Human Rights Watch deconstructs case against UK withdrawal from European Human Rights

October 1, 2014

In the past year, some senior members of the UK government have been highly critical of the current human rights framework, claiming falsely that it mainly benefits criminals, terrorists, and undocumented migrants, and suggesting that the UK should replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights. They have also hinted that the UK should withdraw from the European Convention so that it can more easily deport people. “To scrap the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention would be an extreme and reckless step, weakening rights protections for everyone in the UK” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It would gravely damage a system that has helped safeguard fundamental freedoms in some 47 European countries over six decades.”

In a Q&A released on 29 September, Human Rights Watch addresses some of the recurring criticisms of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention.

The Q&A responds to the criticism that human rights make it difficult to deport foreigners who have committed serious criminal offences. In fact, the UK already has legal powers to deport foreigners convicted of a serious criminal offence, but human rights law prohibits the deportation of a person in the limited cases where they would face a real risk of death, torture, or ill-treatment in the country of destination or have no prospect of a fair trial. Courts can also block a deportation if there would be a serious adverse impact on the deportee’s family, but in reaching such decisions courts must weigh the potential harm to the individual, the individual’s family (who may be British citizens), and the impact on society if he or she were allowed to remain.

The Q&A also addresses the criticism that the Human Rights Act is undemocratic. If a domestic court finds a UK law to be inconsistent with the Human Rights Act, it cannot strike down that law. It can only note that incompatibility and it is then for parliament to decide whether and how to change the law, in comparison to many other democratic countries where courts can strike down laws. As a last resort, people who invoke those rights unsuccessfully before UK judges can still seek to take their case to the court in Strasbourg, an arrangement approved by British governments for many decades.

The European Convention and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are binding on governments across the 47 countries that are part of the Council of Europe. The European Court has played a key role in protecting the rights of 800 million people across the Council of Europe region. Its rulings have been instrumental ending torture in police custody, ensuring victims of abuses by state authorities have access to justice and allowing people to express themselves freely. In many countries the court offers the only meaningful chance for justice for those whose rights are abused.

Reaffirming human rights at home is essential for any UK government that seeks to promote respect for human rights around the world. If the UK is to have any credibility on human rights in its foreign policy, it should strengthen, not weaken, its own human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said.

Attacks in the UK on the European Court of Human Rights undermine those efforts and provide succor to abusive governments in the Council of Europe that would prefer to ignore the European Court. The only European country currently not a member of the Council of Europe is Belarus. The only country to have withdrawn from the ECHR was Greece in 1969, while it was under a military dictatorship.

The UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention would be welcomed by abusive governments everywhere,” Leghtas said. “But it would gravely weaken an institution that has done so much to safeguard and advance basic freedoms across Europe and it would destroy the credibility of the UK when discussing human rights internationally.”

UK: Parties Should Commit to Rights | Human Rights Watch.

One Response to “Human Rights Watch deconstructs case against UK withdrawal from European Human Rights”


  1. […] 31, 2015 In a post of 1 October last year [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/human-rights-watch-deconstructs-case-against-uk-withdrawal-…] I referred to the rather sad efforts of conservative politicians in the United Kingdom to […]


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