Letter to the Conservative Party on human rights manifesto commitment

by David Isaac

Published: 11 Jan 2017

The Commission has written to the Conservative Party following reports consideration is being given to a manifesto commitment to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights.

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of promoting and protecting human rights at home and abroad. Our global leadership paved the way for many of today’s international human rights conventions. Winston Churchill was instrumental in creating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) after World War II, with British lawyers helping to establish the level playing field for human rights across the continent.

We are all proud of this heritage. We were therefore surprised to read reports between Christmas and New Year that consideration is being given to a 2020 Conservative Party manifesto pledge to remove the UK from the ECHR. As the statutory body with duties to protect and promote human rights in Great Britain, and an A status United Nations Human Rights Institution, the Commission would be strongly opposed to such a proposal.

Withdrawal from the ECHR would undermine the domestic protection of human rights, the international system of human rights - which itself benefits the UK - and the place of the UK as a leader on the world stage.

The vast majority of the cases brought against the UK are declared inadmissible and fewer still are successful. Therefore, being a party to the Convention does not result in a large number of burdensome adverse judgments against the UK, but our adherence to the Convention remains important for the integrity of the system.

Human rights protect us all every day. Without the ECHR, journalists uncovering corruption would not have the power to protect their sources; local authorities could claim immunity from failing to protect abused and neglected children; and the police could choose not to investigate some claims of rape.

Human rights are fundamental to our way of life and we must guard against any diminution of these rights or the laws and mechanisms which allow individuals to enjoy and enforce them.

It is vital that the UK continues to show international leadership on human rights and uphold the highest standards at home and abroad. This is the basis of the UK’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council. If the UK were to withdraw, it would be the only wider European member of the UNHRC not to be a signatory of the ECHR. If we are to judge other countries on their record we must remain signed up to the same standards we expect of others. Scrutiny at the international level shines a light on how each state complies and international standards ensure that, as human rights develop to reflect society, no state is left behind, encouraging ongoing progress.  

The importance of protecting rights at an international level, as well as in domestic legislation, cannot be overstated. International human rights conventions are an immensely important aspect of the international legal order, creating a common set of minimum standards that all states agree, for the treatment for everyone within their jurisdiction. They are also of benefit to UK citizens living and travelling abroad – creating standards on which they can rely.

As the National Human Rights Institution, for Great Britain, accredited as ‘A Status’ by the United Nations, we have a statutory power to advise government in relation to the effectiveness of human rights law and the effect of any proposed change.  As the Conservative Party develops its thinking, we would be happy to meet in order to help inform any future policy.

Our commitment to human rights is an important part of who we are as a country and should remain central to the nation we wish to be in the future. As we leave the EU, and the role it plays in setting regional standards and overseeing compliance, the Convention will become even more important for the UK.

I look forward to discussing this with you and would be grateful if your office could suggest some convenient dates. It may also be helpful to combine this with the discussion on the nature of political debate following our previous letter to you, for which I am grateful for your response.

We look forward to hearing from you.

David Isaac

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