Since its decisive victory in recent U.K. elections, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party has threatened to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA) and possibly withdraw from the Council of Europe. On Wednesday, bowing to pressure from senior Tory leaders, Cameron agreed to suspend plans to repeal the law for wider consultation.
Opposition to the HRA is based on the view that the European human rights system imposes burdensome restrictions on British courts, especially in criminal justice and immigration-related cases, and infringe on national sovereignty. Cameron’s desire to cast off the law sends an unfortunate message that the United Kingdom may be retreating from some of its time-honored commitments to human rights. Beyond the U.K.’s borders, the HRA’s repeal would be carefully noted and cited by authoritarian governments to justify their rejection of international human rights norms. It is not hard to imagine leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin citing the U.K.’s efforts to reject the European convention as Exhibit A in defense of their poor human rights records.
Introduced in 1998, the HRA incorporates the foundational rights covered in the European Convention on Human Rights into U.K. law. It requires British authorities, from the central government to local councils and police, to adhere to these standards. Conservatives have long resented the influence of the European human rights system and the constraints it imposes on U.K. courts — for example, in deportation cases involving terrorism suspects.
The substance of the HRA is broadly consistent with the tradition of rule of law that the United Kingdom has helped advance over centuries. It underscores the government’s obligations to protect the integrity of the person, uphold due process of law and guarantee free expression, religious freedom and personal privacy. These are all hallmarks of the British model that other countries, including the United States, have long emulated.
Ironically, the debate over repealing the HRA comes as Britain commemorates the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the first document to outline the rights of citizens. Cameron’s plan seeks to replace the HRA with a British Bill of Rights designed to give Britain more control over the human rights statutes it implements, the content of which is still to be determined. This is a provocative political act that would disrupt carefully negotiated commitments throughout the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, for example, the commitment by all parties to adopt a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, based on the European Convention, allowed for the successful negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, which served as an essential framework for breaking the cycle of violence there.
The threat to repeal the HRA is part of some Conservative leaders’ broader desire to distance the U.K. from the rest of Europe. British citizens are sharply divided on the costs and benefits of European economic and political integration and will continue to vigorously debate those issues. But commitment to the protection of fundamental human rights and dignity should trump these divisions. Nearly 70 years ago, the U.K. played a pivotal role in creating the Council of Europe and its human rights system.
Born out of the suffering and destruction of World War II and the Holocaust, the Council of Europe and its human rights court helped unite and strengthen Western European states and their commitment to building stable democracies based on the rule of law and rights. In the U.K. and across these advanced democratic states, this framework has been and continues to be a useful tool in ensuring a commitment to uphold ever-evolving human rights norms.
More important, in the last 20 years the Council of Europe has dramatically expanded to include more than two dozen members from the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere. Many of these relatively new democracies still struggle to build national systems that can reliably protect their people. It is also for the people in these places that the United Kingdom needs to keep its seat at the table and be a leader, not a outlier, and work to strengthen the protection of fundamental human rights throughout Europe. Cameron may wish to exert his nationalist bona fides after his electoral victory, but jettisoning Britain’s European human rights commitments isn’t a productive way to do so.