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Treasure human rights - Neuberger

Published 14/05/2015

Lord Neuberger described the modern notion of human rights as
Lord Neuberger described the modern notion of human rights as "fundamental to a modern civilised and democratic society"

The UK's most senior judge has said human rights "should be nurtured and treasured".

Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger made the comments in a speech about the Magna Carta, ahead of the 800th anniversary of the historic document's sealing next month.

He described the modern notion of human rights as "fundamental to a modern, civilised and democratic society".

His comments come amid a debate over the Tories' plans to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA).

Lord Neuberger made no reference to the HRA or the Government's proposals to replace it with a British Bill of Rights during the speech, titled Magna Carta and the Holy Grail.

He said that "virtually every fundamental belief which most mainstream, moderate people would take for granted today would have been rejected by most mainstream, moderate people in the not-so-distant past".

The judge went on: "Consider the fundamental freedoms accorded by international instruments and treaties such as the UN's International Bill of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the constitutions of many countries: rights to life, to liberty, and to a fair trial, freedoms from torture, forced labour, and discrimination, and freedoms of religion, expression, and association.

"The great majority of educated, so-called right-thinking people today would take all these freedoms for granted.

"But you don't have to go back very far in the history of this country to find a time when every one of these freedoms, utterly basic as they seem today, simply did not exist or, in a few cases, could be said to exist but in an almost unrecognisably restrictive form.

"Indeed, if we were to go back 800 years to Runnymede in 1215, we would have to accept that the great majority of English people had virtually none of these freedoms in any recognisable form."

Lord Neuberger described how laws have changed down the centuries, referring to examples including the execution of heretics in the 16th century and men facing prosecution and prison for gay sex, while the death penalty is still part of the law and practice of more than 20 countries.

He said: "So, while the human rights we talk and litigate about so much are fundamental to a modern, civilised and democratic society and should be nurtured and treasured, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that they are timeless, let alone absolute.

"If we can look back with disbelief, or at least with surprise or disapproval, at accepted norms and laws 200 years ago, or even 50 years ago, then, particularly in a world that is changing ever more quickly, we may expect the same reaction from right-thinking people in the 22nd and 23rd centuries looking back to our laws and norms.

"I leave it to you to speculate as to which of our currently accepted views and norms will be viewed as barbaric.

"The notion that we have reached some sort of nirvanic state of perfection, a sort of Whig interpretation of history on stilts, is no more valid than the eschatological obsessions of those who thought, and in some cases apparently still think, that the end of the world is about to occur.

"So our perceptions of the fundamental requirements of a civilised society are very different from those which were shared by the people who gathered in Runnymede almost exactly 800 years ago.

"Most of what we rightly regard as fundamental constitutional principles would have seemed very strange to them.

"They would, as mentioned, have had grave difficulties understanding our notion of human rights, which we now believe to be an important ingredient of one of the principal pillars on which a civilised society rests, namely the rule of law."

Lord Neuberger, who gave the speech at Lincoln's Inn in London on Tuesday, said he was "somewhat taken aback" to learn that Magna Carta Holy Grail is the title of an album by rapper Jay Z.

"Listening to the music, digesting the lyrics, and reading its Wikipedia entry leave me little wiser as to why the album has the title that it does, but I suppose that when it comes to subtle allusions, rap singers may have it over judges," he said.

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