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Britain's Prime Minister Keir Starmer speaks at the Senedd in Cardiff, Wales, UK, July 8, 2024. © 2024 Alastair Grant/AP Photo

To say that the past few years have been challenging for human rights in the UK would be an understatement. Attacks on freedoms have felt incessant; attacks on the institutions and practitioners who uphold them have been vicious and vociferous. 

The new Labour government now has an opportunity to reframe the discussion around human rights, but it will require both courage and conviction.

The simple truth is that human rights, and the international legal frameworks that uphold them, protect ordinary people from those that wield power. This could be the local council, a politician, or the police. It is because of domestic human rights legislation that these groups must uphold international standards, like ensuring you aren’t arbitrarily detained or protecting victims of domestic abuse. These laws ensure a decent standard of living and if not, access to justice and a remedy. Essentially, human rights ensure David is supported and that the system cannot be rigged in Goliath’s favor. 

In this context, it is perhaps clearer to see why vested interests in British society have sought to water down or remove these protections entirely. 

The campaign against human rights, both domestically and internationally, is well resourced and coordinated. Some politicians and elements of the media have tried to reduce human rights to little more than hostile soundbites in a culture war narrative. They have even weaponized the term ‘human rights,’ turning it into a loaded gun  to dispatch critics of creeping authoritarianism as little more than “lefty-liberal lawyers.” 

We fully expect these attacks to intensify as the more extreme elements of the outgoing administration find themselves unencumbered by the realities of governing.

It will require a principled stand by the new Labour government to weather this inevitable barrage, but it is fundamental to our democracy, basic freedoms, and the UK’s standing on the international stage. The Britain Labour has inherited is a far less free country than it was just a few years ago, and reversing the slide toward authoritarianism will require a committed and concerted effort. 

Civicus Monitor, a global research collaboration that measures basic freedoms, last year reclassified the UK was from a country where  civic space had ‘narrowed’ to  one where civic space is now  ‘obstructed.’

To list every regressive measure the previous government enacted to get us to where we are today risks turning an opinion piece into a manifesto, but there are a few measures that stand out.  These should be priorities for a Labour administration seeking to reinforce our democracy and repair the damage. 

First, the  Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and Public Order Act 2023 have dramatically increased police powers and criminalized peaceful protest, a critical avenue for people to express their views.

Second are the ham-fisted, cruel and unlawful asylum measures of the previous government, the UK-Rwanda plan being its most high-profile component. While Labour has given assurances that they will not send people to Rwanda, it has been less equivocal about the laws that underpin the  assault on refugee rights, namely the Nationality and Borders Act and Illegal Migration Act. 

These laws, prevent people from claiming asylum and risk subjecting them to indefinite detention and limbo. We and many others have made clear that these laws are in stark contravention of the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and international law more broadly, and undermine the UK’s ability to promote human rights and the rules-based order abroad.

Finally, the incoming government needs to protect and uphold the independence of institutions that provide a vital check on government power.

The last few years have exposed just how easy it is for politicians to undermine the independence of British democratic institutions. From the proroguing of Parliament through to the Safety of Rwanda Act, politicians have tested the boundaries of our institutions to their very limits. A government that doesn’t respect the rule of law is the very definition of authoritarian, and Labour should change course, and instead strengthen measures that increase accountability for the government’s acts including access to legal representation and the courts. 

The Labour party is entering government at an incredibly tumultuous time both domestically and internationally. Trust in politicians is at a historic low, populism is growing globally, and the international conventions and norms upon which our modern society is built are creaking under the weight of conflicts and climate change. 

The new Labour government needs to decide which path it will take. Rather than succumb to the insular, divisive policies championed by its predecessor, the new government should take a principled and consistent stand in defense of human rights at home and abroad.

Standing up for human rights will inevitably prove unpopular with some parts of the media, but these aren’t the people the new Prime Minister Keir Starmer should worry about. History will judge the Labour party and its leader poorly if they fail to arrest the UK’s slide toward authoritarianism.

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