The government must ensure human rights standards are applied in treaties after Brexit, the UK Parliament Human Rights Committee has said.
Referring specifically to international agreements in the Brexit aftermath, the Committee – which is chaired by Harriet Harman MP – expressed concern that the current system for entrenching human rights in international agreements is “not working”.
Harman and the Committee released the statement in the belief that current Brexit negotiations aren’t being mindful of human rights implications, for instance around the UK-Israel Agreement announced last month, where it emerged the Minister for Human Rights wasn’t aware of human rights protections within the agreement.
“We were extremely concerned to hear that human rights are not part of the conversation when it comes to the bilateral free trade deals currently being negotiated by the Government,” Harman said.
“The UK Government must not become the weak link for human rights when making international agreements as we prepare to leave the European Union. Human Rights should not be an ‘add-on’ to any international trade agreement or treaty, but be embedded from the outset, drawing from the right expertise to ensure the highest standards. Parliament’s Human Rights Committee must be given the remit to check and challenge these agreements.”
International Agreements In Jeopardy Of Breaching Human Rights
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Currently, all international agreements, which include bilateral free trade deals and extradition agreements, are scrutinised for human rights protections within the EU by the European Parliament and UK Parliaments Committees.
However, now that Britain is exiting the EU all checks and balances will be transferred to Westminster – leaving the addition of human rights protections on unstable ground as a layer of scrutiny is decided upon.
The cross-party Committee comprises twelve individuals who have outlined five key areas where clarification around human rights processes are needed. They say:
- Standard human rights protections should be included in all agreements.
- The Government must ensure that human rights expertise is embedded into the negotiating teams working on all international agreements.
- The Government must provide the UK Parliament’s Human Rights Committee a human rights memorandum for all proposed international Agreements once there is a draft text.
- The Government must inform Parliament of all international agreements that it intends to negotiate and regularly report back to the Committee on implementation so human rights standards can be monitored.
- Parliament’s role must be strengthened in scrutinising these agreements to ensure high human rights standards.
Brexit And Human Rights
The Committee’s fear has been shared by attorney general Geoffrey Cox, who has criticised the Irish backstop as a threat to human rights.
Cox fears the backstop – designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – could breach the Human Rights Convention as it would leave Northern Irish people underrepresented in the European Parliament.
And EU nations have requested that Britain relax human rights standards in order to secure trade deals post-Brexit – however international trade secretary Liam Fox has said he is “not inclined to do so”.
“Some countries have said that they didn’t like, for example, the human rights elements that were incorporated by the EU and they would like us to drop those in order to roll the agreements over,” he said. “I’m not inclined to do so. The value we attach to human rights is an important part of who we are as a country”.
May Refuses To Secure Future Of Human Rights Act
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The House of Lords had written to Justice Secretary David Gauke for clarification on the entrenchment of the Human Rights Act post-Brexit, but no reassurance was given in a move that has been widely criticised by leading figures, some of which have called the move “disturbing”.
In a response from junior minister Edward Agar, on behalf of the Justice Secretary, it was revealed that the Conservative manifesto may overturn the Act in favour of something new.
“Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway,” wrote Agar.
“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.”
Baroness Kennedy, chair of the House of Lord’s EU Justice-Sub Committee, replied expressing how she had “repeatedly asked the Government for assurances” which had not come.
“Again and again we are told the Government is committed to the [Human Rights Convention], but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”
Government Dismissal of Human Rights Is ‘Disturbing’
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Critics have expressed deep concern that the government are failing to ensure the entrenchment of human rights within the Act. Dominic Grieve, former attorney general, called the refusal “incredibly pointless” and a “big mistake”.
And Rachel Logan, legal programme director at Amnesty International, called the move “disturbing” and “casually dismissive”.
“The Human Rights Act has been central to the vital pursuit of justice in this country for the last 20 years. It is the unsung hero of UK life, holding powerful people and institutions to account when ordinary people are let down. It is deeply concerning that the Government refuses to acknowledge that reality.
“The Human Rights Act is a critical safety net for everyone in our society. Any attempt to dilute or remove the essential protections the Human Rights Act provides should be categorically ruled out.”
Help ensure the Act is saved by signing Amnesty’s petition at savetheact.uk.