LONDON, England — Britain’s Prime Minister has joined Vladimir Putin in threatening to withdraw from Europe’s human rights convention, throwing into chaos the body responsible for upholding rights, democracy and the rule of law across the continent.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party announced on Friday that Britain would no longer uphold the rulings of the European court if the party wins upcoming elections and Cameron gets a second term. Unless the European Court of Human Rights agrees that Britain’s parliament has the final say over its rulings, London will pull out of the convention altogether.
It’s an unprecedented ballot-box gambit. Cameron is going into next year’s election essentially promising to gut the guarantee of human rights that were enshrined by European law in the aftermath of the Second World War. Cameron said, if elected, he would also overturn Britain’s own human rights act, arguing that liberal judges have abused its broad protections of rights enshrined under the European Convention on Human Rights. Unlike the U.S., Britain does not have a written constitution with a Bill of Rights.
The only country in Europe currently operating outside the Convention is Belarus, an authoritarian nation where freedom of expression is curtailed and whose president was described as “Europe’s last dictator” by Condoleezza Rice.
Cameron’s decision puts him in the same league as Putin, who agrees with Conservatives who say activist judges at the European Court of Human Rights are guilty of “mission creep,” introducing an ever more radical interpretation of the treaty which has been in force for more than 60 years. The British government was particularly frustrated by an eight-year battle to deport a radical Muslim cleric for trial in Jordan after the European court ruled that would be a breach of his human rights.
Russia has taken a more nuanced approach, despite having been successfully prosecuted hundreds of times for serious human rights abuses — including for its conduct in Chechnya — at the courts in Strasbourg. Over the summer, Putin was asked about his threats to pull out of the convention. “Technically, it is of course possible, but we are not discussing the issue right now,” he said.
Human rights groups fear that Britain’s public dismissal of universal human rights will destroy the court’s legitimacy. Human Rights Watch said the move was “a gift to abusive governments,” and Amnesty complained that some of the nastiest governments in the world would be delighted. “The UK is saying to the rest of the world: ‘Pick and choose your human rights’. The likes of Belarus, Russia, Iran, China, Sri Lanka, Syria and Zimbabwe will be watching with interest,” an Amnesty spokesman said.
The predictable outrage of NGOs has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Britain’s right-wing press, which has long ridiculed the notion of human rights for suspected terrorists and convicted criminals. “[The Human Rights Act] has morphed into a charter for every terrorist and villain to dodge deportation,” said an editorial in The Sun. “Absurdly, even our battlefield troops must now consider the risk of being sued in UK courts by enemy fighters.”
The proposed abolition of the Human Rights Act, to be replaced by a British bill of rights without the force of law, was welcomed by many on the right. However, not all senior Conservative politicians were happy.
Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General until July, said the plans were “almost puerile,” unworkable and damaging to the Britain’s international reputation. The Conservative MP, who was sacked by Cameron after four years as Attorney General, warned this summer that Cameron would be in unsavory company if he were to go ahead with the plans.
“It is not dissimilar from Putin using the Duma to ratify his annexation of the Crimea,” he said. “Putin will say, ‘Well it's now lawful; the Duma has said so.’”
Cameron’s former Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, said he was “bewildered” by the proposal. “The Russians who sign up to the convention and comply with the judgments I’m sure would welcome the idea that the Duma could set them all aside but so far they haven’t been able to win that concession,” he said.
It’s dangerous for the executive branch of the government to be allowed total sway over which rulings at the European Court of Human Rights would be accepted, said Clarke, who was also a minister in the John Major and Margaret Thatcher governments.
“For the good of our society I don’t think the executive of the day should be exempt with having to comply with judgments,” he said.