Human Rights Act, ECHR and Government accountability

5 ways the European Convention on Human Rights makes the UK a better place

Posted on 30 Aug 2023

We all want to live in a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. The European Convention on Human Rights helps us towards this dream. Here’s how.

1. The ECHR puts your basic rights into law

The European Convention on Human Rights (often shortened to just ECHR) was drafted in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Its goal was to make sure the atrocities committed would never be repeated, by declaring the basic rights and freedoms of every single person which must be respected and protected by the State.

The United Kingdom played an important role in the birth of the Convention. Winston Churchill was a driving force behind it, and British lawyers were key to drafting the text.

The ECHR came into force 70 years ago on 3 September 1953, guaranteeing everyone’s fundamental rights in law for the first time.

2. The ECHR protects every single person in the UK

The United Kingdom was one of the first States to sign up to the ECHR way back in 1951.

The very first part of the document (Article 1) makes clear that States that sign up to it pledge to respect the Convention rights of “everyone within their jurisdiction”.

This means the ECHR protects every single person in the UK. Not just a privileged few. Not just British citizens. Everyone.

Our rights are interconnected – either everyone has human rights, or no one does. There is no in-between and States can’t lawfully remove human rights from one group of people.

All the rights and freedoms we are familiar with come from the ECHR.

It protects all of us from things like torture, unlawful killing and slavery, and guarantees our freedom of speech, assembly, religion, privacy and much more.

3. The ECHR empowers you to challenge abuse of your rights

As we’ve already noted, States that have signed up to the ECHR have pledged to respect everyone’s rights.

And the European Court of Human Rights exists to enforce this if a State fails.

There have been several cases where the Court has protected and even advanced human rights in the UK.

  • Freedom of expression for the press comes from a case known as Sunday Times from 1979.
  • The decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Northern Ireland came about thanks to a case called Dudgeon from 1981.
  • A case called Smith and Grady made clear that banning LGBT+ people from serving in the Armed Forces breaches human rights.
  • A Liberty case known as Eweida, said the State has to make sure private companies respect the religious freedom of their employees.
  • A case called Goodwin made clear the State has a duty to provide disabled people with appropriate care.

The list goes on.

And the ECHR is capable of changing with the times – it’s what is known as a ‘living instrument’. For example, a case called Goodwin established the right to change a person’s legal gender in the UK.

4. The ECHR led to our Human Rights Act

Our Human Rights Act incorporates the Convention rights into UK law.

The HRA (as it’s known for short) forces public authorities – like government departments, local councils, the police and hospitals – to put measures in place to respect your rights. These are known as ‘positive obligations’. And if public authorities fall short, the HRA empowers you to challenge them in British courts, rather than having to go all the way to the European Court.

These positive obligations mean the Human Rights Act is protecting all of us, every day, and it’s unlikely you will ever have to start a legal case to defend your rights.

Just like the Convention, the HRA applies to everyone equally.

When making new laws, our Human Rights Act also requires the Government to ensure proposals do not breach your rights. And in court cases, judges have to interpret laws in a way that respect your rights.

5. The ECHR helps secure peace in Northern Ireland

The Convention is baked into the Northern Ireland peace process.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a historical deal supported by both the North and South of Ireland that brought an end to the violence of the Troubles.

The Agreement placed a duty on the UK Government to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Irish law so that people could challenge injustice in the courts if their rights were breached.

This was achieved through our Human Rights Act, which – as we’ve said – forces public authorities to respect your rights, and gives you the power to challenge them in court if they don’t.

The European Convention on Human Rights is one of the great humanitarian achievements, helping to keep everyone in the UK safe and free.

Liberty will always support and fight to protect the UK’s membership of the ECHR.


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