Dr Birgit Schippers


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In 1982, two women, Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans, brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Mrs Campbell and Mrs Cosans objected to the use of corporal punishment in UK schools against parental wishes. Their concerns, which were supported by the Court’s ruling, led to a change in British legislation and a ban on corporal punishment in state schools in 1986.


History is littered with examples of the courageous actions of individuals and communities, whose struggles for rights, equality, dignity and non-discrimination forced Parliament to act and introduce changes in the law. They include the fight to abolish the slave trade and slavery; campaigns to extend voting rights to women and working-class communities, and to recognise the rights of working people to form trade unions.


These struggles are far from over. There are ongoing campaigns for equal pay, equal opportunities and non-discrimination in the workplace; for racial equality; and for the equal rights for LGBTQ+ people. Only recently, thousands of young people protested against the decision to determine GCSE and A-level results by algorithms. For the UK’s class of 2020, algorithms became a symbol of computer-generated inequality and injustice.


Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. States, acting through their governments, have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil our human rights.  National parliaments also play an important role in meeting these obligations.


In the UK Parliament, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has a special responsibility to protect, promote and enhance human rights. The committee is made up of twelve members: six members are appointed from the House of Commons and six members are appointed from the House of Lords.


The key role of the Joint Committee is to scrutinize whether UK Government Bills are compatible with human rights. It focuses on those Bills that could pose significant human rights challenges.


This work covers a wide range of issues. Recent activities examined the reform of the Mental Health Act; the Police Reform Bill; the Windrush Compensation Scheme; the Environment Bill; espionage legislation; and the human rights impact of the Overseas Operations Bill, which aims to introduce hurdles before prosecutions can be brought against British service personnel for offences committed during overseas operations.


The Committee can also hold inquiries. These offer a really important opportunity for individuals, groups and organisations to feed their views, concerns and expertise into the work of Parliament. Current inquiries centre on the human rights implications of the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and on Black people, racism and human rights.


When assessing whether a Bill is compatible with human rights, the Joint Committee uses three benchmarks. These are:

  • The UK Human Rights Act 1998
  • The fundamental rights and liberties that are protected by common law
  • The UK’s obligations under international human rights law.


The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) has particular significance: it incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights, which was signed by the member states of the Council of Europe in 1950, into UK domestic law.


The HRA gives UK courts the power to overturn decisions made by public authorities, such as local government or police forces, if these violate the provisions of the HRA. But courts do not have the power to overturn legislation passed by Parliament, even if such legislation is found to be incompatible with European Convention rights.


The principle of parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament has the ultimate authority to either pass, change, or overturn legislation. This arrangement points to a complex relationship between the actions of Parliament and the protection of our human rights.


The effective functioning of parliamentary democracy requires respect for human rights. This includes respect for the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of assembly and association, and of course the right to vote. Laws passed by Parliament should protect our rights. But Parliament can also change laws, or introduce new legislation, which could limit our human rights.


As individuals, we can take action to protect and enhance our human rights:

  • We can learn more about our human rights
  • We can become involved in human rights campaigns
  • We can lobby and petition our MPs
  • We can make submissions to parliamentary inquiries
  • We can highlight human rights abuses - whether they happen locally, nationally or internationally
  • We can exercise our right to vote


Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), the former President of South Africa and campaigner against his country’s apartheid regime of racial segregation and discrimination, once said that ‘To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity’. Remember: human rights start with you.


Dr Birgit Schippers is Senior Lecturer in Politics at St Mary's University College Belfast. She works in the areas of human rights, international ethics, and new technologies. Recent publications include Critical Perspectives on Human Rights (RLI 2018) and The Routledge Handbook to Rethinking Ethics in International Relations (Routledge 2020).