By Gordon Brown*
For centuries, Britain has prided itself on being a bastion of liberty and the rule of law. British leaders have talked in glowing terms of the “golden thread” that connects the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Bill of Rights of 1689 to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of 1950 and the Human Rights Act of 1998. Thus, the United Kingdom’s human-rights record has been central to successive governments’ efforts to exercise soft power globally.
No one has boasted more about Britain’s global leadership in human rights – and its rule-of-law credentials more broadly – than the five Conservative prime ministers who have held office since the 2016 Brexit vote. Yet, in practice, these very ministers have been systematically undermining the rule of law, and the “law and order” party is now contemplating abandoning the ECHR – a framework that British leaders, beginning with Winston Churchill, pioneered over 70 years ago and persuaded Europeans to accept.
According to The Telegraph, a newspaper close to the Conservative Party, more than one-third of the cabinet – at least eight ministers – along with other senior Tories, are pushing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to place a commitment to withdraw from the ECHR at the center of the coming election campaign. Their justification is that judges at the European Court of Human Rights are blocking the deportation of illegal migrants from the UK to Rwanda, which has agreed to accept them (for a hefty price).
Renouncing the Convention is no idle threat. Already, the government has positioned itself to defy the Court. With the just-passed Illegal Migration Act, the government has – for the first time since the ECHR was concluded – claimed the power not to comply with the Court’s “interim measures.” In other words, the UK government can now ignore any European order to stop flights of migrants to Rwanda. This provision directly breaches the UK’s obligations under the ECHR.
The Illegal Migration Act is the latest development in a downward spiral that has undermined basic rights. The government now boasts it is housing asylum-seekers in inferior accommodation, including massive barges more reminiscent of the prison ships Britain used in the nineteenth century than modern amenities.
The Act also strips asylum-seekers of their right to remain in the UK while their application is considered, and provides for deportation of applicants before any effort is made to determine whether someone is, say, a victim of modern slavery. The United Nations’ humanitarian agency, UNHCR, has condemned the legislation, stating that it “effectively extinguishes the right of refugees to be recognized and protected in the UK.”
These actions follow prime ministerial rulings that renounced the government’s explicit duty, enshrined in the ministerial code, to comply with international law. Government lawyers are now operating under unprecedented new guidance to proceed with drafting legislation that dismisses international conventions, even if there is a high chance of successful legal challenge. (Fortunately, the opposition has promised to reverse such actions.)
As for the ECHR, Conservative prime ministers have been targeting it for at least a decade. In 2013, David Cameron told the BBC that leaving the Convention might be necessary for security reasons. In 2016, Theresa May said that, while the UK should remain in the EU, it should exit the ECHR, which can “bind the hands of Parliament.”
May’s successors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, echoed this call to abandon the ECHR, as did their far-right home secretaries, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. Braverman claimed earlier this year – with little evidence – that “100 million people around the world…could qualify for protection under our current laws,” making an immigration crackdown essential.
According to a statement from 10 Downing Street in February, Sunak is considering “whether being a part of the ECHR is in the UK’s long-term interests.” And a few days ago, Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, said that the government would do “whatever is necessary” to stop small boats from crossing the English Channel, even if that meant pulling out of the ECHR.
This wholesale Conservative attack on the ECHR reflects the view that UK sovereignty must be unlimited, unrestricted, and accountable to no one, especially not a European court. Even after Brexit, apparently, the UK does not enjoy enough “independence” to privilege the “us,” who deserve basic rights, over the “them,” who do not. It is a prejudice that is out of touch with any concept of human rights and unsuited to our interconnected world, in which each country’s independence is qualified by all countries’ interdependence, and where prosperity, to be sustained, must be shared.
For the time being, under Attorney General Victoria Prentis, the UK may refrain from choosing non-compliance with interim European Court judgments. But the mere fact that the UK statute book now includes a provision allowing for defiance of the Court’s rulings undermines the entire ECHR system.
By weakening the Court’s authority to interpret the Convention and turning its judgments into political footballs, the UK is setting a precedent that other countries will invariably follow. Indeed, the UK’s alignment with “illiberal democracies” such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey on any issue relating to human rights betrays its historical record and reputation. Should the UK leave the ECHR altogether, it would become an international outlier, alongside Russia and Belarus.
Anyone who stands for the advancement and protection of human rights must keep this in mind, knowing that rights are on the agenda when the next UK election comes. History and a sense of who we are should convince the British people not to empower leaders who show such contempt for human rights.
*Gordon Brown, a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, is UN Special Envoy for Global Education.