The government’s hokey-cokey on the European Convention is a dangerous game

IN or OUT that’s the question, but the debate before parliament today and the speech from the Home Secretary last week ventured to propose an altogether different Brexit: not from the EU, but from the European Convention on Human Rights.

This is just the latest verse in a very long rendition of hokey-cokey on the issue of the European Convention from various government ministers over recent years which has seen the Prime Minister repeatedly 'refuse to rule anything out' while the Minister for Justice said we would definitively be staying in (even accusing us of scaremongering for suggesting otherwise), and now the Home Secretary advocates exit. Hardly singing from the same hymn sheet.

Today, the influential cross party EU Committee of the House of Lords – after reviewing with evidently increasing frustration the plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights (and questioning its wisdom) - exasperatedly called on the government to 'state explicitly whether or not it intends that the UK should remain a signatory to the ECHR'.

The European Convention on Human Rights was of course called for by Churchill and others in the wake of the Second World War, designed to ensure the horrors were never again repeated. It is credited with contributing to the longest period of peace the continent has ever known and is actually treated with a degree of nostalgia by some of the most Euro-sceptic politicians, including Secretary of State Michael Gove. If the UK were to exit the Convention, it would put us in a club of European countries in which the only other member is Belarus.

The damage done from withdrawal could be substantial, validating the action of others all over the world who similarly dislike external scrutiny of their decisions, particularly on human rights grounds. Look at Kenya’s President Kenyatta, a man who when sought by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, actually invoked David Cameron in seeking to justify his rejection of supposedly over ambitious international courts. Or the Ukranian regime, which in response to a European Court of Human Rights judgment calling for reinstatement of a Judge it had dismissed in violation of the right to a fair trial reportedly shrugged and said, 'Great Britain would very much like to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.'

Just at the start of this year, Russia passed a law which it says allows it to reject European Court of Human Rights judgements it disagrees with. And the first big test issue its gone for is …. prisoner voting. Sound familiar? When our Prime Minister talks about how a European Court of Human Rights judgement make him 'sick to his stomach', that doesn’t just get heard in the Westminster and UK tabloid bubble – it sets a tone that’s music to the ears of rights-dodging regimes the world over.

The saddest thing about all of this is that the threat to withdraw from the Convention could actually be wholly empty. A lightning rod designed to shock and draw in human rights friendly MPs - to encourage them to make this the ‘red line’. To set the bar lower than would a government attack which solely targeted the Human Rights Act, by leaving open the prospect of something even worse. It’s worth asking whether this supposed muddle is in fact a clever and calculated political move which renders the prospect of repeal of the Human Rights Act a lesser evil.

If that is the strategy then we should be wise to it, not least this week. Hillsborough was by no means a poster child for justice, representing rather decades of injustice, but the proper inquest the families fought so hard for took place in the end in no small part due to the government’s obligation under Article 2 of the Convention, made law by the Human Rights Act.

All of this talk of Convention withdrawal and Act repeal leads to the same place: the doors to justice being closed in the face of ordinary people in the UK when their government lets them down. The Lords are right to call not only for clarity, but for the government to think again on its entire project to re-write our rights.

We should remember that these avenues are only needed at the darkest of times, and for people who find themselves in places where they wish they weren’t. We should not allow this politicking to cloud that truth.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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