13:54, February 06 249 0 theguardian.com

2020-02-06 13:54:04
The Guardian view on emergency terror laws: nothing to do with Europe

British lawyers played a leading part in drafting the European convention on human rights. Britain was the first nation to ratify it in 1951. Winston Churchill, a trailblazing advocate from the start, was prime minister when it came into force in 1953. In 1998 the convention was written into UK domestic law as the Human Rights Act. More than 70 years after Churchill first called for “a charter of human rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”, and in spite of wobbles, Britain remains a signed-up bulwark of a European human rights order that is entirely independent of the EU.

Nevertheless, as the Eurosceptic virus has colonised the Conservative party, the party’s commitment to the European convention which it helped to create – and to the European court of human rights which enforces it – has come under increasing strain. Successive recent Tory leaders have had the convention and court in their sights. Each talked of replacing the European convention with a British charter of rights. Confusion between the Strasbourg-based human rights court and the entirely separate Luxembourg-based European court remains embarrassingly rife. Hostility towards the very concept of human rights is increasingly entwined with populist hostility to European institutions. In the wake of Brexit, it is naive to think that Britain’s place in the European human rights order is not at serious political risk too.

The government’s messages on new terrorism laws illustrate this concern. On Tuesday, a spokesman refused to rule out the possibility that the new counter-terrorism bill – which will make sentencing changes for terrorists – may derogate from the convention. This was written up in the anti-European papers as Boris Johnson suspending European human rights laws to keep terrorists locked up.

In fact, it is doubtful if the proposals to change the date of automatic prisoner release (which have not yet been published in detail) would necessarily breach the convention. But this did not deter the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who on Wednesday said the right to walk the streets freely trumps the rights of prisoners. Yet that is not in dispute, and it is not changed by the planned new powers.

The politics of the new legislation are now framed in an interchangeably anti-European and anti-human-rights context. This is a serious concern. Drip-drip disparagements of human rights and the European convention echo the alarming tone of the 2019 Tory manifesto. This talked of “updating” the Human Rights Act to provide “a proper balance”, not just with national security but with “effective government”.

It is right to be suspicious about such words. Weakening an established human rights code that Britain can be proud of is not on. Pushing the bill through parliament amid anti-European distractions is even worse. The counter-terrorism bill does not need to breach human rights, including European rights. Ministers should stop toying with the public and the rule of law by pretending that it does.