Reasonable people can and do differ about the extent to which human rights should be protected by courts, and the extent to which questions about rights are ultimately issues of policy that should be reserved to democratic, political institutions such as Parliament. (However much one might disagree with him, Lord Sumption JSC — who has expressed conservative views about the role of the courts in relation to human rights — is surely a reasonable person.) And in the UK (or any other Council of Europe member state) reasonable people can and do also differ about how the judicial task of upholding human rights — to the extent that that ought to be a judicial task — should be shared between national judges and the European Court of Human Rights.
However, particularly at a time when at least one major political party appears to be contemplating radical changes to the way in which human rights are upheld in the UK, it is crucial that these legitimate disagreements take the form of reasoned debate. Such debate is possible only if it is well-informed and evidence-based. Yet a great deal of the debate about human rights, at least as it plays out within the political arena and the mainstream media, is anything but. Far too often, it is based on myths and misconceptions. Theresa May’s speech to the 2011 Conservative Party conference — in which she claimed, wholly incorrectly, that human-rights law had prevented someone from being deported because he had a pet cat — is one of my favourite examples. Amusing though that illustration might be, there is a more serious point here. Legal and political discourse is debased by the failure of many politicians and highly influential sections of the media to engage with the reality, as opposed to the mythology, of human-rights law. Opportunities to bash “liberal” judges and to vent Eurosceptic opinions by pointing the finger at the European Court of Human Rights frequently substitute for reality-based, thoughtful discussion.
I am delighted, therefore, that Adam Wagner’s RightsInfo Project — launched earlier this week — provides an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to engage with questions concerning human rights on the basis of what the law actually is, rather than the caricature that is frequently encountered in the press. The RightsInfo website is beautifully designed, exceptionally clearly written, and makes wonderful use of graphics to explain key issues. Good starting points are the sections on human-rights myths and the 50 human-rights cases that everyone needs to know about. (My own suggestions about cases that feature among that selection can be found here.) New content is being added to the site regularly; you can subscribe here, or follow @rights_info on Twitter.