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Campaigners at war over Human Rights Act petition

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Online bid to force a referendum has picked up nearly 200,000 signatures, but the experts reckon it’s counterproductive

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In their most hopeful dreams, Prime Minister David Cameron and his new Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, probably couldn’t have expected human rights campaigners to fall out amongst themselves quite so quickly. But never underestimate the ability of those on the left to tear each other’s throats out.

Yesterday’s case in point came in the form of a petition posted by a Marc Chudley that called on the recently elected Conservative government to hold a referendum on its proposed “abolition of the Human Rights Act”.

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The petition — which is knocking on 200,000 signatures — goes on to say that the rights stipulated in the legislation “are ours to protect or to give away.” It continues:

“The government believes that a majority of 12 seats, a 37% share of the vote and with just 25% of the electorate voting for the Conservatives, that this somehow gives them a mandate to remove these fundamental rights that protect us all.

“We disagree. With such an important change to our rights and our freedoms, this should be a matter decided by the people in a national referendum.”

But not everyone engaged in the human rights debate is on board, as demonstrated by Twitter reaction to the petition.

Leading the criticism of people power against plans to abolish the act was London barrister Adam Wagner. The general civil and public law specialist at One Crown Office Row chambers in the Temple lambasted the petition as being “misguided”. In a fusillade of tweets, he described it as an “unhelpful misstep”.

Wagner — who recently launched his own human rights website, Rightsinfo.com – suggested that the petition organisers had misunderstood the government’s proposals, claiming that ministers want to scrap all human rights, which is wide of the mark.

That mistake, said Wagner and his supporters, would provide the government with a simple route to dismissing the petition as being factually inaccurate.

Indeed, other commentators have pointed out that David Cameron’s plans to replace the existing legislation with a home grown bill of rights is likely to amount to little more than expensive bluster.

The bill of rights, they maintain, would more or less replicate the existing articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, while making the UK Supreme Court the final arbiter instead of the current Strasbourg judges.

In his post-general election blog on Rightsinfo, Wagner maintained the Tory majority would trigger “an interesting, difficult and transformative period for human rights in the UK”.

He went on to set out his formula for saving the day:

“We need to be positive. And start from the beginning. We need to address the legitimate questions which many people have. What are human rights? Where do they come from? Why do they matter? What have they done for us and not just to the nasty people you read about in the newspapers? What have been the big wins for human rights in the UK? What about prisoner votes, Abu Qatada, and that cat? We need to tell the good stories about human rights and be honest about the bad ones.”