Parliament’s role in the UK’s Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council
Karen Buck MP
Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Day Reception
Monday 12 December 2016
These are challenging times for human rights. Popular disaffection with politics is placing the laws and machinery that protect human rights under increasing strain. The political consensus which underpinned those protections is evaporating fast and the international institutions which protect human rights face a resurgence of isolationist nationalism and a retreat from engagement. Critics of human rights often complain about the lack of democratic legitimacy in human rights decision-making. In the face of these challenges, it is more important than ever that Parliament gets more involved in debates and discussions about human rights.
Because of its constitutional functions of making law and holding the Government to account, Parliament is well placed to be an effective protector of human rights. It can both prevent violations of human rights from arising in the first place, and it can act to implement recommendations where such violations are found to have happened, to prevent them from happening again.
But most importantly, Parliament is uniquely placed to confront directly the growing concern about the democratic legitimacy of human rights. Elected politicians can feel disempowered if the guardianship of human rights is left exclusively to courts and lawyers. The great challenge today is to find ways to ensure that democratically elected politicians have a meaningful role to play in the interpretation and application of human rights standards.
The UK’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council provides such an opportunity. The first two reviews of the UK’s human rights record, in 2008 and 2012, largely passed our Parliament by. There was no questioning of ministers about the UK’s draft Report to the Human Rights Council, and no scrutiny of or debate about that Report in Parliament before it was considered in Geneva.
Today, the UN positively encourages parliaments to play a much more proactive role in the whole UPR process, realising that parliaments are important partners for the international human rights machinery. In June this year, the Human Rights Council held a special session devoted to discussing the contribution of parliaments to the UPR process, and to identifying ways of enhancing that contribution in future.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, is currently doing some important work following up on the recent recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. I hope that this work will lead on to detailed engagement by the Committee with the UK’s UPR in the new year. Parliament should scrutinise and debate the UK’s Report to the Human Rights Council, along with the shadow reports of both civil society and the UK’s national human rights institutions including the EHRC, and that parliamentary consideration should inform the Human Rights Council itself when it conducts the review.
I welcome the EHRC’s Report and I hope that the JCHR will do everything it can to encourage detailed parliamentary engagement with the important issues it raises.
The EHRC’s report covers 12 priority themes on which it makes a number of recommendations to the UK Government and the devolved administrations. I would like to comment on three of those themes, on which I think Parliament has a particularly important role to play.
(1) Our human rights framework
The Government has created a climate of great uncertainty about the future of our legal framework for protecting human rights in this country. It says that it still intends to repeal the Human Rights Act and to replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Brexit has compounded that uncertainty, causing widespread anxiety that legal protections for human rights in the UK will be seriously diluted. Parliament must scrutinise both the Brexit process and any proposals to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights to ensure that there is no watering down of the legal protections that human rights currently enjoy.
(2) Access to justice
Effective access to justice is one of the most important human rights, because often the protection of other fundamental rights depends upon it. Yet all of the UN treaty bodies which have recently reported on the UK have expressed concern about the impact of the 2012 reforms to legal aid on access to justice in the UK. Parliament must insist on there being an urgent review of the impact of that legislation on access to justice, and should rigorously scrutinise the impact of it on vulnerable groups such as children, disabled people and minorities.
(3) Child poverty
Child poverty is an urgent human rights issue. Every child has the right to an adequate standard of living and to social protection. Much evidence suggests an alarming increase in child poverty, yet the legal framework designed to reduce it has been seriously weakened, for example by removing legally binding targets which ministers must meet. Parliament must insist on there being mechanisms capable of holding the Government to account in relation to child poverty.
The JCHR will, I hope, play its part in relation to these three themes, but this cannot be the job of one Committee alone: all Committees, and all parliamentarians, must be vigilant to ensure that no opportunity for scrutiny is missed. In these challenging times, it is no exaggeration to say that the long term survival of human rights protections depends on democratically elected politicians taking ownership of them and getting more involved in debates about their implications for law and policy.