Now that Brexit is ‘done’, Tories want human rights undone

Graphic by Jon Danzig

UK SOS: our human rights are under threat

The Tories of this century want to abandon the human rights that Tories of the last century championed and established.

It was Winston Churchill who, in 1948, advocated a European ‘Charter of Human Rights’ in direct response to the abject horrors of the Nazi regime and the Second World War. British lawyers drafted what was later to become the European Convention, which came into force in 1953.

The UK was the first country to sign up to the Convention and leaving it would end almost 70 years of being legally-bound by the first international treaty on human rights.

Including Britain, there are 47 European countries that have agreed to the Convention, which provides civil and political rights for all citizens.(The only European country not signed up to the Convention is Belarus.)Under the Convention, individuals, or groups of people, or one or more countries, can appeal to the international ‘European Court of Human Rights’ in Strasbourg, France, to give judgments or advisory opinions on alleged breaches of civic and political rights by nation states.

From 2000, the Labour government brought into law the 1997 Human Rights Act. This allows alleged breaches of the Convention to be heard more speedily in UK courts, but still retaining the right to appeal to the higher international court in Strasbourg.

Although the European Convention on Human Rights is entirely separate from the European Union, signing up to the Convention and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights is one of the EU membership requirements.

Conservative manifestos

In their 2010 and 2015 manifestos, the Conservatives pledged to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’. (During the coalition, however, the Liberal Democrats put a red line against any changes to our human rights laws).

The 2017 Tory manifesto ruled out repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act “while the process of Brexit is under way,” although it said consideration will be given to the UK’s “human rights legal framework” when Brexit concludes.

Almost buried in the Conservatives 2019 manifesto, on page 48, was a single mention of the party’s promise to “update” the Human Rights Act. It didn’t specify what an update would look like, or when it will happen, except that it would come “after Brexit.”

There is no doubt that a burning ambition of the Tories after Brexit is to scrap our Human Rights Act (HRA) and to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, upon which the HRA is based.

Andrew Rosindell, Tory MP for Romford, said during Prime Minister’s Question Time this week:

“The Prime Minister will know that we will not be able to stop the endless waves of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel until we break free from the constraints of the European Convention on Human Rights, which impedes our ability to tackle this tragic situation and protect even the most violent criminals from being deported.

“So, will the Prime Minister agree with me that it is time to take back control and fulfil our manifesto commitment in 2015 to get rid of Labour’s Human Rights Act and bring in a British Bill of Rights?”

Boris Johnson agreed that the government would “certainly review the human rights system”.

Getting human rights undone

Some of the Tory government’s proposed new legislation – for example, to have the power to ‘turn back people at sea’, to criminalise asylum seekers, and to be able to strip British citizenship from anyone in secret – would almost certainly breach our current human rights protections.

So, the only way the Tories could implement their dastardly plans is to abandon or at least water down our human rights laws.

Since a commitment to human rights is a strict requirement of EU membership, recent Tory governments have had to wait for Brexit to be done before they could get our human rights undone.

This is clear from consistent statements of Tories in recent years. In January 2017, the then Conservative Justice Minister Sir Oliver Heald said:

“We are committed to reforming our domestic human rights framework and we will return to our proposals once we know the arrangements for our exit from the European Union.”

In a letter to a parliamentary inquiry in January 2019, Edward Argar, a junior Conservative justice minister, wrote:

“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.”

Ed Davey, the then Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, and now the party’s leader, responded:

“This new Conservative threat to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights is a scandal.”

Theresa May

During her tenure as Home Secretary, Theresa May, took every opportunity to demean the value of human rights and turn the public against them – a sentiment and goal echoed by leading right-wing, pro-Brexit newspapers.

Back in 2011, Mrs May wrongly – and ridiculously – claimed that an ‘illegal immigrant’ had won the right under the Human Rights Act to stay in the UK because he had a pet cat.

At the time, fellow Tory, Ken Clarke, then UK Justice Secretary, felt the need to speak out against the claim, which he called “laughable and childlike”. An official from the Royal Courts of Justice confirmed that a cat had nothing to do with the case.

Even though the story wasn’t true, it seemed to suit Ms May’s agenda to belittle human rights legislation.

In her speech to the Tory Party annual conference in 2013, she said that she was “crazy with the European Court of Human Rights” and she promised that the Tories would “scrap the Human Rights Act”.

And she added:

“The Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European Convention (on Human Rights) is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do”

Boris Johnson

Last month, it was reported by the Daily Express that Boris Johnson is planning to scrap the Human Rights Act ‘to help tackle the migrant crisis.’

He told a private meeting of the ‘Common Sense Group’ of Conservative MPs,

“that’s why I appointed Dominic Raab to the job [of Justice Secretary]’ to bring in the reforms needed.”

Mr Raab has a long track record of criticising the Human Rights Act (HRA), which he has described as “feckless” and “undemocratic”.

He championed a failed attempt to replace the Act in 2011 and criticised its “continental approach to rights”.

Human rights protections

Many wrongly believe that human rights are only for foreigners – and anyone could be forgiven for thinking that after listening to leading Tories and reading some of our right-wing press.

But in the main, our Human Rights Act has protected British people from the excesses of the state. For example:

  • Thanks to the Human Rights Act, UK law was changed to prevent rape victims from being cross-examined by their attacker.
  • It’s because of the Human Rights Act that the right was established in the UK for an independent investigation to take place following a death in prison.
  • Human rights laws have also helped patients to gain access to life-saving drugs and held hospitals to account when failures in mental-health care has directly led to suicide.
  • In the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal, 100 claims were made invoking the Human Rights Act claiming that gross or degrading treatment of patients, mostly elderly, had caused or hastened their deaths.
  • Human Rights laws have also helped to establish that failing to properly equip British soldiers when on active duty abroad was a breach of their human rights.

The point of human rights is that they should give equal rights to all humans; to you and to me; to foreigners; even to criminals, and even to those humans we do not like. Once we take basic rights away from one human, we start to erode the basic protections for all humans. That’s why human rights need to be international and universal, so that all humans can be protected, even from their own government.

Who’s going to protect us from our government if the International European Convention on Human Rights is replaced with a watered-down National Bill of Rights, with no right of appeal to the international court?

I first published this article on my Facebook page.

Jon Danzig is an independent campaigning journalist and film maker who specialises in writing about health, human rights, and Europe. He is also founder of the information campaign, Reasons2Rejoin