Does Britain really want to be associated with Belarus on human rights?

According to yesterday's Mail on Sunday, under a future Conservative government Britain would pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Mail implies that such a move would allow Britain to deport foreign criminals without fear of being censored for breach their human rights. There are a number of problems with this position.

According to yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, under a future Conservative government Britain would pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Mail implies that such a move would allow Britain to deport foreign criminals without fear of being censored for breach their human rights.

As a comment from backbench Tory MP Nick de Bois which accompanies the article makes clear:

“It is imperative that we have legal decisions made here, not in Strasbourg. With this pledge, no longer will foreign criminals be able to take refuge in this country when they should be deported immediately after being released from prison.”

There are several problems with this position.

The European Court of Human Rights handles only a very small number of the UK’s human rights cases per year. Only a handful of those are about foreign criminals or immigration – the full list is on page 16 of this document.

As, Adam Wagner, one of the UK’s leading legal bloggers, explains:

“Indeed, the vast majority of human cases – including those involving immigration and extradition – are decided by our own courts. For proof, see the Mail on Sunday’s own ‘SCARY BLACK BOX OF SHAME’, that is the cuttings of previous headlines about courts stopping removals. None of the cases mentioned is a European Court of Human Rights case. They all relate to decisions by UK courts. The Human Rights Act 1998 gave local UK courts the power to enforce most of the European Convention on Human Rights. The idea was to ‘bring rights home’ and stop our rights law being forged exclusively in Strasbourg. That is what has happened, meaning that UK judges are largely deciding UK human rights issues.”

And if the UK withdrew from the Strasbourg court?

“Domestic courts would still carry on applying human rights law and taking account of (not following) decision of the European Court of Human Rights…It is important to understand is that domestic courts are not bound to follow the European Court of Human Rights now, but judges take the view that if there is a principle arising from a consistent line of cases in the Strasbourg court and there is no particular conflict with UK law, they will follow it.”

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Withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights would also send a message to those countries with a poor record on human rights that the UK no longer takes the issue seriously.

As Lord Pannick QC recently wrote: “We cannot expect other countries to abide by their international obligations if we refuse to accept the judgments of the European court.”

If Britain did withdraw from the convention, it would join Belarus as the only other European country to do so: that is the same Belarus that was accused by William Hague of being guilty of “serious human rights abuses” when the Tories were in opposition.

To get a sense of just how the fundamental the ECHR is considered to a modern democratic Europe, it’s worth taking a look at the sheer elementary nature of the rights the ECHR protects.

These are:

The right to life.
The right not to be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The right not to be enslaved.
The right to liberty and security of the person.
The right to a fair trial.
The right not to be retrospectively penalised.
The right to respect for private and family life.
Freedom of thought,conscience and religion.  Freedom of expression.
Freedom of assembly and association.
The right to marry.
The right not to be discriminated against in the enjoyment of those rights.
The right not to have our property taken away except in the public interest and with compensation.
The right of fair access to the country’s educational system.
The right to free elections.
Which of these is it, exactly, that the Conservative Party objects to?
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