Only two countries in recent years have threatened to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights: the UK and Russia. During the 2016 EU referendum, Theresa May argued a legally illiterate case of staying in the EU to reap the economic benefits, whilst pulling out of the European Convention. This weekend, Vladimir Putin’s re-election and Russia’s degenerating human rights record means he is likely to want out of the Convention potentially paving the way for the reinstatement of the death penalty - giving the state official powers to execute citizens.
A year ago, in a letter published by the Observer, prominent human rights lawyers joined 89up’s calls for the EU to “make Britain’s membership of the ECHR a legally binding requirement for any future free trade deal with the UK. The rule of law and human rights are non-negotiable when new countries join the EU, they should be non-negotiable when countries leave and desire a free trade deal.” Theresa May probably hasn’t changed her mind on international human rights in the last year, but since then the British people rejected her general election platform of a hard Brexit.
This week, the European Parliament has acted to make our calls a reality by voting in clause 4 of its negotiation framework which states it will, “endorse a framework for the future EU-UK relationship only if it is in strict concordance with… continued adherence to... the European Convention on Human Rights…”. Parliamentarians such as Claude Moraes MEP and Guy Verhofstadt MEP were instrumental in standing up for European rights, which should be applauded.
The vote means there should be no preferential trading terms between the UK and the remaining EU27 member states without the British government signing up to human rights protections, the basic rules of fair play by European nation states. Theresa May’s government now knows that there can be no deep and meaningful relationship without a basic commitment on values. The decision in Strasbourg reflects the established norm for other European countries who benefit from Article 217 or Association Agreement status, which the UK seeks, including Norway and Ukraine. Switzerland, which has a bespoke arrangement with the EU, is also a member of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The European Parliament’s response to our call should also mean that UK citizens will continue to be able to rely on high international human rights standards during and beyond the ongoing saga of Brexit - a development that is all the more significant as we live through times of new and emerging threats to people’s peace and prosperity. For people in the UK it means the death penalty won’t be coming back, it means that free speech will be protected and that equality of all people irrespective of gender, race or sexual orientation is protected.
Clause 4 should be a no brainer for UK politicians in the Brexit negotiations given the present perilous state of geopolitics. Our continent is now flanked by an erratic Trump administration pursuing trade wars to our west and an increasingly belligerent Vladimir Putin to our east, who seeks to isolate the post-Brexit UK’s power and influence.
This time last year, like so many others, we at 89up were forced to think about what is really important about the political structures we have often taken for granted. Since then we have collaborated with lawyers, activists, MEPs and political technologists to campaign effectively for this cause.
As a country that has historically championed the rule of law over political populism - our campaigning envisions that a Global Britain doesn’t mean cherry-picking the right to freely trade from the responsibilities of protecting liberty.
Sashy Nathan is Director of Advocacy at 89up