(London) – UK political parties should commit to protecting the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Act (HRA) and upholding the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) if they win the May 2015 general election, Human Rights Watch said today.

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 today, Human Rights Watch addresses some of the recurring criticisms of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention.

In 2010 the Conservative Party said it would replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights but, after the elections that year, it could not reach agreement with the other party in the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives have reiterated their intention to scrap the Human Rights Act if they are elected in 2015.

While in principle there are measures that could be taken to broaden and deepen human rights protection in the UK, most of those who advocate replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights appear to be interested in diminishing, not increasing, rights protections, Human Rights Watch said. The Human Rights Act and the European Convention protect the human rights of everyone in the UK, Human Rights Watch said.

Criticism of human rights in the UK predates the current coalition government. Some senior ministers of the previous Labour government criticized the Human Rights Act on similar grounds to those put forward by the government ministers today.

The European Convention was drafted in the early post-war years with the support of Winston Churchill and extensive UK involvement. It is heavily influenced by UK legal traditions. The UK was instrumental in the creation of the Council of Europe in 1949 and drafting the ECHR in 1950.

The Human Rights Act 1998, which entered into force in 2000, incorporates the ECHR into UK law and allows people to seek redress in the UK courts for violations of the rights guaranteed by the convention, without having to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

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, unlike 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 court finds the overwhelming majority of cases brought against the UK inadmissible and only rules that the UK has breached the convention in a very small number of cases.

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.”