The tawdry obscenities of this prime minister’s law-breaking spree are unlikely to convince anyone outside the Conservative Party that ‘British is Best’ and that any laws he dislikes should therefore be dumped.
We’re used to the immature behaviour of Boris Johnson and his ministers. We’re inured to the braying mob on the benches of the House of Commons. If anyone deserved match bans and Asbos, it’s them. The government spin and ‘culture war’ propaganda in the face of the economic and moral crises the country now faces, shows how low it and its supporters have sunk to keep their seats.
EU Commission responds to UK actions
But the EU Commission won’t cave in to condescending sneers and deceits. It won’t collude in breaking international law to save the PM’s face.
Instead, it has offered to modify parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. And it has reminded the UK of Britain’s role in writing and upholding human rights legislation. Ironic, since Johnson’s own grandfather, Sir James Fawcett, was president of the body that led to the European Convention on Human Rights signed in Rome in 1950. It came into force in the UK in 1953 and is the basis of the UK’s Human Rights Act adopted in 1998. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was founded well before the EU, is separate from the EU and includes rights that can be relied on it court.
But the fact that Britain co-wrote the European Convention on Human Rights is inconvenient to the stories and wishful thinking of the PM and his cronies. In response, they now threaten, yet again, to ditch it at the very time the EU is focused on action to end impunity for grave crimes under international law.
A time to show how to value democracy and human rights
In February this year, the European parliament’s resolution on human rights and democracy in the world supported the idea of transitional justice processes to empower civil society – especially women and young people – and marginalised and vulnerable populations. It wants to establish a pool of experts to focus on reconciliation and transitional justice, a process that uses judicial and non-judicial steps to redress historical human rights abuses. Significantly, it takes a holistic view of the interconnected spate of illiberal measures that threaten human rights and dignity.
If the prime minister had the time or inclination to read the resolution, it would surely make him wince.
Not only does it condemn the misuse of Covid-19 to bolster autocratic tendencies, but it also denounces ‘cover-ups’ of missteps across the board. It calls out specific human rights challenges:
- Upholding freedoms we take for granted
- Empowering women and the vulnerable
- Protecting children
- Protecting the environment
- Gender equality
- Supporting work against people trafficking and forced labour
- Intolerance and discrimination
- The persecution of human rights defenders.
And this is where the UK government needs to stop preening and consider why it apparently finds what the EU is trying to do so distasteful. The European parliament’s resolution supports fast-track visas for human rights defenders fleeing persecution – something that seems to baffle some British ministers, especially as the EU doesn’t entirely share the UK’s view of Rwanda.
The human rights challenge for the UK
The UK might look to its own role in the ECHR and contribute to the EU’s current efforts to strengthen international law. The EU is giving its special representative for human rights (EUSR) more resources to defend and advance human rights in the world through dialogue with regimes including Europe’s near neighbours in Africa. In so doing, this will uphold the work of the UN and support the International Criminal Court as the only international institution in a position to prosecute heinous crimes.
Instead, the ECHR has had to step in and query the government’s intention to fly people seeking refuge from oppression to Rwanda.
And the UK government could perhaps draw inspiration from the European parliament’s aim to give teeth to its global human rights sanctions regime (dubbed the ‘EU Magnitsky Act’), and its action against corruption and international conflict. But instead of showing how it could contribute to upholding international humanitarian law, the UK seems bent on debasing its own historical contribution to making it work.
Our government’s defamatory rhetoric on the Northern Ireland protocol has confirmed its inability to understand that international law protects everyone only when all adhere to it. The UK’s geopolitical position is no safeguard against law-breaking vandals at home or abroad, or in cyber-space.
Is the UK still a world leader in democracy and human rights?
The UK once contributed to protecting democracy and human rights in pragmatic and constructive ways designed to overcome the legacy of past conflicts and build sustainable peace. It once subscribed to that EU ideal and to upholding the UN’s four pillars of transitional justice: truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. But as it tries to cut loose from the EU, it appears to be rejecting the underpinnings of international law, democratic accountability and human rights and has been criticised by MEPs accordingly.
The EU’s action plan on human rights and democracy for 2020–2024 supports the UN’s objectives on all this. But it doesn’t just think that promoting and safeguarding human rights and democracy is a matter only for foreign policy. Instead, it recognises that it must begin at home. Meanwhile, at home here in the UK, we had our justice secretary announcing he would be working on how to ‘reform’ (downgrade?) the Human Rights Act, and measured EU condemnation of the unilateral action by the UK government with its proposed bill to breach the Northern Ireland protocol.
Last month, the ‘This is Europe’ initiative of the president of the European parliament, Roberta Metsola, opened a series of debates with EU leaders to discuss their visions for the future of the EU, following the conclusion of the conference on the future of Europe. The Irish Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, addressed the European parliament on 8 June. Over 20 percent of his speech was devoted to peace on the island of Ireland – which exists thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, key aspects of which are based on the Human Rights Act – and Irish EU membership. He warned of a “serious situation” if the UK scraps the protocol.
When Andrej Plenkovic, the Croatian prime minister, gives his speech this week, will the endangering of peace on the island of Ireland by the EU’s nearest neighbour, the UK, and its recent disregard for human rights, figure at all? Or will the UK itself be disregarded and seen as a pariah now that it is eroding its own democracy and human rights?