How does a country judge the worth of following sets of basic human rights? Is it possible that any country could survive the political and cultural fallout of leaving such an all-encompassing document and set of norms? Before Brexit, not many analysts – let alone political leaders – would imagine that any country could break free of the European Union. In the months since July 2016, however, expectations have shifted.
Recently elected Prime Minister Theresa May said, as early as that April, that it was time for Britain to leave the confines of European Union Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) no matter the results of the EU referendum. Six months later, she kept to that promise.
The Prime Minister’s argument for leaving this convention relies on a few key observations. According to the UK Conservative Party, the adoption of the ECHR restricts Britain’s ability to be sovereign. Furthermore, legal precedent dictates that the ECHR’s rule of law extends to war zones, making it all the more difficult to act independently without keeping these pesky restrictions in mind. The restrictions May refers to are a series of accusations made against members of the British Armed Forces during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Conservative Party, Britain’s Ministry of Defence has spent millions of pounds defending against these baseless charges. Let’s not forget that these charges are causing continual and needless trauma to brave soldiers, who have without doubt committed no wrongs.
Her solution to this problem is to instead adopt a British Bill of Rights (scrapping the Human Rights Act of 2000), which will assuredly include all of the rights covered in the ECHR without the external oversight. After all, why subscribe to a European standard of human rights when it’s much simpler to create your own set of rules?
Here’s the problem: If the main argument against the ECHR is that it restricts Britain in exceptional circumstances, countries are already allowed to deviate from the ECHR in times of war or public emergency. Certain rights cannot be derogated, such as prohibition of torture. That, however, has not stopped Britain placing a blanket ban on all prisoner voting while neither being in wartime or in a case of public emergency (Hirst vs. the United Kingdom). Not only does Theresa May assert that Britain will depart from following the ECHR in times of war, she wants them to withdraw all-together.
The Prime Minister is missing a key point. Choosing to follow the tenants of the ECHR does not restrict Britain’s sovereignty. While the ECHR and correspondingly, the European Court of Human Rights, do hold a sort of power over Britain – according to Charles Falconer, a member UK Labour Party, “there has to be a source external to a government determining what human rights are.” This choice is a willingness to give up a small amount of sovereignty in order to put trust in supranational organisations like the ECHR and EU to better be able to predict the outcomes of the global political stage. In a battle between unpredictability and monotony in international politics, uneventfulness ought to win out.
There is no guidebook that countries can follow when deciding whether the choice of giving up sovereignty has merit. In the 63 years since the ratification of the ECHR, there have certainly been human rights violations, genocides and wars. The ECHR, however, does not claim to bring about an end of violence. Instead, it aims to create a set of norms that all countries should follow in regards to human rights. If Britain does indeed leave the security and predictability of the ECHR, we again enter a world of post-Brexit uncertainty, one in which there are no obvious solutions.
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