Liberty condemns Justice Minister's Human Rights Act remarks

By staff writers
December 10, 2008

Civil liberties campaigners have condemned UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw for comments in a newspaper article casting doubts on the Human Rights Act and saying that it may be likened to a "criminal's charter".

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, declared today: "The public will have to judge this latest headline and decide if Britain's freedoms are safe in Mr Straw's hands."

She added: "They will notice the sheer cheek of a government that has passed mountains of legislation seeking to 'rebalance' power still further so that we owe them even more 'responsibilities'."

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Ms Chakrabarti said that polling on behalf of Liberty showed that the principles of the Human Rights Act were overwhelmingly supported by the public.

But she added that it was "shameful" that only 13 per cent of the public were aware of their own rights under the Act, and that the Justice Secretary appeared to be seeking to undermine it.

While accepting that we had important responsibilities towards each other as human beings, she questioned the notion that every legal right was balanced by a corresponding obligation, such that some people deemed "bad" could be excluded from proper protection.

Mr Straw said today that he was "greatly frustrated" by the way the Human Rights Act was sometimes interpreted by the courts.

The justice secretary also said that he could understand why the act was seen as a "villains' charter" by its critics.

In an interview with the Daily Mail newspaper, which has constantly ridiculed the Act, Straw (who introduced it 10 years ago when he was Home Secretary) said he would soon be publishing plans to "rebalance" the legislation with new "responsibilities" to obey the law and to be loyal to the country.

"In due course I could envisage that there could be additions made to work in the issues of responsibilities," he said.

Mr Straw said there was public concerns about the way the act, which enshrined the European convention on human rights into UK law, had been used in some cases by prisoners to avoid punishment or to prevent the deportation of Islamist extremists.

He blamed "nervous" judges for refusing to accept assurances from ministers that such removals were in the national interest.

"I fully understand that [Daily Mail readers] have concerns about the Human Rights Act," he said.

The comments were strongly criticised today by civil liberties activists, who suggested that British freedoms were not safe in Straw's hands - and that an attack on an important piece of legislation was an "absolutely astonishing" way for the British government to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration on human rights - which falls on 10 December 2008.

Critics point out that it is for the government and Crown to prove its accusations against people, not Ministers to attack the judicial system for protecting basic rights and freedoms.

A Justice Ministry spokesperson said that Mr Straw had not called the Human Rights Act a "criminals' charter" himself. but had "merely said that he understood whey critics could call it so".

But campaigners say that the distinction will be lost on many people, and seems to have been designed to cause confusion.

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