Equality and human rights watchdog: human rights are not up for debate
As we mark Human Rights Day 2022, Chairwoman of the EHRC, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, writes that more should be done to ensure they remain protected today and for future generations.
Human Rights Day is celebrated internationally on 10 December, commemorating the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Human rights apply to everyone and are important because they represent people’s basic needs. They help to protect vulnerable groups from abuse, allow people to love who they choose, practise the religion they want, and ensure equal access to education and work opportunities.
We have human rights from birth and they are ensured in the UK by both domestic and international law. In the UK they are currently protected by the Human Rights Act 1998 and anyone who is in the UK for any reason is protected by this Act, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is a statutory public body established by the Equality Act 2006. Our job is to help make Britain fairer. We do this by safeguarding and enforcing the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect and we are ready to take tough action against those who abuse the rights of others.
Last month, the EHRC was re-accredited as an ‘A-status’ National Human Rights Institution which gives us speaking rights at the UN Human Rights Council, the UN treaty bodies and access to important channels for influencing human rights both in Britain and globally.
‘A-status’ is also strong evidence that we operate independently of undue outside influence.
We also actively participate in the UN process to review the UK’s actions to improve human rights, known as the Universal Periodic Review.
Last month we attended a meeting in Geneva where other countries suggested actions for the UK government to take forward to further protect human rights. These focused on UK immigration policies as well as on the UK Government’s proposed Bill of Rights and other human rights commitments. We also submitted 29 recommendations to the governments of the UK and Wales.
Part of our human rights role is to advise on new legislation when it impacts on human rights. For example, in March we set out our concerns about the potential implications for human rights within the draft Bill of Rights which would repeal and replace the Human Rights Act 1998 and, in our view, risks reducing human rights protections for certain groups and limiting access to redress. Additionally, we published a briefing on the Public Order Bill, with concerns about proposed changes to the right to peaceful protest.
We have taken other action to protect human rights in Britain. The pandemic had a profound impact on all of us and the repercussions are still being felt, particularly as it highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities and disparities in access to essential services such as healthcare and education.
In 2023, we will publish a report following our inquiry into how older and disabled adults in England and Wales, and their unpaid carers, can challenge local council decisions about their social care.
In 2021, we also published an inquiry report into the use of restraint in schools, following concerns about its use on children and young people with disabilities. The Government is now implementing our recommendations. We are similarly pressing the Government to do more than the actions in its Building the Right Support plan, to reduce the number of patients inappropriately detained in secure hospitals, with risks to their human rights.
Similarly, we recently contacted Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust over allegations of abuses against patients with autism and learning disabilities in Edenfield Centre Mental Health Unit.
In these ways, we work as Britain’s human rights watchdog to protect the human rights of people in health, social care, education and elsewhere too.
There is still more to be done.
The human rights we enjoy today have been hard won. Our role is to make sure they remain protected today and for future generations, so that governments and others fulfil their obligations to uphold rights, and we can all live freely and fairly in a rights-respecting society.
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