Boris Johnson cannot be trusted to defend Human Rights

Stephen Delahunty

Last week just 0.13 % of the population voted in a man to be the next Prime Minister whose commitment to human rights is as dubious as his voting record on the subject.

The inevitability of Boris Johnson’s coronation as Conservative party leader and Prime Minister rendered the leadership contest something of a dud, despite his proclamation that he was the “dude” to unite the country, before blaming half of it for lacking optimism. 

Beyond his usual outlandish narcissism it is not clear what his promise to ‘deliver, unite, defeat, and energise’ will mean for protections afforded under the Human Rights Act. Introduced in 1998, it incorporates the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic British law, and it sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to.

However, the previous government failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act post-Brexit, and there is no evidence to suggest that Johnson, an ardent Euroscpetic who was taken to court under allegations of misconduct in a public office for claims made during the Leave campaign, can be trusted to maintain the Act’s commitments.

His party has previously pledged to replace the act with a British Bill of Rights, although Johnson missed a vote on whether to repeal the Human Rights Act in 2016.

Several human rights groups have already outlined what they think are the key issues that Johnson needs to address. Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said that he must work to resolve the case of British Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was arrested in 2016 while visiting relatives and accused of spying by Tehran.

Although the last time the former foreign secretary intervened he failed to secure her release and Iranian officials cited his words as evidence that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime”. Nazanin’s husband has since called on Johnson to acknowledge his mistake.

Allen also said Johnson should work to empower women and girls and reunite refugee families torn apart by conflict and persecution. As foreign secretary, Johnson gave a speech to the UN Human Rights Council stating: “We could achieve virtually every sustainable development goal – if only we could provide every girl in the world with at least 12 years of quality education”.

Despite his trademark bluster Johnson has consistently voted against laws to promote equality and human rights and was absent for a vote on the Impact of Tax and Benefit Changes on Women and Protected Groups in 2016.

On foreign affairs, watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described his approach to human rights as “weak, inconsistent, and often incoherent”. London’s diplomatic efforts in Egypt and Myanmar have “lacked leadership”, and documents released last year suggested that Johnson pushed the government to continue UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite concerns UK arms are contributing to “significant” civilian deaths in the Saudi-coalition’s war in Yemen.

The former journalist has been sacked from previous roles for making up quotes and lying about an affair, while his history of racist, homophobic and anti-LGBT slurs suggest he is not suddenly going to become a friend to minority communities at home or internationally.

He has also been referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for Islamophobic comments, and once wrote a lengthy Spectator column arguing that the best thing for Africa would be for the old colonial powers to return. If trust and words are to matter in politics, the new Prime Minister’s grasp of language, history and culture make him unfit to hold office.

Ultimately the Old Etonian’s approach to human rights may be best judged by the company he keeps – Johnson has courted the same white nationalist Svengali that installed his floppy haired equivalent in the White House – and he has just appointed arguably the most anti-human rights cabinet to date. The no-deal Brexit his cabinet are advocating could see many human rights protections currently enjoyed by UK citizens lost, including employment rights, equality and privacy. 

The new Prime Minister used his first speech in the Commons to declare a new “Golden Age” – but if Johnson’s record is anything to go by – human rights protections could hark back to the Stone Age.

Sign up!

If you’d like to know more about the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and our campaigns, sign up to our mailing list here.

LCHR call for the Labour Party to commit to a fully-funded legal aid system

Stephen Delahunty

The Labour Campaign for Human Rights (LCHR) is calling on the Labour Party to commit to a fully-funded and reformed legal aid system by adopting the recommendations of the Bach Commission on Access to Justice in full.

The report was commissioned by the Fabian Society and has the backing of Lord Falconer, Andy Slaughter MP, and grassroots groups like the Society of Labour Lawyers. Its recommendations would help reverse the Conservative government’s cuts to legal aid and improve the right to justice for millions of vulnerable people across the UK.

After almost a decade of cuts, legally aided matters have fallen from over 900,000 (2009/10) to less than 15,000 (2017/18), and the number of not-for-profit legal advice centres has more than halved in 10 years. While nearly a million people are living in areas where there is no legal aid provision for housing, and a further 15 million in areas with only one provider.

Shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon MP, committed to reform in 2018, but no further action has been taken. LCHR are now calling for the shadow justice team to adopt the recommendations in full as party policy and to include them in Labour’s next manifesto.

The recommendations include legislating for a new Right to Justice Act, which would establish a right to reasonable legal assistance that would be legally enforceable in the courts, as well as broadening the scope of civil legal aid and the legal aid eligibility rules. This would allow more people to access legal advice across the UK.

Matthew Turner, chair and executive director of the LCHR said: “Rights granted to British citizens are meaningless unless they can be enforced in the courts. That is why we are calling on Labour to treat the right to justice as a fundamental human right. Legal aid cannot be seen as a fringe issue.”

Labour MP and former barrister Andy Slaughter said that the Government’s own review had found that legal aid has been cut well below effective levels but it was still unwilling to act. 

Former Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice Lord Falconer said it was critical that Labour commit to restoring legal aid to levels that mean the poorest in society have genuine access to the law.

He added: “At the moment only the rich have those protections, and safeguards must be built in which stop any future government from dismantling those protections.”