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UK steps away from pledge to protect human rights

THE UK IS ABOUT TO withdraw partially or entirely from a key European convention that protects human rights. The move is being pushed by Conservative minister Dominic Raab, a passionate critic of human rights protection in Hong Kong and mainland China.

His bill will remove the requirement for British courts to take account of judgments made by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – despite Britain remaining a signatory to the convention.


The most immediate result is that the change will make it possible for the British administration to eject people convicted of criminal acts from the country even if they have children or other family members who are British. Critics say that preventing the splitting families in this way is a key plank of international human rights legislation.

The change, along with other proposed alterations of human rights laws in the country, are a big deal, historians say. Britain was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the treaty when it was drawn up by the Council of Europe in 1950, and convention became enshrined in UK law through the Human Rights Act in 1998.     

Raab has long wanted to back away from Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights without having to withdraw from the treaty altogether.

However, the UK may have to abandon the entire convention. “Some in government believe could lead to Britain leaving the European Convention on Human Rights,” the London Times reported.


Leading lights in the legal world have expressed grave concern to the newspaper. “Weakening rights for some would weaken rights for everyone,” said Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society of England and Wales.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton said: “This government is sending the message again and again that the UK cannot be relied on to stick by the international agreements it has entered. Our word is most certainly no longer our bond.”

Details of the split families element of the changes, described as a “reform”, are expected to be announced on May 10.

The UK, following the lead of the United States, frequently uses accusations of human rights shortcomings as a tool to attack non-Western nations, and there are fears that Whitehall’s ability to do so will be curtailed. Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister, said: “This is the worst possible time to pick a fight with the European Court of Human Rights.”

The risk is that EU countries will cancel bilateral legal cooperation with the UK, causing it to lose the ability to deport or extradite criminals. This would be ironic. The G7 pressed Hong Kong to widen its extradition laws, but when the city agreed to do so in 2019, the BBC and other media wrongly reported that the change was being “imposed by Beijing”.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong is widely painted in the international media as a “police state” which has lost its rule of law. However, in global indexes of justice and freedom the city continues to rank highly, and it continues to be a stable, low-crime society. The National Security Law stipulates that Hong Kong protects the rights and freedoms enjoyed by residents under the Basic Law and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

China recently ratified two more conventions under the International Labor Organization’s program, putting it far ahead of the United States in workers’ rights.

In the UK, a Joint Committee on Human Rights has warned that the government’s so-called reforms are going in the wrong direction. “Measures that the Government says would strengthen rights are likely to have the opposite effect on other rights,” the committee said.

Image at the top Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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