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Wales – a beacon for human rights?

December 10th 2019

On International Human Rights Day, Michael Imperato, Partner & Head of Public & Administrative law at Watkins Gunn and a Trustee of the Bevan Foundation, asks if an ancient city in Turkey could be a model for human rights in Wales.

Human rights are basic moral principles that are enforced by law. They include the right to: a fair trial; life; education; freedom of speech; the freedom of assembly and association; free and fair elections, and others.  Human rights are enjoyed by everyone, including migrants and refugees.

On that basis, what is there not to like?

Human rights have become an area of controversy and are regularly attacked as an example of weakness, of pandering to those who would seek to attack authority and the country.  Should Wales ‘buck the trend’ and instead brand itself as the home of human rights – a shining beacon and exemplar for the rest of Europe?

Laws protecting basic rights have a long history, going back at least 800 years to the Magna Carta, through the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the American Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and, more recently, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is an international treaty that protects human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. It is a simple list of the key rights that people need to live a dignified life. It is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) made the human rights in the European Convention part of UK law. It means public authorities like councils, hospitals and the police must protect human rights. If human rights are breached, UK citizens can go to their local court to enforce their rights.

Everyone in Wales is currently entitled to the rights in the ECHR, HRA and in EU law. Some Welsh laws are linked to international human rights law. The Government of Wales Act 2006 and the Wales Act 2017 stipulate that the Assembly cannot make decisions or laws that do not comply with human rights legislation.

However, can Wales go further?

A model for the future might lie in the unlikely location of Turkey, and in its third City of Izmir. Izmir is a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Known as Smyrna in antiquity, it was founded by the Greeks, taken over by the Romans and rebuilt by Alexander the Great before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.

It is a long established regional legal centre with a Bar Association being set up in 1908. Izmir Bar Association takes a view that the central government is moving away from human rights. The Local Bar in Izmir considers that, with Izmir being a large and outward-facing Mediterranean City, it is well placed to develop a local model of human rights both to benefit the City and also to act as a bulwark against the central government.

The vision of Izmir as a capital of human rights is based on the realisation of a developmental model of human rights through the cooperation of local administrations and non-governmental organisations. With this in mind, the Izmir Bar will raise the profile of Human rights within its local public sector and encourage local administrations to sign up to the Bar Associations list of Human Right objectives.

Crucially the Izmir Bar needs to establish international networks, host meetings and to attend meetings with Human rights organisations and other countries where Human rights is to the fore. In this way the Izmir Bar Association hopes to change the atmosphere and perceptions that might surround Turkey. It hopes to present an exemplary development model based on Human rights.

Izmir hopes to be the first city to put the concept of the City Human Rights into action. These include:

  • Rights in the fields of healthy food, water and housing.
  • Establish an economic, social and cultural rights assembly.
  • Be an accessible City for the disabled.
  • Become an international centre for the trade union movement.
  • Promote and execute the concept of a woman-friendly city.
  • Become a children and elderly-friendly city.
  • Enable access to justice for people of all backgrounds.
  • Become a city where discriminatory practices for disadvantaged are eradicated.
  • Put UN sustainable development goals into practice in all city local authorities.

Further, it is hoped to develop an Aegean Human Rights Village. This will become a centre for academics, students, legal experts and activists in the field. They will host a Human Rights Village Library led by the UN and Council of Europe. There will be human rights days, film festivals and winter markets. It is hoped to set up an Izmir Human Rights University which will be designed as a specialised institution that will provide education in the field of Human Rights.  All this will assist Izmir in becoming a leading city in the Eastern Mediterranean just as it was in historical times. This will assist in raising the city’s profile, its standing and economic vitality.

Could Izmir be a model for Wales or Welsh cities?

Withdrawing from the EU does not mean withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the process will have a significant impact on the legal framework that protects human rights in the UK. A complete withdrawal from the EU would mean that the UK would no longer have to comply with the human rights obligations contained within the EU Treaties, the General Principles of EU law (which include respect for fundamental rights) or EU directives and regulations protecting rights.

Just as in Izmir, Wales could be seen as British bulwark against dilution of human rights and fundamental freedoms. In a way this move has already started: Cardiff will be the first major urban area in the UK to to be recognised for their ambitious plans to make Cardiff a Living Wage City; the Welsh  Children and Young Person’s Rights Measure 2011 places a duty on Welsh Ministers to have due regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in their decision-making, and the Welsh Social Services and Well-being Act requires Welsh Ministers to have due regard to the UN Principles for Older Persons.

Rather than see human rights as a Europe-imposed encumbrance, Wales should consider embracing the principles and follow the Izmir example as making Human rights a legal, economic and social driver and USP for Wales going forward.  That would extend to all people, including migrants and refugees in Wales.

Michael Imperato is Partner & Head of Public & Administrative law at Watkins Gunn and a Trustee of the Bevan Foundation

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