World watching election to see if UK abandons rights-based order – human rights groups

Politics

The general election is a “fork in the road” – with the world watching to see if the UK abandons the international human rights order, campaigners have said.

Directors from leading human rights groups came together to call for greater scrutiny of human rights policy in the campaign period ahead of the 4 July vote.

They criticised manifestos for failing to uphold voter, disability, housing, social care and children’s rights and the right to protest.

They also said Britain was turning away on global issues and global leadership, while abandoning international legal obligations against genocide and torture.

The result and subsequent approach of the new government will be a “critical moment” for the UK, according to Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of Human Rights Watch, who said the UK’s own integrity was at stake.

“The UK is the birth-place of human rights, of ensuring governments are accountable to the people, and yet we have somehow allowed our political debate to come to a stage where it’s now seen as externally imposed,” she said.

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“Everyone should be challenging a government which tells us that human rights that limit their power against us is a bad thing.”

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said the “world is watching this election” because it is seen as “a turning point of whether the UK believes in consistency and support for international frameworks and for the international human rights order”.

He added: “This election is seen around the world as that fork in the road.”

Labour has stated its commitment to international legal conventions, with its manifesto saying: “Britain will unequivocally remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).”

The Conservative manifesto stopped short of saying the UK could leave the ECHR, despite calls from some on the right of the party.

But it has stated that “if we are forced to choose between our security and the jurisdiction of a foreign court” – including the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the convention, “we will always choose our security”.

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Sonya Sceats, chief executive at Freedom from Torture, said: “I think it really illustrates how diminished our politics has come to be that this is even in contention.”

Britain is “falling from being a norm maker to a norm breaker,” she said.

The organisations have long criticised the Illegal Migration Act 2023, a law intended to stop people who arrive in the UK illegally from being able to stay here and which the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has previously said effectively amounts to an “asylum ban”.

The Conservatives have promised to move forward with their Rwanda plan, putting people who arrive on small boats across the Channel on monthly flights to the African nation.

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Labour and the Lib Dems have said they will scrap the Rwanda scheme, while the Greens want to help migrants “put down roots”. Reform says it will “pick up illegal migrants out of boats and take them back to France.”

Ms Ahmed warned that countries hosting the majority of refugees could “turn their backs on a global international rules-based system that we have done the same in respect of,” recalling how an international diplomat recently asked her: “Do you think I’m ever going to listen to a UK diplomat or Foreign Office official about us as a country taking in refugees when you have a deal with Rwanda to expel asylum seekers before they’ve even had a right to claim (asylum)?”

Sam Grant, advocacy director at Liberty, said recent years had seen “some of our most valued rights and protections shrink across the board”.

He explained new rules around voter ID created a “huge risk of disenfranchisement” and warned that people being prevented from voting rather than choosing not to could become common.

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Mr Grant said people in the UK had fewer rights to protest, while it has become harder to vote and to take public institutions to court.

Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice at Inclusion London, criticised the parties for not having a rights framework in their manifestos, saying politicians take a “would-be-nice if we have economic growth” approach to basic human rights issues.

“Rights like education, health, housing are basic necessities,” she said.

“Somehow in all these [election] debates they’re not seen as rights.”

The comments came as a coalition of charities and human rights organisations marked World Refugee Day outside parliament.

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