Human rights and the rule of law

“Has the rule of law been replaced by the rule of politics?” That is the question posed in this year’s annual Graham Turnbull essay competition – and it could not be asked at a more salient time.

Human rights under attack?

The inextricable links between democracy, the rule of law and human rights are acknowledged throughout the international legal and political spheres, finding expression in texts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the European Convention. And yet, the significant role that human rights play as a stabilising force, let alone the protection they provide for all the rights and freedoms that we hold dear, is still often taken for granted.

As we edge tentatively towards Brexit day, it is possible that we will see the removal of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights from UK law. The future of protections contained within the Human Rights Act are also being questioned.

Meanwhile, across the globe, there is a shocking amount of evidence of what happens when human rights protections are treated with disdain.

At the Law Society, through our international Lawyers at Risk programme, we see particular consequences in the ongoing harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and detention, and even torture and killing of human rights lawyers.

The Graham Turnbull essay competition and lecture

The centrality of human rights to the rule of law and our experience of providing assistance to lawyers at risk are why the Law Society is dedicated to promoting human rights through our work, including events such as the Graham Turnbull Lecture.

Graham Turnbull was an English solicitor from Yorkshire. Leaving behind his life and legal practice in England, he travelled to Rwanda in 1994 where he worked as a United Nations human rights monitor, investigating reprisal killings in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

Tragically, he was killed in 1997, along with four others, in an apparent state-sanctioned ambush as they travelled in clearly marked UN vehicles. The killings were condemned internationally and led to the UN temporarily suspending its operations in the region and withdrawing aid workers.

The Law Society honours Graham’s memory by running an annual essay competition, in conjunction with the Graham Turnbull Memorial Fund, and a lecture from a relevant guest speaker.

Through the question posed, we encourage law students and junior lawyers to examine current pressing human rights issues and to consider their impact on the wider system of human rights and law.

This year’s question – “Has the rule of law been replaced with the rule of politics?” – captures the essence of wider challenges that have been felt across the legal and political systems of not just the UK, but countries throughout the world. It is a question concerned with the fundamental principles upon which democratic systems are built, and their ability to weather these challenges.

We are delighted that Tom Hickman QC will be sharing his thoughts on the essay question at the Graham Turnbull Lecture, hosted on Human Rights Day (10 December 2019). As a leading barrister with Blackstone Chambers who was part of the team representing Gina Miller in her two headline cases against the government, his will be a timely contribution to this fundamental debate.

Tom will also be announcing the winner of the essay competition at the event, which is chaired by Sue Willman, Chair of the Law Society Human Rights Committee, with an introduction from Stephanie Boyce, Law Society Deputy Vice-President.

In times of legal and political upheaval, the rule of law is the unfaltering guide to maintaining stability. We hope that you will join us on 10 December to celebrate the place of human rights in sustaining this equilibrium and raise awareness of their ongoing importance to our legal system. Book your place via our events website.

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