The Observer view on dropping the UK’s commitment to human rights law | Observer editorial | Opinion

To doubts that the government can be trusted to honour promises to maintain post-Brexit workplace, environmental and food standards must now be added very real concerns about its continued adherence to international human rights law – meaning, specifically, the European convention on human rights. Such prospective backsliding is foolish, damaging and wholly unacceptable.

The issue came to the fore last week after Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, revealed that the UK “informs us that they do not wish to commit formally to applying the ECHR”. Downing Street later claimed that the government continued to support the treaty, which the UK joined in 1951, but did not want its membership to form a legally binding part of a future EU-UK trade agreement.

This sounds like splitting hairs. But it is much more than that. The linking of trade agreements to human rights has become normal practice in recent years. As Barnier suggested, the ECHR provides essential legal underpinning in a range of areas. He highlighted cooperation in criminal justice and law enforcement, which, he said, “requires commitment on both sides with respect to fundamental rights of persons”.

A UK refusal to guarantee future adherence to the treaty could have a potentially serious negative impact on the Good Friday agreement, to which it is integral. Security cooperation might also be affected, likewise arrangements regarding privacy and the safeguarding of personal data. Barnier warned, rightly, that the British position, if maintained, will severely handicap and limit the scope of the future EU-UK relationship.

What is Boris Johnson playing at? Or perhaps this question should be directed at Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, who is on record as wanting rid of the ECHR altogether. Rightwing Tories have long disparaged the treaty and the 1998 Human Rights Act that translated it into British law, seeing them as tools employed by scheming Brussels bureaucrats to extend control over British life.

This has always been an absurd argument. The ECHR, and its associated court in Strasbourg, came into being long before the modern-day EU, and is entirely separate from it. It is the creation of the 47-country Council of Europe that Winston Churchill, Johnson’s hero, helped found. In 1948, Churchill called for a “charter of human rights guarded by freedom and sustained by law”.

The ECHR is, in fact, an achievement of which Britain should be particularly proud. Reacting to the horrors of the Second World War, the treaty aimed to ensure that governments would never again be allowed to abuse ordinary people with impunity. Its development helped inform the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. British experts helped draft it. The UK was first to ratify it. And it has been hugely influential in setting or raising standards in Europe and around the world.

Despite his insistence that Britain will remain a signatory, Johnson’s refusal to fully commit to abiding by the ECHR in EU negotiations strongly suggests that he may seek, in future, to abrogate it (and the HRA) entirely – as ideologues such as Cummings demand. This would do huge damage to Britain’s standing in the world and its hard-won reputation as a leading advocate for global human rights.

More than that, it represents a fundamental threat to the rights of British people, who, unlike in many democracies, are not protected by written constitutional guarantees or a modern bill of rights. If the UK abandoned the ECHR, it would join Belarus, an authoritarian dictatorship that is the only country in Europe not a party to it. Even Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been a member since 1998.

With international laws and institutions such as the international criminal court being vandalised and undermined by autocrats and demagogues such as Donald Trump, this is not the time to start messing with British citizens’ basic legal protections. Johnson and Cummings must be told: keep your hands off our rights.

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