Broadly speaking, there have been two means of protecting human rights in international law. The first, which is generally followed by civil and continental law systems, has been to adopt charters of general rights with very broad statements of those rights and then to turn over to the courts the interpretation, in specific circumstances, of how those rights should be applied. The second, which is generally followed by common-law traditions, has been to proceed not by general statements of rights, but by specific statutory remedies in defined circumstances and by case law that defines the facts and allows the remedy to be extended by analogy with the facts of the particular case.
With due respect to Opposition Members, it seems to me as though some of them have made a mistake in equating the need for the incorporation of the charter with the protection of fundamental rights in this country. Article 7 of the universal declaration of human rights provided in 1948 that all subscribing nations to the United Nations should respect the principle of equality. But it has never been suggested that the United Kingdom, because it did not incorporate that principle into a general statement of an equality right, was not compliant with its obligation in international law, under the declaration and subsequently the covenant, to respect equality.
That is because there are two ways in which one can protect human rights. One can either adopt a general statement of rights and leave the protection of it to the courts, or one can adopt specific remedies in given circumstances that cumulatively and substantively protect those rights. Nobody has suggested that because the Soviet Union incorporated a right to equality into its constitution, equality rights were better protected there than they were in this country, which did not. Therefore, the absence of a general statement of rights, such as that in the charter—I do not say that there is not a function for such statements, but let us begin with first principles—is not to be equated with the protection of human rights. We have to look at the substantive effect of the cumulative common law and statutory protections in our law.
That is why my right hon. Friend Mr Harper suggested that the Government’s approach should not be to incorporate this charter of wide, broad and, quite frankly, vague general statements of rights and allow courts to take those statements, which are often rich with value judgments, and apply them to the facts. That is why the approach of my right hon. and learned Friends on the Front Bench is right and, I suggest, consistent with the common-law tradition of this country.