International Human Rights Day - our rights and our freedoms

by Andrea Murray

Published: 10 Dec 2015

In 1941, in the midst of the Second World War and in an effort to offer a vision for a better future, President Franklin D Roosevelt made his Four Freedoms speech.

In it he proposed four fundamental freedoms that people ‘everywhere in the world’ ought to enjoy – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. They underpin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was adopted by the UN General Assembly seven years later.

These four freedoms are the theme of this year’s Human Rights Day.

They also form a key part of the Human Rights Act, a piece of legislation that is seldom far from the front page. In May this year the government reiterated its commitment to replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

The issue has provoked strong opinion from all sides and sparked fears that the human rights protections that we all enjoy will be watered down.

Here at the Commission we have stated clearly our position - that any changes to the legal framework should strengthen and not weaken existing human rights protections.

But we welcome the chance to debate how best to protect and promote our human rights and we intend to play a full part in the upcoming consultation. For example, we see the debate as an opportunity to make the case for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to become enshrined in UK law, offering greater protection for children’s rights.

As a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), with a mandate from Parliament to promote understanding of the importance of human rights and advise government about the likely effect of proposed changes to the law, we have a particular role in this debate.

In the past few months we have been preparing the ground, speaking with our fellow NHRIs in Scotland and Northern Ireland and engaging with key stakeholders to get their views on potential changes to the human rights framework.

However, this work only takes us so far and it is only when we have seen and analysed the government’s proposals, and spoken with key groups and individuals, that we can understand and advise on their full implications.

Over the next few months the profile of human rights and the debates around how domestic law protects them is likely to intensify, and this is no bad thing. A vibrant civil society is a strong indicator of free speech and an essential ingredient of our democracy. We’re fortunate in the UK to have both dedicated human rights Non-Governmental Organisations and groups from other sectors, such as health and social care, who see human rights protections as being essential to their work. It’s important that civil society plays a full part in the debate about how human rights are protected in the UK.

The UK has long played a leading role in protecting human rights across the globe and was one of the first nations to sign the UDHR. British lawyers drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, which in 1998 was given further effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act. This year, the UK Government has led UN Human Rights Council Resolutions on Syria, Sri Lanka and Somalia. We have come a long way in the 74 years since Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech. We must work together to safeguard and build on that legacy so that the UK can continue as a world leader in protecting and promoting fundamental rights and freedoms.