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Sovereignty Or Human Rights - Do We Have To Choose?

06/10/2017 12:11

The concept of British sovereignty has recently become tied to the populist phrase "take back control". This word is thrown about by politicians in newspapers, on social media and in the House of Commons every day. Yet this is by no means a new phenomenon.

Sovereignty has been the cornerstone of international society for millennia, yet as a wave of anti-EU populism flooded our nation, it seemed as though sovereignty represented an absolute ideal, to be secured as the foundation of our political system at any price. As a young person growing up with social media which makes our world seem more interconnected than ever, my concerns are not just for domestic control, but for international peace and security. As global citizens, we want more than control of our country - we want control over the human rights of all human beings.

Jumping on the bandwagon and supporting populist policies which will guarantee our sovereignty certainly seems easier than addressing larger world issues which seem impossible to tackle. But with the rise of transnationalism, is the sovereignty of all nations really the perfect solution to world problems?

When the Peace of Westphalia was agreed in 1648, there was a consensus within Europe that the sovereign would have power in their own country. In a Europe plagued by the constant wagering of wars, a mutual agreement of non-intervention seemed the appropriate measure. The acceptance of a pluralist framework of international society therefore took as its cornerstone the principle of sovereignty. Intervention based on humanitarian grounds was an alien concept. Evidently, this is no longer the case. Since then, solidarist principles have entered the international framework and led to achievements which were only made possible by countries sacrificing a small part of their sovereignty, to work on international crises.

Take the example of the European Convention of Human Rights. British values underpin this convention, yet by its very nature, a successful convention demands that countries give up some of their sovereignty. Not unexpectedly, in 1951, there was significant dissent ensuing from an anxiety that the sovereignty of British common law would be compromised by European interference. However, the initial acceptance of this convention has had a hugely positive impact on British law, which now has human rights legislation enshrined within it.

This positive image is often unfairly represented by the media. On the rare occasion that the Council of Europe imposes a negative judgment on the UK, the media condemns Strasbourg for "stealing British sovereignty". Brussels' control over the UK is presented as synonymous with the influence of Strasbourg, as the media discusses the EU and the Council of Europe in broad strokes, as though they are the same thing. The two bodies are separate entities. Anti-EU populism should not be equated to anti-Council sentiment. The reality is that the UK's work in the Council of Europe helps to sustain international security. When Theresa May revealed her plan to leave the ECHR in her proposed 2020 manifesto, British sovereignty was made to seem far more important than working together for international security. Thankfully, the snap election delayed these plans, but the principle on which they are based remains worrying. The ECHR was originally created after World War Two, to secure international peace. The UK first signed the ECHR to promote international security. Now, many want to abandon this convention in order to promote national security. The increased focus on the UK alone, is dangerously close to ignoring the bigger picture.

Human rights and British sovereignty are evidently not mutually exclusive. Despite its colonial past, Britain has a long history of securing civil liberties; the Magna Carta is considered the antecedent form of many of the most salient human rights conventions, including the American constitution. Nevertheless, laws concerning data protection, human trafficking and the rights of victims exist today because years ago, Britain agreed to cede some of its sovereignty to Europe.

True, not all human rights legislation comes from Europe. Even after Brexit, the UK will remain committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as part of UN Security Council membership. From this, Britain gains a huge amount of soft power and a moral position in the world. Yet rhetoric that legislation "gets in the way" of national security seems ignorant to our history, which created these very human rights laws to avoid repeated genocide.

As we see a new generation of global citizens, country borders will always be important, but I would like to see a world where the principles which unite us as human beings - human rights - gain the most media attention.

Rather than bemoaning a loss of control, let us think about how we would use that control to secure the basic human rights of all human beings.

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