On the day of the Westminster attack last month – when a man drove his car into a crowd, killing five and injuring dozens more – Prime Minister Theresa May made a rare positive comment about human rights, citing them as part of Britain’s defining values. The leaders of Britain’s other mainstream political parties have also voiced support for rights in different contexts. But with a general election now set for June 8, the challenge for each of them is the same: how to protect human rights in practice.
An immediate test is politicians’ conduct during the election itself. Last year’s Brexit campaign was one of the ugliest in recent British political history. Some politicians and parts of the media fuelled prejudice by scapegoating migrants and refugees, contributing to a disturbing rise in hate crime and xenophobia. All those standing in June’s election should pledge not to use inflammatory language, or to stoke fear and division.
The other critical test relates to the parties’ manifestos. Human Rights Watch will shortly be putting a questionnaire to the parties, to help clarify their policies on human rights. At the very minimum, however, we need commitment in two key areas.
First, parties should pledge to retain the Human Rights Act and Britain’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The act benefits ordinary people in Britain, while the ECHR, drafted with significant British input, has helped protect people’s human rights across 47 European countries by preventing torture in custody, promoting equality for LGBT people, ending the death penalty, and protecting media freedom. May has threatened Britain’s withdrawal from the ECHR. She should think again.
Secondly, political parties should affirm that Britain will uphold international law. This includes the laws of war. Disturbingly, this government has denied evidence that the Saudi-led coalition, involved in a brutal war in Yemen and heavily armed by the British government, is committing abuses that may amount to war crimes. All political parties should commit to the suspension of British arms to the Saudi government pending independent investigations into these allegations.
In both domestic and foreign policy, political parties should make human rights a central focus of their manifestos, and of their vision for Britain and its place in the world.