DEBATE: Should the UK remain a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield and William Clouston

June 15, 2022

Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield, Senior Research Fellow at Bright Blue and Chair of the Women in Think Tanks Forum, argues YES

Drafted in World War II’s dreadful shadow and championed by Winston Churchill, the UK was one of the original twelve signatories to the ECHR. Rather than an alien piece of legislation, we were heavily involved in its drafting, becoming the first nation to ratify it in 1951.

Critics claim that judges at the European Court of Human Rights overreach their power, bullying our own courts. But in fact, our courts are obliged only to “take into account” the judgements of the ECHR Court. Even if there is a clash between the ECHR and a proposed UK law, then our courts cannot strike the law down, only note the “incompatibility” to Parliament, rightly leaving it to our elected representatives to decide what to do next.

Furthermore, the rights that the ECHR enshrines, including those to a fair trial and freedom from torture, are drawn from English common law. These are key British values we should be proud to have shared and exported to other nations. By remaining a signatory of ECHR, a close relative of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, we say in one national voice that being human is sacred. We voluntarily hold ourselves to a high standard and ask others to do the same.

The ugly truth is that some of the ECHR’s enemies simply find human rights, these core British values, politically inconvenient. They point to the difficulties faced removing the hate preacher Abu Qatada, and this week to the failed first Rwanda flight. Though these legal challenges may occasionally prove a thorn in the side of the government, the ECHR is a bulwark against such people who would pull us down a slippery slope away from a commitment to the universal character of human rights.

William Clouston, leader of the Social Democratic Party, argues NO

The overriding reason why the UK government can not deal with illegal migration is that it is bound by a series of post-war international agreements such as the 1951 Refugee Convention (and the 1967 protocol) and the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights.  Written in the shadow of the Holocaust, these instruments gave the right to claim political asylum to anyone with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership of a social group.

Any Afghan woman might reasonably qualify – so half the Afghan population – as might any Chinese citizen in favour of democracy as well as any homosexual in countless states throughout the world. Put simply, billions of people would probably qualify for asylum in the UK if only they could reach our shores which means that many, with the help of people-smuggling gangs, will do so. This is not what the post-war conventions envisaged.

A government wishing to secure our border and prevent the unauthorised arrival of tens of thousands of people across the Channel – unvetted, unchecked and uninvited – could do so. The government’s Rwanda scheme is insufficient because it leaves in place the legal means to bring down the governments stated aims. Much of this is connected to political advertising.

A serious approach would involve withdrawal from the ECHR and the 1951 Refugee convention, establishing offshore processing in UK overseas territories for all unsolicited arrivals and expediting prompt return to the country of origin. As with Australia’s post-Tampa experience, the flow would cease overnight. This would enable the UK to put in place an ordered and altogether more humanitarian system – under democratic control – involving granting asylum to the most urgently deserving people, namely, carefully vetted families with children in UN refugee camps adjacent to war zones.

We learned during the Covid-19 pandemic that when a government really wants to do something it can. In truth, our government’s inept Rwanda scheme and its political deflections prove one thing – that it doesn’t really want to solve the migration crisis.


Written by Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield and William Clouston

Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield is a Senior Research Fellow at Bright Blue as well as Chair of the Women in Think Tanks Forum and William Clouston is Party Leader of the Social Democratic Party.

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