A dramatic late intervention saw a deportation flight to Rwanda halted on Tuesday 14 June. The decision, which would have seen asylum seekers sent to the African nation, was a victory for human rights. And it caused an outpouring of rage from the worst sections of British society.
The critical call was made in Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The judicial wing of the Council of Europe, the ECHR emerged following WW2 to protect citizens from their governments. Today, it’s hard to imagine that Britain was a key player in the ECHR’s development. It was also the first signatory of the 46 member states subject to its decisions.
As one Twitter user pointed out, Boris Johnson’s maternal grandfather was a central figure in the ECHR’s history:
James Fawcett Boris Johnson's maternal grandfather must be turning in his grave.
Fawcett, a member of the European Commission of Human Rights enforcing the #ECHR from 1962 to 1984, & its president from 1972!
His grandson tries to dismantle his life's work for political gain. https://t.co/YCB8FCvf83
— Mark Stephens (@MarksLarks) June 16, 2022
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Critics of the ECHR decision, with typical attention to detail, were quick to claim that this kind of thing should have stopped with Brexit. But their error is in thinking that the ECHR is an EU initiative simply because it has ‘European’ in the title.
This is incorrect. And it is a distinction which even arch-centrists seem to be able to grapple with:
If you still don't know that the ECHR is different to the EU six years after the vote, I'm not sure I'm terribly interested in your view on what we should do about it.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) June 15, 2022
Many fundamental rights are enshrined in, and protected by, the ECHR. These include everything from anti-slavery laws to freedom of speech, citizenship rights and much more:
Can all those who want to leave the ECHR please tell me which of these rights you are happy not to apply to you and your family. pic.twitter.com/b84hk1kO1d
— Brian Moore (@brianmoore666) June 15, 2022
Enraged Tories, including Boris Johnson, were already attacking the ECHR ahead of the court’s decision. As human rights NGO Liberty pointed out, the abandonment of the organisation would be disastrous for many vulnerable groups:
Leaving the ECHR would represent the biggest attack on human rights in this country in a generation.
It would irreversibly damage the UK's international reputation.
It would throw away the hard earned fundamental rights of countless people.
It cannot be allowed to happen. https://t.co/c8yG4Gkord
— Liberty (@libertyhq) June 14, 2022
But Johnson’s rhetoric is a startling turn from his previous views. The Independent unearthed a video of Johnson from 2016. In it, he claims that the ECHR was “one of the great things” the UK had created.
Equally striking is the fact that Winston Churchill, one of Johnson’s idols, was himself a key figure in the development of the ECHR and the Council of Europe.
The ECHR’s intervention is justified, and the decision should be welcomed. However, liberal institutions are not the only factor here. Many individuals and organisations campaigned tirelessly to stop the deportations. Organisations like the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) mounted legal challenges alongside charities like Care 4 Calais and Detention Action. Stop Deportations took direct action, and the law firm InstaLaw also challenged the plans.
This led top Tories to fall back on accusations of left-wing lawyers disrupting their plans. This was a tactic wheeled out over their plans to stop British soldiers being held to account for war crimes. In 2016, then-PM Theresa May used the Tory conference to insist:
…we will never again in any future conflict let those activist left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave the men and women of our armed forces.
Since then, critics of hardline Tory asylum policies have had the same trope used against them.
Bottom-up anti-deportation protests have become more high-profile. Only days before the Rwanda flight was cancelled, Peckham locals blockaded an immigration raid until the police and immigration officers left the scene.
This is despite the police getting rough with the protestors, as video footage of the event shows:
The police in Peckham were violent today. They were determined to clear the road to get the van out with their hostage inside. We didn’t let them. pic.twitter.com/I55VJAr9NH
— Shelly Asquith (@ShellyAsquith) June 11, 2022
In May, Glasgow locals stopped authorities in another raid directed against two men who live in the city. On 15 May, the refugee and migrant charity Positive Action in Housing told The Canary they were considering legal action:
The Home Office have referred to these men as illegal.
Well they are wrong, and we are now investigating legal action against the Home Office for casting such aspersions.
The term illegal in this context is part of the hostile environment. It’s not appropriate to use it for people who have lived in the UK for several years and are part of a community.
War on human rights
There is a war on human rights in the UK. Refugee solidarity is a vital front in that conflict. The Tories are going all out against some of the most vulnerable in our society. And if they win, we all lose. Why? Well we can do worse than remember the words of the late Tony Benn:
The way the government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.
And he was right. Because if they can strip refugees and migrants of their humanity and drag them off to some gulag, you can bet they’ll do the very same to the rest of us if it suits their whims. The buck stops with us. The ECHR won out for now, but we can’t rely on far-off courts. Resistance begins in our own communities
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