The UK must not sleepwalk into leaving the ECHR

Talk of the UK leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) keeps rearing its head with little thought for the real impact.

Expert comment Updated 21 April 2023 Published 17 March 2023 3 minute READ

Withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has not been firmly ruled out as a potential UK government policy option to allow easier implementation of its controversial new measures to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. This, in the context of a UK general election looming and tackling the ‘small boats problem’ being one of the five priorities of UK prime minister Rishi Sunak.

In recent months, ECHR withdrawal has come up in relation to the UK’s controversial draft Illegal Migration Bill, the (for now shelved) bill of rights, and – perhaps most significantly – the Northern Ireland Protocol deal with implications for the Good Friday Agreement. But leaving the ECHR – and likely the Council of Europe – would be counterproductive for the UK’s global leadership.

UK values and priorities will be undermined

The only other countries in the region outside of the Council of Europe, Russia and Belarus, both had sanctions imposed on them by the UK for their human rights record. Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe in 2022 due to its aggression in Ukraine and, although the UK would be deciding to remove itself from Europe’s oldest and largest intergovernmental human rights body, the optics would not be good.

This is especially true considering the UK’s vocal support for Ukraine in international forums, including its intervention in Ukraine’s case against Russia before the International Court of Justice and, potentially, in a separate case against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights itself.

If the UK withdraws from the ECHR, the EU would be entitled to terminate important provisions concerning international law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal justice matters

More significantly and closer to home, the ECHR is a fundamental part of the Good Friday Agreement. It is difficult to argue UK withdrawal would not breach the agreement. As well as risking damage to intercommunal relations, such a breach is likely to significantly harm strategic relations with the US – and President Biden is set to visit Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

It would also damage relations with the UK’s closest neighbours, Ireland, and the European Union (EU), with whom the prime minister has only recently scored credits for securing the Northern Ireland Protocol deal. If the UK withdraws from the ECHR, the EU would be entitled to terminate important provisions concerning international law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal justice matters under Article 692 of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, further isolating the UK from allies who share its legal and other values.

Withdrawal would be in the name of sovereignty but with little thought to the practical implications on rights and few perceived gains from doing so. But the idea could easily gain traction by erroneously conflating the Strasbourg court and Council of Europe (of which the UK is a member) with the European Union (which the UK has left).

This means leaving the ECHR could easily be confused as a post-Brexit ‘tidy up’ exercise of taking back control from the EU when the reality is the UK would be withdrawing from a completely different regional body.

It would also be at odds with the UK’s Integrated Review Refresh which, reassuringly, contains references to the UK’s commitment to the rule of law, ‘respect for the fundamental principles of the UN Charter and international law’, and ‘universal human rights that underpins our democracy’. This would make the UK far less able to champion international law and influence states with long records of human rights violations, and run contrary to UK strategic priorities such as tackling aggression from Russia and China, its support for multilateralism, and its global legal leadership.

There are many reasons beyond simply human rights concerns which are preventing migrants being deported to Rwanda

All this loss would come for little gain. Before going down this path, there must be a clearer understanding about exactly what concerns there are about the ECHR, and whether they stand up to scrutiny. Are they about UK sovereignty, specific issues about the European Court of Human Rights, or about the rights and obligations contained in the Convention?

The latter would raise a far bigger question on the UK’s commitment to other international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, as many ECHR obligations also exist elsewhere in both common law and international law.

The need for cool heads and a long-term view

The significant concerns surrounding proposals in the Illegal Migration bill have been well-documented, including in relation to obligations under the ECHR and UN Refugee Convention.

There are many reasons beyond simply human rights concerns which are preventing migrants being deported to Rwanda, including the fact there are insufficient countries with which the UK has agreements to allow for deportation.

The UK must not sleepwalk into leaving the ECHR 2nd part

But what is at stake is even bigger. Amid the heat on both sides of a seemingly intractable debate on migration, there is a need for cool heads and an eye to the longer-term implications.

UK withdrawal from the ECHR affects how the UK wishes to be viewed, and how it will be perceived by others. It has far-reaching implications for peace in Northern Ireland, for UK foreign policy, partnerships, soft power, and leadership, including implementation of its Integrated Review Refresh.

Repeated talk of the UK withdrawing from the ECHR can lead to a gradual and steady public desensitization to the issue. Casual drip-feeding of the idea of ECHR withdrawal must be matched with a deep and serious discussion on what the practical consequences of such a decision would be.