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Submission to the UK Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights

The Human Rights Implications of Brexit

October 2016


Human Rights Watch welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the committee. We are very concerned about human rights developments in the United Kingdom since the referendum vote, and about the risks of a further deterioration of human rights protections as the UK moves towards exiting the EU.

Climate of Xenophobia and Hate Crimes

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned at the current climate of xenophobia in the United Kingdom and increase in hate crimes since the Brexit vote.

The climate of xenophobia was evident in the latter stages of the referendum campaign with the killing of the MP Jo Cox and has been acute since the vote. This has been noted with concern by a number of international human rights bodies, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights and the Council of Europe Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

It is manifest in the increase in hate crimes reported to police, including those expressing hostile sentiment or carrying out hostile acts towards EU citizens, among them assaults and arson attacks. There was a 60 percent increase in hate crimes after the referendum compared to the same period a year before, according to the National Council of Police Chiefs. By August, the number of incidents had decreased but was still 14 percent higher than the same period a year before. The killing of Arek Jóźwik in Harlow in September is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner and the UN CERD committee have both concluded that political speech during the campaign contributed to the climate of xenophobia.  The UN CERD committee recommended in August that UK “public officials not only refrain from such [hate] speech but also formally reject hate speech and condemn the hateful ideas expressed so as to promote a culture of tolerance and respect”.

While it is commendable that the police appear to be taking these incidents seriously and to facilitate the reporting of them, and that the government has condemned post-Brexit hate crimes, it is important that the government and opposition politicians consider carefully the effect of their language and policy proposals, and the duty of the state to take positive steps to prevent violence and discrimination.

In that context, the cumulative effect of governments policies and proposals reported in early October—requiring schools to record the country of birth and nationality of children, demanding employers list their foreign workers, and restricting entry to foreign students—risks sending a signal that the referendum result was a vote to rid the country of foreigners, whatever the merits of the individual policies.

We welcome the commitment in the government’s new action plan on hate crimes to prevent them “by challenging the beliefs and attitudes that can underlie such crimes.” This philosophy needs to be applied to the government’s own policy proposals and the rhetoric of government ministers.

Risk to Family Life

Human Rights Watch welcomes recent media reports suggesting that the government is committed to allowing all EU citizens residing in the UK to remain after Brexit. This is consistent with the duty of the government to uphold its obligations to protect the right to family life. The government should now confirm without delay that this is the case, and make clear that such rights will not depend on reciprocity for UK citizens living in other EU member states.

The failure of the UK government so far to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the country has created anxiety within families who do not all hold UK passports, with the National Association of Head Teachers reporting that some children now fear they or their parents will be deported from the country. It has also likely contributed to the climate of xenophobia since the vote, with some EU citizens reporting being told on the street by passers-by that they should leave because that was what the vote “meant.”

Risk to Human Rights Protected by EU Law

EU law protects critical areas of rights affecting millions of people in the United Kingdom. This includes employment rights, including the rights of part-time and agency workers, and the rights set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, that go beyond the rights in the Human Rights Act in many areas, in particular in economic and social rights. EU law, including the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, is critical in upholding and strengthening equality and anti-discrimination protection in the UK, including on the grounds of gender, age, religion, disability, nationality and sexual orientation. EU and UK laws on anti-discrimination have been mutually reinforcing, with EU law drawing on UK practice and history.

It is of significant concern that these rights have received very little attention during and since the campaign and in particular in discussions concerning the form of Brexit. The UK’s departure from the European Union and the jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice could remove crucial human rights protections. It would be the first time that a significant international legal framework to protect rights, which binds the UK government and parliament, was removed from UK citizens and residents.

There is a risk that the UK government could seek to weaken the anti-discrimination and employment rights protection in UK law that arise from EU legislation. While many EU law protections would remain binding during any transitional or permanent arrangement involving EEA status, if the UK cuts itself off entirely from the EU, including from jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice, there would be scope for the government to adopt laws that weaken those protections, subject to parliamentary approval and to the extent permissible under other UK human rights obligations, including the Human Rights Act.

It is important that the committee and parliament as a whole is vigilant about this risk, particularly in relation to weakening of employment rights protections. The UK should also look to strengthen its commitments in related areas in other international mechanisms, in particular by ratifying Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which would directly strengthen anti-discrimination protections in domestic law.  

Risks to UK Participation in the Council of Europe

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the hostility to supranational oversight that drove much of the support for Brexit could lead to renewed calls for the UK to withdraw from the Council of Europe. We recognize that the Prime Minister has stepped away from her call during the referendum campaign for the UK to leave the Council of Europe, and welcome the decision by UK to seek to renew its membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

Set against that is the ongoing climate of hostility towards human rights in some sections of the media and parts of the government, and the manifesto commitment by the government to replace the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights that would give the Supreme Court, rather than European Court of Human Rights, final interpretation over violations. 

Leaving the Council of Europe would significantly weaken human rights protection in the UK, removing a key safeguard, in the form of the European Court of Human Rights. It could weaken the court and Council of Europe system in ways that would harm human rights protection across the Council of Europe region.

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