are not integrated across the curriculum.154 In academies and free schools that do not follow the national curriculum, there is no requirement to teach human rights at all.

159.We recommend that the Government should include comprehensive coverage of human rights across the curriculum at all key stages.

160.While human rights education in schools is essential, there is also a need to raise knowledge and awareness of human rights across the population. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has duties under section 9 of the Equality Act 2006 to promote an understanding of the importance of human rights and must do so more vigorously. The Commission publishes some very good education materials on human rights and plans to further enhance the information it provides to the public in the coming year.155

161.There is a strong case for better inclusion of human rights in the initial training, qualification and professional development of those working in public services.156 This could transform the way public services are developed and delivered, supporting a preventative approach to human rights enforcement.

162.Under the LASPO reforms, funding from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for public legal education and information (PLE), which existed to improve people’s understanding of the law beyond the education system, was cut.157 Lack of PLE is another barrier to the enforcement of human rights.158

163.In July 2017, the Solicitor General launched a Public Legal Education panel to support and drive forward legal education initiatives.159 We welcome this development and urge the Government to prioritise this work.


164.No one would argue that individuals should not be protected from abuse by the State, that public bodies should be able to act without lawful authority or that torture, slavery and arbitrary detention are defensible. The UK’s legal framework allows individuals to protect their rights and gives the courts the task of deciding that balance in individual cases, within the parameters set by Parliament, which include the Human Rights Act. There is legitimate debate over how best to protect rights and where the balance should be struck if rights compete. But no-one should lose sight of the fact that enforceable rights, and the ability to enforce them, are the hallmarks of a civilised country. Government, Parliament, the media and the legal profession all have a responsibility to consider the importance of the rule of law, and the role that rights which can be enforced through an independent court system plays in that.

128 Bogdanor, V. 2006. Parliament and the Judiciary: The Problem of Accountability. Third Sunningdale Accountability Lecture. Available at https://ukpac.wordpress.com/bogdanor-speech/

129 Q61 [Martha Spurrier]

130 Q60 [Adam Wagner]

134 Human Rights Consortium, Attitudes to Human Rights in Northern Ireland, July 2017

135 Q60 [Dr Alice Donald]

136 Q61 [Adam Wagner]

137 Middlesex University (AET0050)

139 In this context a frame refers to the angle or perspective from which a news story is told.

140 Q62 [David Mead].This statement is backed up by the empirical research Professor Mead set out for us in his written evidence (DRA0002).

141 British Institute of Human Rights (AET0013)

142 Independent Press Standards Organisation, Editors’ Code of Practice, 2017

143 Independent Press Standards Organisation, Due prominence guidance, 2016

144 Mr Shoaib M Khan (AET0028)

145 Barnabas Fund (AET0048); ADF International (DRA0009); Christian Concern (DRA0006); CARE (AET0016) Glasgow Disability Alliance (AET0029)

146 ADF International (DRA0009)

147 Barnabas Fund (AET0048)

148 Q56 [David Isaac]

149 Q56 [David Isaac]

150 Q56 [David Isaac]

151 Middlesex University (AET0050)

152 Q60 [Martha Spurrier]

153 Q26 [Gareth Pierce]

154 Joint submission on behalf of 37 civil society organisations, co-ordinated by the British Institute of Human Rights (AET0017)

155 Equality and Human Rights Commission (AET0037)

156 Joint submission on behalf of 37 civil society organisations, co-ordinated by the British Institute of Human Rights (AET0017)

157 LawWorks (AET0027)

158 LawWorks (AET0027); JustRights (AET0030); The Howard League (AET0031)

159 Ministry of Justice (DRA0008)

Published: 19 July 2018