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Dispatches: Ditching the European Human Rights Convention is a Terrible Idea

United Kingdom politicians frequently launch attacks on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). But Home Secretary Theresa May upped the ante this week by calling for the UK to withdraw from the ECHR because it “makes us less secure” and “does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia when it comes to human rights.”

Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Britain April 19, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

This is simply not true. First, the ECHR does not make it harder for the UK to be secure, it just makes it harder to violate rights in the name of security. And it is particularly trite to claim that because the ECHR does not prevent Russia behaving badly, it has no impact on the government. On the contrary, over the years that Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by Russian authorities, interviewed victims, and pushed for reform, we have seen firsthand how the European Court of Human Rights has made a crucial difference by providing people in Russia with remedies when they have nowhere else to turn.

Until 2011, for example, people with psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions) declared “legally incapable” in Russia had no way to push to restore their right to make their own decisions. This meant these people could be deprived of the right to make decisions about marriage, voting, finances, medical treatment, and could be detained against their will in institutions. Pavel Shtukaturov, who had been stripped of legal decision-making capacity and forcibly confined in a psychiatric hospital with no right to appeal in Russia, applied to the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled in his favor, prompting Russia to change the law and opening the way for people to personally apply for their legal capacity to be restored.

The UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR would damage the UK’s credibility and standing on human rights internationally. How can a country that leaves the world’s oldest and most developed human rights protection system, of which it was a chief architect, be taken seriously when it promotes rights abroad? The only European country outside the ECHR today is Belarus, where opposition is silenced and the death penalty is still in place.

Instead of making these threats, UK leaders should commit to the system that has been a pillar of human rights protection in Europe since the horrors of the Second World War. And regardless of the political rhetoric, the ECHR does have an effect on “governments like Russia,” and the UK government should stop undermining it. 

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