Bill of Rights Commission is an opportunity to re-ignite rights debate

So Mr Cameron’s Bill of Rights is to be considered by a commission. Another bauble from the election campaign becomes another can to be kicked down that proverbial road. In yesterday’s Higher Education Supplement Colin Harvey and Colm O Ceineide have a great precis on how it came to this:

There exists little if any public demand for a new Bill of Rights. The commission has been established primarily to placate critics of the Human Rights Act. The Act already protects individual rights and liberties by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights. However, its right-wing critics have pressed for the Act to be replaced with a Bill of Rights that would better reflect their libertarian, anti-European and conservative values. As a result, many civil liberties campaigners fear that the commission will become a Trojan Horse, opening the way for the Act to be replaced by toothless substitute legislation.

The composition of the commission has also raised some eyebrows. Selected via a political deal, its membership is all white, and all male (with the exception of Baroness Helena Kennedy QC). It also seems to reflect a 50:50 split between rights advocates and sceptics, with leading experts in human rights law such as Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC and Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law at University College London, joining prominent critics of the Act. As a result, the commission may struggle to reach a consensus when it reports by the end of 2012.

If the esteemed gentlemen and ladies will forgive the comparison, it’s the old ‘two-ferrets-in-a-sack’ track. And yet Messers Harvey and O Cinneide:

…believe there are reasons to support focused and cautious engagement with the work of the commission. To begin with, its terms of reference make it clear that its task is to consider ways of building on the existing levels of rights protection afforded by the European Convention, not to dismantle this crucial safety net. This may make it possible to have an intelligent and inclusive debate about human rights free from distortion and hysteria.

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