Britain’s Failed Human Rights Revolution

LONDON – The budget-cutting austerity program of Britain’s new coalition government has been claiming all the headlines, but David Cameron’s cabinet is breaking with its Labour predecessor in another key area as well: human rights. Indeed, the human-rights experiment that Tony Blair’s Labour government brought to Britain has failed.

Faulted by some for its inability to prevent “illiberal” anti-terrorism measures, the Human Rights Act is criticized by just as many others for hampering counter-terrorism policy. Indeed, many people mock the very notion of human rights, which is seen as leading to “loony” concessions that favor criminals and terrorists. Overall, the reaction of both press and public is one of disillusion and/or cynicism.

Britain famously has no written constitution, or, until recently, anything resembling a modern Bill of Rights. Instead, we have Magna Carta and cricket. The concept of universal human rights is literally foreign – enshrined in the broad-brush principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, whose court sits in Strasbourg. Until recently, anyone who wished to bring a human-rights case against the British government had to go to France.

Times changed when Tony Blair came to power in 1997. With fanfare and idealism – reflected in the slogan “Rights Brought Home” – the Human Rights Act came into effect in 2000. But the high-minded liberalism of the then-elite had a practical point as well: should the government have any soiled linen, it should be laundered in British courts rather than be aired before a panel of international judges.