By Jonathan Cooper.
Seventy years ago today the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but many doubt that Theresa May will join the celebrations this morning of International Human Rights Day.
She and her predecessor as prime minister, David Cameron, are not friends of Europe’s human rights message. In advance of the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the bloc, Cameron targeted the European Court of Human Rights. By doing so he was ratcheting up anti-European rhetoric even though that Court is distinct from the EU.
In 2010, Cameron said he felt “physically sick” when the Court held that the UK blanket ban on prisoner voting violated the convention. Since his early years as adviser to then home secretary, Michael Howard, in the 1990s Cameron sought to bring European human rights into disrepute.
Believing he was on to a good thing by bashing European rights, Cameron conceived the idea of his version of a British Bill of Rights. He claimed that it had distinct advantages over the Human Rights Act, which made the European Convention part of UK law.
Cameron’s British Bill of Rights had nothing to do with humans or Europe. And May jumped on that bandwagon with relish. The more he and May trumpeted their British Bill of Rights, the more enflamed the anti-European debate became.
By challenging the validity of the European Convention, Cameron was feeding the voracious Brexit beast whose thirst for anti-European dogma could not be quenched. By attacking the Convention, he was declaring a proxy war against the EU. His British Bill of Rights was a ruse to move us away from all things European. It was a direct attack on the universalism of human rights.
May’s anti-convention credentials remain as entrenched. During the Brexit referendum, she made it clear that it was the Convention and its Court that were the problem and not the EU. She may still get her way and extricate the UK from the European Court of Human Rights’ scrutiny. Her Political Declaration agreed with the EU accommodates her antipathy towards the Convention. All the declaration requires is for the UK to “respect the framework of the convention” – which is hardly a reassuring commitment. The EU, on the other hand, is bound by its human rights obligations.
A British Bill of Rights is written in invisible ink into this provision. May has secured a dog whistle victory for her anti-human rights supporters. The Human Rights Act can be repealed, and the UK can re-calibrate its relationship with the Court and the Convention without falling foul of the Declaration. If May gets her way, the UK will take further strides away from the principles of universalism that THE universal declaration embodies. There are plenty of reasons to reject May’s Brexit deal, but chief among these is the fact that she has left the door open to ravage the UK’s commitment to human rights. We must insist that any post-Brexit deal retains a hard, fast and permanent commitment to the European Convention.