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Will Britain Scrap Its Human Rights Act for Something Less Noble?


David Cameron
David Cameron, prime minister of Britain, aims to repeal his country’s Human Rights Act with a new, more restrictive Bill of Rights. Here, he speaks in Brussels. ARRON HOARE/CROWN 

DUNDEE, Scotland — Soon after the newly elected Conservative government in Britain was installed in May, it announced plans to repeal the country’s Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights. Advocates of the policy maintain this is a necessary step to return a “common sense” approach to human rights. Yet these plans have been criticized by leading human-rights lawyers and organizations, including the United Nations special rapporteur for migrants’ rights, François Crépeau.

Although still in the preliminary stage, the eight-page proposal to scrap legislation guaranteeing essential universal rights, including the right to life, free speech, liberty and privacy as well as the prohibition of torture and discrimination, has raised alarms among opponents of the new Bill of Rights for several reasons. The bill, which aims to “limit the use of human rights law to the most serious cases” and “limit the reach of human rights cases,” is incompatible with the universality and nondiscriminatory nature of human rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed on taking office, “For too long we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens so long as you obey the law we will leave you alone.” Amid more state surveillance and xenophobia reported in Britain, curtailing human rights not only belies globally recognized human-rights standards but also, some British and international human-rights experts say, indicates how far the Conservative Party is willing to risk the country’s tradition and reputation as an international model of tolerance.

The plans for a Bill of Rights are couched in the need, some politicians contend, to move more quickly to deport foreign nationals convicted of crimes in Britain. While the proposal is short, it outlines the Conservative Party’s desire to “set out a clearer test in how some of the inalienable rights apply to cases of deportation and other removal of persons from the United Kingdom” and to “break the formal link between British Courts and the European Court of Human Rights.”

Despite increasing backlash from the public regarding the proposal (the vast majority of whom support the Human Rights Act), Cameron said he would not rule out Britain’s potentially revoking the European Convention on Human Rights to ensure the bill is passed.

This sentiment prompted Crépeau, the UN’s special rapporteur for the rights of migrants and a law professor at McGill University in Montreal, to reference the example of Nazi Germany, saying, “Countries that go down the path of reducing the rights of one category of people usually don’t stop there.”

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Less inflammatory views have been voiced by numerous international figures and legal professionals. Sir Nigel Rodley, a professor of human-rights law at the University of Essex in Britain and a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, said in an interview that to leave the European Convention would “certainly make an absolute nonsense of any UK leadership in the field of human rights.” (The UN committee is an independent expert body that monitors the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.)

The complex links between the European Convention on Human Rights and British human-rights law are central to the proposed changes. Based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention is a treaty that members of the European Union are required to ratify. It established the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, in 1959. By incorporating the principles of the convention into British law, the country’s Human Rights Act means Britons do not need to go to Strasbourg to have their case heard, making access to justice easier and less costly.

Yet, contrary to Conservative Party claims, the Human Rights Act does not bind British courts to the European Convention’s jurisprudence; rather, it specifies that Britain “take account” of the Strasbourg court’s rulings. The Conservative Party’s proposal also perpetuates other inconsistencies and misinterpretations, including the assertion that the Human Rights Act undermines British sovereignty, despite the Supreme Court remaining the final arbiter of any legal case, including human rights, in the country.

The proposal contends, too, that the European Court can demand changes to British laws. Britain, however, has repeatedly ignored requests from the court, for example, to change legislation on prisoner disenfranchisement. Britain’s blanket ban on prisoners’ ability to vote has been found to have breached inmates’ right to a free election (Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European Convention) four times by the European Court, with the first case heard in 2006. Three successive governments have refused or failed to act, and the country remains noncompliant with the European Convention rulings on this matter.

This distrust by the Conservatives toward the European Court of Human Rights reflects an increasing intolerance and belief in British society that access to justice should be limited for certain groups of people — most notably migrants, asylum seekers and people accused of terrorism.

Recently, after a xenophobic column appeared in The Sun newspaper (owned by Rupert Murdoch), the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, commented on the “vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants” in certain British media. This cycle — alongside the Conservative government’s withdrawal of support for future immigrant rescue operations at sea — could worsen the migrant crisis now seizing Europe.

Yet a British Bill of Rights could be an opportunity to extend the human rights already enshrined in the European Convention, Professor Rodley at the University of Essex said. Cultural, social and economic rights are largely absent from the treaty, as is an independent right to nondiscrimination. Incorporating these freedoms into new legislation would put Britain at the forefront of countries in the world supporting a comprehensive set of human rights.

Still, there is no mention of these liberties in the Conservative manifesto or proposal, except for a statement saying, “We will not introduce new basic rights through this reform.”

The British mission to the UN, where the country holds a permanent seat on the Security Council, said in response to questions about the proposal that “The Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. Ministers will be discussing their plans on this and making announcements in due course.”

Aside from the infraction over prisoner disenfranchisement, Britain has acquiesced on European Court of Human Rights rulings. The country’s noncompliance in such human-rights matters, though, could encourage other less-compliant states in the European Convention on Human Rights to further flout European rulings.

As Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general and a Conservative Member of Parliament, points out in a statement on his website, “As an international treaty, its [the European Convention] success is dependent on the peer group pressure amongst its adherents to promote respect for it and help ensure its judgments get implemented.”

Globally, authoritarian states could use such examples of noncompliance to justify their own rejection of accepted international human-rights norms and principles, a situation that Grieve further noted, saying, “The UK’s ambivalence is being cited by countries such as Venezuela in ignoring obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights . . . and by the president of Kenya over the jurisdiction of the ICC.”

The chances of Cameron’s proposal to replace the Human Rights Act remains high, given the priority it has been afforded in the Conservative manifesto. On the recent 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Cameron also contended that “the good name of human rights” in Britain has become “distorted and devalued.”

Britain has always been a global leader in the field of human rights, but now there is growing concern that regardless of motivation these plans could distort and devalue the very reputation they seek to fortify.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.

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