Freedom and Human Rights in the UK

By O. Zabolotnyi There is no written constitution in the United Kingdom. However, human rights have long history in Britain. The principal documents are the Magna Carta (1215) and the Bill of Rights (1689). With the development of parliamentary democracy, the issue of an individual’s and community’s rights became more and more important. The Magna Carta, for the first time in history, limited the powers of a monarch towards the subjects. It set the foundation for an individual’s rights development. Traditions of parliamentary debate developed into the concept of balancing the rights and responsibilities of a person, and a society. Three essential domains sustain the British democratic way of life – freedom of speech, open and equal treatment before the law, and free elections. Left: King John “Lackland” is signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.

Freedom of speech is one of the oldest of
these rights. The major limitations of this freedom are the laws on slander, including using insulting language in public. The freedom to demonstrate peacefully is also respected. People enjoy the right to use the “queen’s highway” (roads and streets) as long as they don’t obstruct traffic. There are two limitations on this right. One of them is that no procession may come closer than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the Houses of Parliament when Parliament is in session. The police have power to change the route of a procession to prevent disorder. At the same time the police are obliged to protect the marchers against hostile counterdemonstrators (see the photo below). Freedom of meeting and associations is another major human right enjoyed in Britain. There are no restrictions on this freedom. The political parties have never been banned in the UK.

Open and Equal Treatment Before the Law

Citizen’s rights are the bulwark of civil liberties in the country. All persons are presumed innocent until found guilty by a court.
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Suspects in a crime have the right to consult a solicitor. Duty solicitors are always on call to freely advise people who have been arrested. The police cannot hold anyone in custody for more than 96 hours in total without charge. It is also strictly forbidden to use violence to obtain answers from suspects. Compensation to victims of crime takes the form of payments. Right: A judge of a criminal court in full dress. The possession of firearms is strictly controlled. The maximum sentence for carrying firearms during the commission of a crime is life imprisonment. Departures from the norm of having a very polite and respectful police force are connected with the terrorist threat. For years the British police had been dealing with the Irish terrorists, who have been replaced by the Islamic ones, especially since September 11, 2000. The police have the power to stop anyone; search and arrest that person on suspicion of being involved with terrorism (see the photo above). Religious tolerance was established during the 18th century, and all the disabilities were removed except two: the monarch must be a Protestant (being the head of the Church of England), and clergymen may not become Members of Parliament. Nearly in every town in Britain you can find temples belonging to different religions. Below left you can see a service in a cathedral belonging to the Church of England, and below right – a new London synagogue.

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Left: The Muslims are coming out of a modern mosque in East London after a service. Measures introduced since the 1970’s promote equal opportunities for men and women. The Race Relations Acts ban the racial discrimination.

One of the most obvious aspects of British democracy is that almost any citizen aged 18 or over has the right to vote in elections. Once over 21, with a few exceptions, any British, Commonwealth or Irish republic citizen can stand for election as a councilor (member of local self-government) or an MP (Member of Parliament) in the United Kingdom. However, most of the elected representatives belong to one of the three major political parties – the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. The people elect not only their members of Parliament, but also their local councilors. Every part of the United Kingdom, except England, has its own parliament called an Assembly. Such selfgovernment of the UK regions brings the making of important decisions that influence the lives of the communities closer to the people.

Left: The new building of the Welsh Assembly (called Senedd in Welsh) in Cardiff.

The Palace of Westminster (see the photo below), which serves home for the Houses of Parliament, has become a recognizable symbol of Great Britain for a good reason. For the majority of people around the world Great Britain has set an example of democracy and human rights.