How Long Can Human Rights Stay a Matter of Principle

The UK deems asylum seekers as ‘dangerous criminals’

In June 2022, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) issued a last-minute injunction to prevent a handful of asylum seekers in Britain from being deported to Rwanda. Britain’s Supreme Court had approved the plan and was overruled by the ECHR. The very next day, British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab proposed a new bill of rights that stated that Britain’s Supreme Court had legal supremacy and that ECHR judgments did not necessarily have to be followed by British courts.  

According to the Ministry of Justice, the new law would certify that injunctions ordered by the ECHR under Rule 39, which halted the Rwandan flight, were not binding. “We will overhaul the Human Rights Act passed by the then Labour government in 1998 and restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK. We will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights ….  But we will reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society.”

Image illustrates a document entitled Human Right Act 1998.
Image illustrates a document entitled Human Right Act 1998. Photo courtesy of

The 1998 Human Rights Act introduced the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. Rabb told the BBC that the consequence of this had been what he called a “human rights inflation” an “expansive, elastic approach to human rights “which had not been “subject to proper democratic oversight” and had “undermined the credibility of human rights.” Rabb added that the new reforms “will reinforce freedom of speech, enable us to deport more foreign offenders, and better protect the public from dangerous criminals.”  

This action is something the Conservative Party has been looking to do for some time; in fact, many Conservative MPs would go further still and reject the ECHR altogether. None of this is new or surprising, as Merris Amos, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University of London, writes, “the focus has been on the pursuit of ideological objectives, the restoration of national pride, sovereignty and democracy, and the return to much better times.”  

The proposed bill of rights will ensure that the UK is not bound by ECHR decisions and that the Supreme Court in London is the ultimate decision-maker on human rights issues. The law also stipulates that ministers will be able to ignore injunctions and that public authorities will have less obligation to go out of their way to prevent human rights abuses. It ensures that Parliament will be given “the greatest possible weight” in court decisions and will have the power to dictate how courts should interpret human rights. In response to what Rabb sees as the spread of “bogus” and “trivial” claims, the law also states that people will have to get permission from the court before they can bring proceedings against a public authority and that the court will grant permission only if it thinks the person has suffered a significant disadvantage. 


Critical Responses

Response from the Human Rights community and the opposition was swift and predictable.

Stephanie Boyce of the Law Society–the representative body for solicitors–stated: “It is a lurch backwards for British justice. Authorities may begin to consider some rights violations as acceptable, because these could no longer be challenged under the Bill of Rights despite being against the law.” She added, “The bill will create an acceptable class of human rights abuses in the United Kingdom–by introducing a bar on claims deemed not to cause ‘significant disadvantage’.” 

Sanchita Hosali, CEO of the British Institute of Human Rights, writes that the UK government is “intent on ripping up the rulebook.” And that “The Human Rights Act has worked well, serving its purpose to provide legal protection for everyone’s fundamental rights, here at home. In schools and hospitals, local councils and national departments, courts and care homes, people are benefitting from the protection of our human rights in everyday ways that do not grab headlines, but which do make a difference.”  

Amnesty International has labeled the Bill a “Rights Removal Bill,” calling it a “giant leap backwards for the rights of ordinary people.” UK Chief Executive Sacha Deshmukh said: “Ripping up the Human Rights Act means the public is being stripped of its most powerful tool to challenge wrongdoing by the government and other public bodies. This is not about tinkering with rights, it’s about removing them. From the Hillsborough disaster, to the right to a proper COVID inquiry, to the right to challenge the way police investigate endemic violence against women, the Human Rights Act is the cornerstone of people power in this country. It’s no coincidence that the very politicians it holds to account want to see it fatally weakened.”

Shadow Justice Secretary Ellie Reeves said the “Bill of Rights con” would constitute an attack on “victims of crime the state has failed to protect and women.” Reeves claims that “Women have used the Human Rights Act to challenge the police when they have either failed or refused to investigate rape and sexual assault cases,” she told MPs. “It should come as no surprise that this Bill has been put forward by a Conservative government that has effectively decriminalised rape.”

Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage International, said the bill would “strip us all, including refugees, of our ability to challenge injustice and defend our human rights.”


From Legal Principle to Political Preference

The idea that human rights should be “subject to proper democratic oversight” and that the new bill of rights would inject “a healthy dose of common sense into the system” reflects a general bending or shift of thinking from human rights as a matter of principle to human rights as part of the domain of party system politics. This is probably not a good thing. The definition and application of human rights should not be subjected to the somewhat arbitrary shift in power from one governing coalition to another. Even more troublesome is the idea that common sense should act as a policy constraint. It is a matter of perception, a belief or opinion often held by many people based on how things seem at one particular time and in one particular place. One does not need to be a student of the dynamics of public opinion to be concerned about the rights of humans being subjected to the whims and vagaries of whether people feel collectively safe or anxious at any particular moment of time.

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