Why the Human Rights Act matters to each and every one of us: an evening with Martha Spurrier

Author Oluwakemi

On Tuesday 20th, February, 2018, Director of Liberty and City Alumni, Martha Spurrier, whose life motto is “no fun without rules” presented a talk at City, University of London, titled: ‘Why the Human Rights Act matters to each and every one of us’.

As Spurrier was a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, before accepting the director position in 2016, it is not a surprise to report that the speech, in its delivery and content, was rousing.

“I think we live in pretty extraordinary times”.

Among the examples she mentioned was the Grenfell Tower fire in June, 2017, which “stands as a pretty dark icon”. Who knew the ‘right to sleep safely in our beds’ needed to be fought for? Another comment for reflection is the political climate change. Presently she said, “politics have put pollsters out of business”. This alludes to the last American presidential elections, which Republican candidate Donald Trump won, to the bewilderment of mainstream media. And the 2016 referendum, which asked the British public whether or not the UK (and Gibraltar) should remain in the EU, to which the response was a majority of 52% voting to leave.

Why does her opinion matter? Well, how about because for Martha, “human rights (is) the air that I breathe everyday”. Being the director of Liberty, or the National Council for Civil Liberties means everyday her objective is to head a an organisation (with a stronghold of 30 staff members) which upholds and protects rights and fundamental freedoms in the UK. No, she has not been a ‘victim’ of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), rather, her journey to this field of roses and thorns, was a purely intellectual, academic one. “Very often the people talking about the HRA are the people who have never had to use it.”  This applies to both herself and those who are trying to dilute, replace or all together remove- it. Spurrier has seen the draft for the proposed British Bill of Rights and describes the document as “terrifying…it removes all positive obligations”. However, as an organisation “founded on the right to protest”, she understands all voices have the freedom to be voiced. The quote, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’   by Evelyn. B Hall, comes to mind.

On the brighter side, Martha believes “you couldn’t do my job unless you felt optimistic”. While people live a “different life” at a “different postcode” we all have the “same hope” and there are changes to celebrate. “Activism has become mainstream,” particularly in cohesion with social media. The #Blacklivesmatter social movement, launched in 2013 to campaign against violence and systemic racism towards black people, has lead to active marches against police brutality in America and the UK.

“You watch patriarchy wobble a bit on its pedestal”.

The 2017 Women’s March, which was a protest demonstration in the name of women’s rights, gender equality, immigration reform, and more, took place worldwide 673 times, from London to Antarctica, with the flagship march in Washington.

#MeToo  has led to a legislative crackdown of gender disparity, both in representation and pay, in the higher ranks of business structures, as now from April 6th 2017, employers in Britain with more than 250 staff will be required by law to publish pay gap figures, bonuses and the proportion of men to women in key positions.

#NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough , is student led activism promoting gun control and regulations to combat gun violence and has opened a platform for national discussion on accessibility to guns in America. Their efforts led to Florida legislature being introduced which increased gun control. Additionally, there was an increase in school security funding and a  raise in the minimum age for buying a gun in Florida from 18 to 21.

Liberty, “pushes progress, resists regression”. The campaign group have created their own #KeepBritainKind in an attempt to put compassion back into politics.

However, Spurrier questions whether it is truly possible to achieve a “blue sky vision” and “defend what we already have”. Current issues Liberty are challenging include the Data Protection Bill 2017 which the government states will make our data protection laws fit for today’s digital age. Per contra, Liberty believes, if passed, it is capable of legalising a two-tier data rights regime, where immigrants have less privacy protection than British citizens. This is due to a clause in the bill which gives the government power to remove data protection rights from anyone whose details are processed for ‘effective immigration control’. “Immigration is often confined to migrant rights, not seen as a mainstream human rights issue, which has always confounded me”.

Human rights concerning mental health has become pertinent as awareness of mental disorders, such as depression, spreads and remedies ranging from mindfulness workshops- to often-pills- are prescribed. “I believe if you have the mental capacity to choose drugs, you have the choice to say no,” because “you have an inviolable mental rights bubble” says Martha.

Knowledge of our rights is an ongoing dilemma. “The HRA is a very powerful tool for very ordinary people” but how many of us really know how to use it? “Poll people in the UK, they cannot remember. If you ask an American about the Constitution, they would tell you about freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.” Which is why she feels it should be compulsory on the law curriculum everywhere.

“Stand vigil,”  she stresses, “there are things we should not tolerate being done in our name.“

Have I managed to transfer the stirring spirit of Spurrier’s speech to you? If so, maybe you feel encouraged to get involved? As Martha says, “We need everyone’s leadership, everyone’s courage”.

Visit the Liberty website, subscribe to their emailing list for updates, follow the group on social media, become a member.

Many thanks to Oluwakemi Onile-Ere (LLB2) for sharing such a fantastic evening’s talk with us…

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