In the ever-changing landscape of UK politics, the issue of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel has once again taken centre stage. The UK government’s determination to curb these crossings has raised the spectre of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Prime Minister is facing a major party split after the Tory Reform Group (TRG) urged Sunak not to withdraw for the sake of forcing through the government’s flagship Rwanda policy.
So, what implications could this decision have not only on the UK’s international reputation but also on the broader foundation of human rights commitments? And with a general election looming, can the government’s threat to leave the convention be removed from the political context in which it inevitably exists?
Rwanda, where it all began
To address the issue of migrants crossing the Channel, the UK proposed a contentious plan to deport irregular migrants to Rwanda, signing an agreement in 2022. The plan, however, has been marred by legal battles, culminating in a Court of Appeal ruling that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda would violate Article 3 of the ECHR – the prohibition of torture. Mindful of the approaching general election, this setback spurred a sense of urgency amongst some Conservative MPs to accelerate the process of withdrawal from the convention. And in attempts to assuage these concerns, Jenrick made clear that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister were working “on every possible front” on the issue.
The Court of Appeal has now granted permission for the government to appeal this decision, and it remains possible that the Court will rule in their favour when five of the country’s most senior judges consider the case in October.
Implications of leaving the ECHR
Established in 1953, the ECHR seeks to safeguard human rights and political freedoms across its 46 member states in the Council of Europe. This means it is not a European Union convention, so the UK’s adherence to its principles were not affected by Brexit.
Leaving the ECHR would have several ramifications on domestic policy – and perhaps none more significant than the potential impact on the ever-fraught Good Friday Agreement. This is because the agreement requires the ECHR to be embedded into law in Northern Ireland, and this has not changed following the Windsor Framework – the post-Brexit legal agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Therefore, the UK’s departure from the convention would be a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, which would still be the case if a new domestic Bill of rights replaced it.
Moreover, there are warnings that leaving the convention could cause significant reputational damage to the UK, rendering it a regional outlier and placing it in the company of Russia and Belarus – who were expelled following the invasion of Ukraine. The departure could further dampen international perceptions of the UK and fuel the self-inflicted decline of its influence on the global stage. Critically, leaving the ECHR could severely undermine the UK’s credibility in condemning human rights abuses worldwide, where – to its credit – it still maintains an active and respected role.
“Stop the Boats!”
As the electioneering ramps up, the “Stop the Boats” initiative has emerged as a key government pledge. Sunak now finds himself in a precarious position – forced to balance his commitment to this promise with the complex ramifications that leaving the ECHR would have for the UK both in-house and on the international stage. This is not a policy position he has championed in the past, but the pressure to stop unauthorised crossings has led him to a crossroads.
The ECHR dilemma is already deepening internal divisions within the Tories. While some MPs on the right of the party strongly advocate withdrawal, a diminishing caucus of ‘One Nation Conservatives’, including Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, and Attorney General, Victoria Prentis, are vehemently opposed. It seems Sunak faces a tough choice: does he stick to his belief that cordial relations with European partners, through compliance with post-Brexit legal agreements, are paramount? Or does the need to appease immigration hardliners within his party and deepen the dividing line with Labour ahead of an election trump such concerns?
While it would be ignorant to assume that any policy decision is devoid of its political context, a decision that could have monumental consequences for human rights is not one that should be taken lightly or gambled away in a gambit for power.
The Supreme Court’s Verdict: A Pivotal Moment
All eyes now turn to the upcoming Supreme Court session, which will hear the government’s appeal in the Rwanda case. Should the appeal prevail, it will be important for human rights advocates and campaign groups to act early so that their views are considered in the process. As the debate continues, it is crucial to consider the implications not only on immediate policy objectives, but also on the broader foundation of international relations and the UK’s human rights commitments.
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at email@example.com.