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Britain’s ugly politics on human rights just got a whole lot uglier.

The BBC reported that yesterday’s ministerial “reshuffle” has stripped the coalition government of every Conservative party heavyweight who championed human rights, and paved the way for policies that would repeal the UK’s Human Rights Act and weaken the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Human rights law has long been a canard for Britain’s Conservatives. They object to rules that make it harder to deport foreigners with strong family ties to Britain when convicted of a criminal offence, and to a European Court ruling against the UK’s blanket denial of voting rights to prisoners.

If they win the May 2015 elections, the Tories are proposing to replace the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, with a new UK bill of rights. The hope is it would grant the government more latitude on deportations and give the UK parliament, not the Strasbourg court, the final say on human rights. 

Replacing the Human Rights Act with a UK ‘bill of rights’ could further corrode governmental respect for rights in the UK. But its practical effect on how British courts apply human rights would probably be limited. If domestic courts did take a radically different approach, it would lead to more cases going to the European Court and a likely constitutional clash with Strasbourg.

The idea of giving parliament the final say on rights is far more pernicious. Ousted attorney-general Dominic Grieve reportedly described the attempt to remain in the European Convention while not accepting the rulings of its court as a “legal car crash.”

Human rights law exists to protect individuals from abuses by the state, and the rule of law requires decisions about such abuses to be determined by independent judges not elected politicians.  Letting parliament decide whether or not an abuse has occurred would fail on both counts.

It could weaken the European Court’s protection for human rights victims by encouraging abusive governments in other parts of the Council of Europe to ignore its rulings. And it would almost certainly mean the UK would have to leave the Council of Europe, a move that would isolate Britain in Europe, damage its reputation and diminish its influence abroad.


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