The Human Rights Act of 1998 came into effect in the United Kingdom in the year 2000. Its purpose was to import the policies established by the European Convention on Human Rights into the legal system of the United Kingdom. This means that all public institutions, including courts, public schools, police and public hospitals, have to honor the rights agreed upon at the European Convention.
The European Convention on Human Rights was an international treaty approved by the European Council in the 1950s. It was meant to be a safeguard of human rights. The fact that the United Kingdom incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into its national legislation means that citizens of the United Kingdom no longer need to go to Strasbourg, where the European Court of Human Rights is located, to seek redress of what they perceive as violations of their basic rights. Instead, they can resort to courts in their own country.
The list of rights contained by the Human Rights Act of 1998 is copious. Individuals in the United Kingdom are entitled to the right to life, freedom from torture and being treated inhumanely, liberty and security, freedom from slavery, a fair trial, and also a right to avoid punishment unless punishment is justified by the citation of some article of the law. Also included in the Human Rights Act of 1998 are the rights to respect for the privacy of one’s home and domestic life, freedom of religion and thought, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the freedom to marry and raise a family, protection from discrimination with respect to which of the rights in the act one is entitled to, peaceful enjoyment of property, education, and the ability to join in free elections.
These rights can be powerful tools for an individual as he or she seeks protection from unjust authority. For instance, there was a social worker who used the right to life established by the Human Rights Act of 1998 to succesfully argue that a woman and her family should be allotted new accommodations because the woman’s ex-partner was violent. The right to life also means that there is no death penalty in the United Kingdom.
Clearly, though, granting people the right to life sounds wonderful, but, practically speaking, one will run into problems with respect to how broadly the right to life should apply. For instance, does the right to life mean that a woman cannot obtain an abortion? Does the right to life mean that a nation can never go to war? Also, one might argue that, though the execution of a criminal may involve a failure to recognize a criminal’s right to life, some might also argue that the execution of a criminal honors the right to life of innocent citizens whom the violent criminal may end up murdering.
The right to protection from torture also is controversial. Should this right be absolute? Surely, no case for torture can be made except in grave and unusual circumstances. But, it is conceivable that situations arise in which one must balance the wellbeing and contentment of one individual against that of many people, perhaps an entire nation. The obvious example here is an individual who possesses knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, but is unwilling to divulge this information. Annulling this person’s right to protection from torture could mean protection of many people’s right to life. Can one right in the Human Rights Act of 1998 be considered more important, and so supersede, another right?
The Human Rights Act of 1998 was an idealistic and ambitious maneuver of the government of the United Kingdom to bring the human rights established in the European Convention on Human Rights into its own legal policies. This list of rights can serve as a powerful tool for citizens as they try to live as happily as possible. Yet, it is clear that problems and controversies can crop up as people try to apply these rights in practical situations.