Anyone who’s had access to the internet or a newspaper this year will agree that the events that transpired have caused a great deal of concern for human rights across the world. This year alone, we saw the inauguration of President Trump, the Grenfell tragedy and chaos at the Brexit negotiations table to name a few of 2017’s most memorable moments.
But during this year’s HRLA Annual Review, at Allen and Overy LLP, as human rights defenders from all stages of their careers came together, we were reminded of the small victories that should be celebrated in 2017. The exceptional panel of speakers, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (Doughty Street Chambers), Dominic Grieve QC MP, Angela Jackman (Simpson Millar), Afua Hirsch (The Guardian) and Conor Gearty (Matrix Chambers) – with the HRLA’s own, Angela Patrick (Doughty Street Chambers) taking the Chair – all concurred that it is important to celebrate our victories, and to look ahead to what will certainly be an eventful 2018.
Baroness Kennedy pointed out that there are still many people who continue to fight for our rights in these dark times. She congratulated superwoman Baroness Hale for her appointment as the head of the Supreme Court and Sir Rabinder Singh as the first BME Court of Appeal Judge to be elected in the UK.
Of course, a hot topic was chief rebel Dominic Grieve’s defying act against the Government the previous night in Parliament, leading the Conservative uprising against Clause 9 of the Brexit Bill. Heralded by some as a national treasure, others as public enemy No.1, his small act of defiance reminded us that with increasing uncertainty about the fate of the Human Rights Act, and EU citizens’ residency in the UK, Parliament must be at the forefront of protecting people’s rights.
Angela Jackson’s year contained a mixture of highs and lows for women’s reproductive rights. Her case to allow women from Northern Ireland access to NHS abortion services narrowly lost at the Supreme Court this year. Thanks to the staunch effort of campaigners, the case has been taken forward to the European Court of Human Rights as there are still legal issues that need to be addressed.
Afua Hirsch and Conor Gearty put our national human rights conversation in a global context. Hirsch pointed out the impact of Robert Mugabe’s departure from public office in Zimbabwe, and the Supreme Court’s rendering of employment tribunal fees illegal. This decision emphasised that people must have unimpeded access to the courts to defend their rights. Meanwhile, Gearty declared that Macron’s election in France prevented Marine Le Pen and the far-right from gaining further influence across Europe.
A number of the speakers reminded us that one of the greatest challenges to rights comes from poverty. Criticism was laid at the door of austerity policies pursued by the current Government and previous Governments who had paved the way. Unsurprising concern was raised for the state of legal aid and the sustainability of “poor man’s law” in a climate where young lawyers found it increasingly difficult to build a sustainable practice in social welfare and criminal law.
As an aspiring human rights lawyer, tonight reminded me that those spearheading the change in 2018 will be the rebels who are brave enough to stand up against authorities and declare that they are wrong. This might be difficult in our ‘Fake News’ world, where human rights defenders are increasingly subject to media witch-hunts. But this is often an indicator that we are doing something right. It has become more important than ever to defend our rights, no matter the risks attached.
I left that night with Baroness Kennedy’s call to the young lawyers in the audience ringing in my mind. Our fight for human rights may be long and tiring, but it is our small victories which remind us that the highs will always outweigh our lows. I have no doubt that these words will inspire any future rebel among us.
Toby Varian recently completed a master’s in Public International Law at Leiden University, and is an aspiring human rights lawyer. He is currently working as a Research Fellow for Adalah Yemen.