LONDON: Furious Conservatives called on Britain’s government Wednesday to abandon a European human rights pact after a judge dramatically blocked its plan to fly asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The last-gasp intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) forced the government to abandon the first flight, after the number of claimants aboard had already been whittled down by legal challenges in the UK.
Cabinet member Therese Coffey said the government was “surprised and disappointed” at the ruling late Tuesday, but echoed interior minister Priti Patel in vowing that preparations would proceed for the next flight. “And we will continue to prepare and try and overturn any future legal challenges as well,” Coffey told Sky News.
The ECHR is unrelated to the European Union, which Britain left in January 2020. But Tory backbenchers, fresh from rebelling in large numbers against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, said the ruling infringed on British sovereignty. “Yes, let’s withdraw from European Court of Human Rights and stop their meddling in British law,” MP Andrea Jenkyns tweeted, echoing others in the party and banner headlines in right-wing newspapers.
The European convention was enshrined in UK law in 1998 by the Labour government of Tony Blair. It notably underpins the Good Friday Agreement of the same year, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of bloodshed. Johnson’s government is already on a collision course with the EU over post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland, and critics allege it is picking a separate fight over asylum-seekers after a series of electorally damaging scandals. The convention has been used frequently by human rights lawyers to frustrate Johnson and Patel’s hardline policy against illegal migrants.
Coffey said she was “not aware of any decisions or even hints” in the government about withdrawing from the convention. But last month, in the “Queen’s Speech” opening a new session of parliament, the government committed to replacing the 1998 act with a new bill of rights.
Johnson’s own maternal grandfather, James Fawcett, helped to write the European convention and was the commission’s president for a decade in the years after World War II. Anneke Campbell, a cousin to Johnson’s late mother, wrote last week that Fawcett would have been “appalled” at the government’s actions.
She noted that Johnson had previously described human rights lawyers working to halt deportations as “lefty activists”. “Would you have called your grandfather a lefty human rights activist to his face? Where did you pick up this kind of contempt?” Campbell wrote in the Byline Times newspaper. Under the UK’s agreement with Rwanda, all migrants arriving illegally in Britain are liable to be sent to the East African nation thousands of miles away for processing and settlement. The government, after arguing that Brexit would lead to tighter borders, says the plan is needed to deter record numbers of migrants from making the perilous Channel crossing from northern France.
More than 10,000 migrants have crossed since the start of the year. On Tuesday, 444 people were detected coming from France in 11 small boats, the Ministry of Defence said. The ECHR, ruling in favour of an Iraqi claimant, said his expulsion should wait until London’s High Court has taken a final decision on the policy’s legality at a hearing next month.
For Britain’s opposition Labour party, home affairs spokeswoman Yvette Cooper said the government only had itself to blame for what the Daily Mirror newspaper called a “cruel farce”. “They have pushed ahead with a policy they knew was unworkable, unethical, and incredibly expensive because they just wanted a row and someone else to blame,” she said.
The legal challenges had highlighted concern over human rights in Rwanda. But the government in Kigali insists it is a safe country. “We are not deterred by these developments. Rwanda remains fully committed to making this partnership work,” government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP. “Rwanda stands ready to receive the migrants when they do arrive and offer them safety and opportunity in our country.” – AFP