Is the UK a passionate defender of human rights? Given the way senior members of the government have attacked them in recent months, you wouldn’t think so. Yet this week the UK, alongside France, will be voted onto the UN Human Rights Council, tasked with addressing abuses around the world. In presenting its candidacy for the Council, the UK government describes itself as a “passionate, committed and effective defender of human rights”. Foreign Secretary William Hague said that “we [the UK] continue to work tirelessly for the promotion and protection of human rights, both domestically and abroad”.
But curiously, the UK’s much-trumpeted interest in human rights overseas is wholly at odds with its rhetoric here at home. It is difficult not to see the irony in the UK pledging to promote rights internationally while senior members of the same government attack human rights domestically on a regular basis, and increasingly as the 2015 election draws closer.
In recent months, we’ve heard government officials promise to scrap the Human Rights Act, portray the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as a tool for “foreign criminals” to take advantage of this country at the expense of hardworking taxpayers, and threaten to withdraw from the binding treaty altogether. The rhetoric regularly trotted out by senior ministers is that human rights benefit “criminals”, “terrorists”, “rapists”, and “illegal immigrants.” This is hardly promoting rights in the UK. And these repeated attacks domestically will, inevitably, damage the UK’s credibility when it calls on other countries to respect human rights.
When it reviewed the UK earlier this year, the UN Committee against Torture was critical of the way senior government figures have publicly denounced the Human Rights Act. But now the government’s gone one step further. On September 30, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the Conservative party manifesto for the next general election will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act entirely. In its place, the Conservatives are planning a British Bill of Rights, whose objective is to reduce, not increase, human rights protections.
As for the ECHR, far from celebrating the role it has played for the past sixty years in protecting the rights of some 800 million people across Europe, David Cameron recently suggested the UK could be safer without it. He made it clear the Conservatives are prepared to leave the ECHR, apparently unconcerned that in doing so the UK would join Belarus as the only other European state outside the ECHR. Does Britain really want to end up in the same moral corner as Belarus, whose parliament has operated without a single opposition member since 2004?
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has accused the ECHR of being “twisted by political correctness”, and said the “tentacles” of the Court “creep” into areas which, in his view, are the sole competence of national courts and parliaments. And when the Court ruled in July that the UK should allow a review of prison sentences after a certain period, the same minister said the original authors of the ECHR would be “turning in their graves”.
This portrayal of the European Court and Convention, appealing as it may be to parts of the British public, is based on misconceptions and factually wrong. As the Court itself recently pointed out, the idea that all applicants in cases where the Court had found a violation by the UK were criminals is simply not true. In fact, Court rulings have been crucial to protecting the rights of a boy assaulted by his step-father, a disabled child and his mother, and countless others in the UK who have turned to the Court as a last resort.
Considering the government has pledged to “continue to work with UN human rights mechanisms to ensure their independence and effectiveness”, as it should, it is also worrying that following her visit to the UK in September, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, said she had never faced such an aggressive reaction from any government, after she called for the so-called bedroom tax to be temporarily suspended while its impact is reviewed.
The UK has played an important role in advancing human rights internationally, this government included. To his credit, William Hague has championed an impressive international effort to combat sexual violence, through his high-profile Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI). The UK delegation in Geneva has also demonstrated its commitment to making the Human Rights Council an effective tool for addressing human rights abuses around the world.
It is natural for the UK to want to sit on the Human Rights Council, and there is reason to believe it will contribute usefully to the Council’s important work. But to have any credibility championing human rights overseas, the government should stop belittling them at home.
Izza Leghtas is Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @IzzaLeghtas