Plans by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to dismantle a critical piece of human rights legislation has sparked a firestorm among activists including many South African anti-apartheid icons who expressed outrage that the plans were announced just prior to July 18, Mandela Day.
Cameron’s Conservative party wants to scrap the Human Rights Act in favor of a new British Bill of Rights that isn’t bound by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which currently has the power to override British court rulings and laws.
However, moving away from the principles of the ECHR would weaken human rights of the most vulnerable say human rights groups, and is reminiscent of the mindset that created apartheid.
In a letter to the Observer newspaper, 25 of the country’s most eminent playwrights, lawyers, politicians and artists said that more than two decades after the British people spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, it was their turn to show support for a country in danger of betraying that honorable history.
“Rights do not belong to any one nationality,” said the letter, “they must be universal. Dividing people, setting their rights and freedoms apart on the basis of their passport or race, stripping them of their human rights, led to the worst abuses of the 20th century. It led to apartheid. And it can only lead to further injustice and dispossession in the future.”
Among the signers were Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, a former prisoner on Robben Island, and South African poet and writer Mandla Langa who wrote: “I join the majority who believe that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. I am personally appalled that the British government plans to replace the UK Human Rights Act with measures that will certainly cause distress to many, many people.”
Also signing was South African AIDS activist, Zackie Achmat, the writer Breyten Breytenbach, who was imprisoned during the apartheid regime, and Pregs Govender, a feminist human rights activist and former ANC MP.
Ronnie Kasrils, anti-apartheid activist and former South African Minister of Intelligence, warned against “narrowing hard-won human rights,” adding “(We must) Raise our voices for enlightenment and justice.”
Mandela Day was proclaimed by the U.N. as an annual call to action for people around the world to make a difference in the communities where they live and by taking time to serve others. The campaign slogan is “Take Action, Inspire Change”. This year the first-ever Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize will be awarded to Dr Helena Ndume of Namibia and Jorge Fernance Branco Sampaio of Portugal for their service to humanity. A ceremony will take place July 24 an U.N. headquarters in NY.