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David Cameron: Rights Revisited

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(Lord) David Cameron is back in the political picture, finding a position in Sunak’s cabinet after yet another reshuffle. In light of this, it is important to remind ourselves of just a few instances where he has attempted to grapple with certain human rights issues, and to predict where he will fit into the ever-changing, unpredictable Tory Government under Rishi Sunak, a Government whose views have not always necessarily lined up with Cameron’s.

From when he first took on the role as Leader of the Opposition in 2005, to his rare appearances post-Brexit, Cameron has, on many occasions, been probed on his stances on issues that typically fall under the umbrella of human rights.

Here, his LGBTQ record, his (strained) relationship with the European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and his firm support for the UK Prevent programme, a counterterrorism strategy created under Blair’s New Labour, will be analysed.

Cameron and the legalisation of Same-Sex Marriage – a trailblazer or merely ‘lip service’?

Cameron’s premiership is celebrated for the long overdue legalisation of same-sex marriage, through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. But the role of Cameron in said change is inconclusive. He certainly vocalised support for this change, and celebrated its success in Parliament, even writing an article for PinkNews the following year of the Act’s passing.

There is no doubting that this Act was a huge step towards increased equality for the LGBTQ community, but can the success be attributed to Cameron?

Attitude noted that Cameron may have supported gay marriage, but by refusing to apply the party whip, ‘he wasn’t willing to compromise his own reputation within the party to ensure equality reached LGB people’. The ‘free’ vote for the Tory MPs resulted in 58% not voting in favour for legalisation of same-sex marriage, the Bill only succeeding because of support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats (of whom 84% and 80% voted in favour respectively). Cameron was willing to voice support for the cause but did not want to extend said support through imposition of a three-line whip.

The 2016 Attitude article saw this decision as indicative of Cameron’s support being little more than ‘lip service to the movement’ in reality. They said that Cameron’s premiership actually did more harm than good to the LGBT community, regardless of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, with the indirect effects of Austerity offsetting any potential positive steps for increased equality. Cameron’s strategy to reduce public spending ‘wreaked havoc on state-supplied services’, meaning that the most vulnerable LGBT people, such as those coping with HIV or mental illness, ‘slipped through the safety net’.

Regardless, with his return to the UK Cabinet, there is the possibility of improvement, considering how his re-entry into one of the Great Offices of State (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary) coincided with the ousting of hardline conservative and right-wing favourite Suella Braverman. Whilst not a straight substitution in terms of cabinet position – James Cleverly has assumed Braverman’s previous role of Home Secretary – there are important comparisons to be made.

Cameron, in an interview with the Independent in 2010, argued that refugees fleeing homophobic persecution ‘should be able to stay’. Braverman, in a statement made two months ago, suggested that being a victim of LGBT discrimination should not be enough to qualify for asylum, and warned that there were ‘many instances’ where asylum seekers pretended to be homosexual or transgender to ‘game the system’ and ‘get special treatment’.

The Cabinet may have just gotten less extreme on its LGBT immigration views. However, caution is key, since it has been over 13 years since Cameron was quoted defending LGBT asylum seekers, and following the current party line is a more likely approach.

Cameron v Strasbourg – A tense relationship

David Cameron was committed to the idea of a British Bill of Rights, and a repeal of New Labour’s Human Rights Act of 1998. It was a mainstay of Cameron’s pledges from as far back as 2006 and was included in his election manifesto for 2010.

This distrust of the Human Rights Act, and its link to the European Court, partially revolved around Strasbourg’s repeated judgements that the British system of blanket prisoner disenfranchisement was contrary to the ECHR (see Hirst v United Kingdom (No.2) 2005, R(Chester) v Secretary of State for Justice 2001, Moohan v Lord Advocate 2014).

During his time as Prime Minister, the UK held the Presidency for the Council of Europe, where Cameron gave a speech in 2012. He said that there was ‘credible democratic anxiety’ about some of Strasbourg’s rulings, warning that the concept of human rights was being ‘distorted’ and even ‘discredited’ by some decisions. Cameron was not a huge fan of Strasbourg intervening with what he felt were British democratic choices, the ban on prisoner voting being one of them.

He never succeeded in achieving his manifesto promise of repealing the HRA and implementing a new Act designating rights within the UK.

This idea of a British Bill of Rights reemerged more recently, the principal advocate being Dominic Raab – the Secretary of State for Justice at the time – before his public resignation amid bullying accusations. Raab managed to go one step further than Cameron and present a Bill to the House of Commons. This only reached a first reading, before being withdrawn at the end of June 2023, no longer part of Sunak’s plans.

Cameron, as the new point of contact between Strasbourg and Westminster, will have to learn to play nice with the Court for the time being.

Or will he? Given his previous views, vindication of some of his failures as Prime Minister may be on the cards by delivering on one of his 2010 manifesto promises and realising his dream for a British Bill of Rights, or at the very least, advocating for it.

Cameron and the Prevent Programme: a firm defender amid accusations of discriminatory practice

A more recent foray into human rights issues by Cameron was his 2022 defence of the Prevent programme.

The strategy, which has been described by the Government as a ‘national safeguarding programme that supports people who are at risk of becoming involved with terrorism through radicalisation’. works by certain public sector workers being empowered to report behaviour they deem suspicious, within the general purpose of counter-terrorism.

In a foreword to a report published by right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange, Cameron demanded that the strategy, described by the Government as a ‘national safeguarding programme that supports people who are at risk of becoming involved with terrorism through radicalisation’, be protected against groups who are allegedly undermining it, naming CAGE and the Muslim Council of Britain.

Amnesty International (AI UK) published a press release responding to the report, labelling Cameron’s defence as ‘shockingly misplaced’.

Ilyas Nagdee, AI UK’s Racial Justice Director, said ‘Policy Exchange’s report should have instead focused on the host of human rights violations committed by Prevent – and not just been another excuse to make scathing attacks on Muslim organisations’.

2014-16 data shows that 39% of children referred under Prevent were Muslim, and 38% were Asian, vastly disproportionate numbers compared to these groups’ representations in the UK population.

Following this exchange, AI UK, only a few weeks ago, called for Prevent to be abolished entirely, for being ‘fundamentally incompatible’ with international human rights obligations. Their report argued that the legal duty on public sector workers to report their suspicions led to breaches of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of peaceful assembly, and the right to equality and non-discrimination.

But how will the Prevent strategy, and its criticisms, relate to Cameron’s new position as Foreign Secretary?

Given how Cameron’s principal priority will be leading the British response to the recent escalation between Hamas and Israel, his approach will have a direct effect on the national reaction to the conflict.

In light of the Israel-Hamas conflict, and there already being reports of a rise in incidents of islamophobia, public sector workers may be quicker to report behaviour they deem ‘suspicious.

Cameron could run the risk of exacerbating the issue of disproportionate reporting on Muslim children through Prevent, which, despite his fierce defence of, will only increase calls for its abolition.

What now?

Without a doubt, our new Foreign Secretary is certainly going to find himself in the thick of it immediately, with allegations of breaches of international law in the Israel-Hamas conflict and the effect of the new Supreme Court decision deeming the Rwanda plan as illegal earlier this week. Whether his policies will reflect a more moderate approach compared to certain former Cabinet members remains to be seen, but his often misguided interactions with the law surrounding human rights shall require extensive scrutiny over the next few months.

Author: Kieran O'Kelly


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