In 1950, with the horrors of the Second World War still fresh in most minds, a document was drafted by the recently formed Council of Europe (CoE). The CoE was formed to develop and uphold democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for and by its 47 European member nations.
The document is named the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and came into force 70 years ago, in 1953. A member state since the CoE’s inception, the UK is a party to the ECHR and, indeed, was integral to its drafting and adoption. The current Conservative government, however, is seemingly intent on pulling the UK out of it. Why? And what could happen as a result?
A terrible time
By all appearances, this is some misguided attempt to win political points, mainly with migrants and refugees the unwitting collateral. The ECHR does allow parties to exit, but the UK doing so could cause many other dominoes to fall. There are a plethora of other agreements intertwined with the UK’s continued support of the Convention. And of course, UK citizens themselves will pay a price.
To my mind, the greatest threat would be to the Good Friday Agreement, the backbone of much of the current system of governance across Northern Ireland (NI). The Agreement represents the culmination and subsequent end of ‘The Troubles’, the era of violence and political turmoil in NI between nationalists and unionists.
Leaving the ECHR would breach the terms of the Agreement, which is a non-starter. The political landscape shifts ever more nationalist in NI, with pro-Irish reunification party Sinn Féin as the majority party for the first time ever following the 2022 NI Assembly elections. With nationalism thus at an all-time high, the UK government would be hard-pressed to find a worse time to consider abandoning the Agreement.
The Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed with the EU as part of Brexit makes significant references to the ECHR. So renouncing the Convention also risks breaching that Agreement. For example, the UK has obligations to cooperate on matters relating to criminal due diligence, such as past records and extradition within the EU. All of that is being put at risk.
Greater even than the loss of this cooperation, though, is the likelihood that a UK government prepared to leave the ECHR will also depart from the Council of Europe; part of an apparent obsession with being anti- anything Europe.
This would end support, not only for this key Convention, but hundreds of other agreements relating to human trafficking, cybercrime, racism, domestic violence, and much more. In one fell swoop, the Conservative government could effectively hobble much of the cooperation the UK has with its neighbours in widespread, vital sectors.
Something important to note here is: there is no clear evidence to suggest that leaving the ECHR will even help the Conservative’s purported aim of “stopping small boats”. Even if it could, is the loss of so much worth the ability to more effectively hinder the movement of migrants and asylum seekers? And the majority of migrants come from countries that the UK itself had a heavy hand in destabilising. 71% of those crossing the English Channel in small boats are from Iran, Iraq, Albania, Afghanistan, and Syria. All, other than Albania, have seen considerable armed conflict in the last decade, sometimes including UK military intervention.
Heave ho human rights … for what?
People attempting to enter the UK in such a way is a problem of the government’s own making, through immigration system restrictions and delays in claim processing. Most win the right to remain at the first decision or on appeal, because they have sound reasons to be here. Few come to the UK compared to other countries, and most have historically enriched our society. Others had children and grandchildren who ended up in the UK government.
I can’t claim to fully understand the reasoning behind Conservative calls to pull out of the ECHR. It’s worth remembering that it was conceptualised as a way to protect citizens from oppression at the hands of their governments, and ensure the horrors of two world wars would not be seen again. Our Human Rights Act 1998 was a way to give citizens a domestic remedy for rights violations, to reduce the daunting prospect of taking claims to the Strasbourg court. It, too, is under threat. What sort of government doesn’t want its citizens to have that?
If the Conservatives get their way, the UK will be in harm’s way, and will be poorer for it. Perhaps not in economic terms, not specifically due to this anyway, but in others equally significant. Do we care at all about our neighbours, about peace in Ireland, about privacy, life itself, and more? People need to understand what is at stake, before it’s too late for them to fight for it.
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