The European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up after WW2 in the Hague in order to ensure a framework of legal protections designed to prevent the rise of fascist regimes like those which had only a few years previously torn the world apart and led to the deaths of millions at the hands of the Nazis and their allies. A British lawyer, the Edinburgh born David Maxwell Fyfe, played a key role in drafting the Convention, which was and is entirely distinct from the European Union. United only by their hatred of Europe and their willingness to pander to the most base scaremongering in the right wing gutter press about migrants, the Conservatives are now seeking to take Britain out of the ECHR despite having no mandate to do so. The ECHR is a fundamental pillar of the European democratic political order, part and parcel of being a member of the Council of Europe.
The Tories and their allies like to conflate the ECHR with the EU-only European Court of Justice based in Luxembourg. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is based in Strasbourg. International law scholars consider the ECtHR to be the most effective international human rights court in the world. the court interprets and rules on the ECHR. Judges are elected to the court by the Council of Europe in respect of each member state although the judges sit as individuals not as representatives of each state. A British judge, Tim Eicke KC, sits on the ECtHR.
After attacking real wages, and introducing repressive laws to crack down on the right to strike and the right to peaceful protest, the Tories are now targeting human rights. They want the UK to join Russia and Belarus as the only European countries which ignore the ECHR. The Tories and their right wing allies used hatred and prejudice against migrants in order to take the UK out of the EU, then they used that to attack everyone’s employment and consumer rights, despite vehemently denying that they planned to do any such thing. Now they are using hatred and prejudice against migrants in order to take the UK out of the ECHR, and they will absolutely use that to attack everyone’s human rights, to attack the rights to assembly and to protest, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of political expression. Of course they will deny that they intend to do any of these things, but if there is one thing that even the most obtuse voter ought to have learned about the Conservatives by now it’s that they lie. It’s the classic power play of the authoritarian bully to scapegoat a minority as an excuse to remove everyone’s rights. However either we all have human rights or no one does. If human rights are taken away from any group of people, they’re not human rights at all. They’re just privileges granted by the powerful, which can just as easily be taken away by the powerful. the Tories say that they need to extinguish rights so they can do vile things to immigrants that a convention on human rights would prevent. Okay… But who would be next? Because it never stops there. The homeless? The unemployed? The vulnerable? How rich must you be to have rights?
Once the Conservatives have given themselves the power to override fundamental human rights, they will use it, and they will not just use it against undocumented migrants, they will use it against climate change protestors, they will use it against Black Lives Matter campaigners, they will use it against trade unions, they will use it against Scottish independence campaigners. They must be resisted.
The fundamental truth that the Conservatives hope we do not notice is that if you can only introduce the measures that you want to combat undocumented migration by trashing an international treaty guaranteeing basic human rights, it’s not the treaty on human rights that is the problem, it’s your immigration policy. For all the Conservative cant about tackling the people traffickers who trade in human misery, exiting the ECHR will not punish the people traffickers, it merely heaps more misery on their victims. It’s like claiming to help the victims of a violent assault by punching them in what is left of their teeth.
The Conservatives bleat that Canada and New Zealand are also outside the European Convention on Human Rights, they are also outside of Europe even in its most extended geographical sense. Canada has a written constitution which codifies and enshrines the human rights of Canadian citizens and individuals under Canadian jurisdiction, New Zealand has a Bill of Rights which is considered to be a fundamental part of the constitution of New Zealand, a constitution which also ensures checks and balances between the various branches of government which are entirely lacking in the UK where there is little effective check on the absolute power of a Prime Minister who like Rishi Sunak can occupy the post without being elected by anyone at all. New Zealand also has a proportional system of voting which ensures that a party which fails to win a majority of votes cast cannot win a majority of seats in the Parliament. None of these guarantees and checks and balances exist in the UK meaning that outwith the ECHR our human rights are hostage to whatever party manages to win a majority of seats at Westminster, even though that party is highly unlikely to have won a majority of the popular vote.
The so-called migrant crisis is in any event an artificial problem manufactured by the far right press and the likes of Nigel Farage. The truth is that the UK receives fewer migrants and asylum seekers than most other European states. There were 72,027 asylum applications (relating to 85,902 people) in the UK in the year ending September 2022. In the same period, a total of 244,132 asylum applications were filed in Germany and 96,510 in France. In 2021 Sweden (which has a population of 10.5 million compared to the 67.5 million population of the UK), accepted 240,854 refugees and asylum seekers. None of these countries feel the need to exit the ECHR in order to cope with migration.
However having aired the idea, Sunak was quick to insist he had no plans to leave the ECHR after a number of Conservative MPs went public with their opposition to leaving. We may have been saved, this time, by Sunak’s weakness and his inability to ensure that his warring back benchers comply, but next time we may not be so lucky. We can be sure that the right wing of the Tory party and the frothing right wing media will keep agitating until they get a Prime Minister who will do their bidding. There are reports that the Conservatives intend to campaign at the next General Election on a platform of taking the UK out of the ECHR. They may lose that election but the Anglo-British nationalist right wing will eventually see the electoral pendulum swing back its way, and then there will be a bonfire of human rights in the name of ‘British patriotism’. Democracy and human rights in Scotland cannot be safe until Scotland is an independent nation.
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