Can Europe Make It?

UK backtracking on human rights isn’t just hypocritical – it’s bad politics too

The Tories' reasons for the UK leaving the European Charter of Human Rights are based on political calucation rather than principle. This self-defeating act could have a long-term negative impact on the UK's international and domestic policies.

Marta Foresti
8 October 2014

Earlier this week David Cameron said (quoting Ban Ki-moon) that ‘while missiles may kill terrorists, it is only good governance that can kill terrorism.’ Although the metaphor was a little stretched, the message in many ways was nothing new from the UK Prime Minister’s ‘Golden Thread’ vision of development: to achieve prosperity, economic growth must go in hand with democracy, transparency and… human rights.

Yet only a few days later the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling suggested that a future Conservative-led government might dispose altogether with the European Charter on Human Rights (ECHR), effectively disregarding the principles of international human rights law.

This just does not add up. The whole point about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that it is based on universal principles which apply to all human beings, everywhere. The binding treaties deriving from it, including the ECHR, are legal instruments designed to implement and enforce these principles, everywhere.

The binding, universal nature of these treaties and underlying commitments is precisely what gives Cameron the basis to condemn countries like Uganda for not respecting LGBT rights or Ethiopia or Rwanda for trampling on their citizens’ rights to information or freedom of expression. They are violating international law and not complying with the treaties they have themselves signed up to and committed to implement.  

Yet this is precisely what Cameron is proposing to do at home: to do without international law and apply his own version of ‘UK approved’ human rights. Your right as a human being will from now on stop in Calais. Imagine the smile on Putin’s face.

The reasons behind these proposed changes are clearly domestic and based on good old political calculations. As Nick Cohen has argued, Grayling’s proposal is clearly meant to appease right-wingers within the Conservative party and to send signals to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) about how seriously Cameron is taking the ‘European challenge.’

In many ways these proposals remind us that human rights in practice are fundamentally a political agenda, one that needs to be constantly negotiated, gradually enforced and never taken for granted. They confirm that the notion of a universal and cross-border approach to enforcing human rights is easier said than done. Ultimately, the way human rights are enforced reflects the values and belief system that a society wishes to uphold.

Yet, as with many political calculations taken by leaders all over the world in the interest of short-term gains rather than long-term vision, this can have far-reaching and damaging consequences. Many have commented on the deep ties between the Charter and Britain, tracing it back all the way to Churchill. The ECHR is a fundamentally Conservative project, which by and large protects values, rights and jurisprudence historically shared by the Conservatives. It is not in any way a comprehensive human rights treaty and, partly because of the British role in drafting it, steers clear of any reference to economic and social rights. As Conor Gearty put it, by repealing the Human Rights Act, the Tories are likely to make things worse for themselves in the future, including on delicate matters of devolution and the Good Friday Agreement.

Promoting human rights abroad while ignoring them at home isn’t just hypocritical, it can damage dialogues, partnership and negotiations at a crucial time for international coordination as we approach huge milestones in global development and climate action. The UK government risks sacrificing its long-term vision on development – and short-term politics is a poor excuse.

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