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Civil and human rights

After the widespread neglect of human rights during the Second World War, there was a determination to prevent similar abuses. In 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which called for 'respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion'. Although the declaration was not enforceable, it acted as a principle for countries to follow.
Creation of Citizens' Advice Bureaux (press release) - opens new window
Creation of Citizens' Advice Bureaux
(press release)
Document (141k) | Transcript
Demonstration against capital punishment In 1950 it inspired the Council of Europe to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This identified basic human rights and created a legal procedure, through a European Court of Human Rights, for their protection. The convention did not replace national law, but legal decisions made in the UK can now be referred to the European Court of Human Rights, which may decide to overrule British law.
In 1998 the position changed when the Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British domestic law. The main points, or 'Articles', it guarantees include: the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to marry and have a family. These Articles must now be considered when any legal ruling is made. Demonstration against capital punishment


Human rights in the UK - opens new window
Human rights in the UK
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Issues and campaigns

Since 1945 the government has played an increased role in the lives of people living in the UK, and at the same time civil and human rights have been increasingly contested. A National Council for Civil Liberties was founded in 1934 (renamed 'Liberty' in 1989). It was set up to monitor the conduct of the police towards hunger marchers and anti-fascist demonstrators in the 1930s. During the Second World War the Council defended the cause of conscientious objectors and interned aliens. Since the war the Council has been involved in guarding against infringements of civil libertiesGlossary - opens new window and opposing censorship, and has taken a keen interest in alleged violations of human rights in Ireland.

Some organisations were founded to campaign on specific issues. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was set up in 1958 to press the British government to get rid of nuclear weapons. CND became a mass movement and attracted huge support for their protest marches to Aldermaston, the atomic weapons research establishment. In the 1980s, when the USA stationed Cruise missiles in Europe, CND linked with Christian, youth, 'green' and feminist movements to stage demonstrations. The Women's Peace Camp at the US Air Force base at Greenham Common, in Berkshire, became a famous focal point of protest. Demonstration against capital punishment
'Bill of Rights' for Northern Ireland - opens new window
'Bill of Rights' for Northern Ireland
Document (184k) | Transcript
Minority groups campaigning for civil rights have had mixed success. In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised private homosexual acts between men over 21. However, the 1967 Act applied solely to England and Wales, and it was only extended to Scotland in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982. Since the Act, gay groups have worked to change attitudes in society and break down prejudice. Nevertheless, a conservative backlash came in the form of Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988), which banned the promotion in schools of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. Although the age of consent was lowered to 18 in 1994 and then to 16 from January 2001 (except for Northern Ireland, where it is 17), Section 28 still remains a source of controversy.
People with disabilities have long campaigned for anti-discrimination legislation to allow them to participate as equal citizens. In 1995 the Disability Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in areas such as employment, access to services, and renting property. In 2000 a Disability Rights Commission - which works in a similar way to the Commission for Racial Equality - was set up to ensure that these rights are enforced. Demonstration against capital punishment

Demonstration against capital punishment

Data protection and freedom of information

New technology has thrown up fresh controversies. Large amounts of personal information are now stored on computer, as well as on paper, by both central and local government, companies and other organisations. Data protection legislation has been introduced to protect the right to privacy and to ensure that information is not misused. Civil liberties issues are not, however, always clear-cut. For instance, some people believe the introduction of identity cards would help to cut down on crime and disorder, while others fear they could be used to harass citizens.
In recent years the government has carried out far-reaching constitutional reform, bringing in new assemblies in Scotland and Wales and - in a still uncompleted process - a form of devolved governmentGlossary - opens new window in Ireland. Reform of the House of Lords has also been initiated. In addition, a Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000. Most of its provisions will not come into force until January 2005, although some government information is already available under the Open Government Code.

Demonstration against capital punishment

Demonstration against capital punishment These changes were partly a response to the work of organisations such as the Freedom of Information Campaign - which was set up to gain the right for people to see their own medical, social work and housing records - and Charter 88, which was established in 1988. Following the example of the ChartistGlossary - opens new window movement in the early 19th century, it issued a charter calling for parliamentary reform, as well as open government and a written constitution, to define the power of the state and the rights of citizens.

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