Theresa May: The New Prime Minister and the Future of Human Rights in Britain

Britain’s new Prime Minister has made it clear that Brexit means Brexit, but what does her appointment mean for human rights?

Theresa May has faced a number of challenges in her first months at 10 Downing Street. It now falls on her to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union and to deal with the 42% rise in hate crimes surrounding the Brexit decision. Alongside negotiations with the EU, Theresa May must deal with the implications the referendum result will have on immigrants to the United Kingdom and must further David Cameron’s policies in dealing with the global refugee crisis.

Ms May has stated that hers would be a government that tackled injustice. She envisioned a Britain “where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person… is given the chance to be all they want to be.” But despite expectations that Theresa May would initiate the creation of a more gender-balanced Cabinet, she has increased the number of female MPs by just one and only two black and minority ethnic MPs hold positions (despite these groups representing 51% and 14% of the British public, respectively). This appears to contradict her vision of a fairer Britain, as a more balanced and representative Cabinet could lead to the creation of policies more promotive of equality.

With obvious confusion at the October Conservative Party Conference on policy regarding migrant workers and a clear desire by the new Prime Minister to change, if not abandon, the existing Human Rights Act, what does her term in office hold for the status of human rights in Britain?

Theresa May addresses the seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly, September 2016, by Cia Pak

In her role as Home Secretary Theresa May was responsible for the controversial immigration pilot scheme Operation Vaken, aimed at encouraging illegal immigrants to voluntarily leave the country. The campaign saw vans bearing the slogan ‘Go Home’ sent into communities with high volumes of immigrants. The impact of the campaign was considerably negative and a government evaluation found that just 60 voluntary departures can be attributed to Operation Vaken.

The recent party conference presented a picture of the Conservatives in turmoil. A note distributed after Amber Rudd’s immigration speech suggested that a new legislation would require businesses to submit figures on the number of migrant workers in their employment. This accompanied her announcement of new restrictions on the numbers of international students admitted to the UK.

Steve Hilton, former director of strategy to David Cameron, said the policy would have a “big impact on Britain’s reputation around the world” and may negatively impact on the numbers of skilled professionals joining the British workforce, while Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon amounted the measure to naming and shaming businesses for possessing a global outlook.

The Conservatives have shed little light on this controversial plan, with Education Secretary Justine Greening asserting that data from the scheme would not be made public, while Defence Secretary Michael Fallon denied that such a legislation would be passed at all. What is clear is that this policy could prove divisive in relations with Britain’s European neighbours and global partners.

In tackling the current refugee crisis, Theresa May has focussed efforts on providing aid in countries neighbouring Syria and has been reluctant to assist in EU relocation schemes. While David Cameron committed to bringing 3000 unaccompanied refugee minors into Britain earlier this year, more than 200 religious leaders have signed an open letter to Ms May, calling on her to do more to tackle the refugee crisis, including unblocking legislation which prevents refugees from being reunited with family living in the UK.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has suggested that the British government is expecting to receive a list of the names of unaccompanied minors from the Calais camp and that action to aid them will begin in “a matter of days – a week at the most.”

Syrian refugees wait at the border of Hungary and Austria, by Mstyslav Chernov

In her address to the Conservative Party Conference, Theresa May attacked “activist left wing human rights lawyers” who “harangue and harass” British military personnel with accusations of misconduct in war zones. She backs the plan to exempt military forces from adhering to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in combat. She argued that court cases brought against military personnel for allegations of misconduct in Afghanistan and Iraq has cost the Ministry of Defence in excess of £100 million since 2004 and resulted in considerable grief and inconvenience for the accused. The move would present a more serious danger to the basic human rights which the convention protects.

Theresa May previously advocated for a total withdrawal from the ECHR, arguing that it was this legislation, and not the European Union, which limited traditional British rights. She became one of the convention’s harshest critics during her tenure as Home Secretary when the European Court of Human Rights blocked her attempts to extradite the radical cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan.

Temporary derogations are permitted by the Council of Europe in circumstances of war or immediate public emergency, but certain rights remain inviolable. This privilege was notably used by France in November 2015 to hold terror suspects under house arrest and by Turkey in July 2016 after declaring a national state of emergency.

Many critics of the proposal argue that alone or as part of a wider plan to replace the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the ECHR into British domestic law, it would be a disaster for the preservation of human rights. Martha Spurrier, director of civil rights organisation Liberty, argues that since the accusations against British military personnel relate to rights that remain inviolable during a derogation, the proposal would only harm the innocent in order to save Ministry of Defence funds. She asserted that it will be a priority for Liberty to stop any attempts by the British government to repeal the Human Rights Act, or replace it with a new ‘British Bill of Rights.’ Nicholas Mercer, former lieutenant colonel and senior legal adviser to the military during the Iraq War, argued that the Prime Minister’s claim that charges brought against military personnel are false is ‘nonsense’, pointing to a total of 326 cases and £20m in compensation paid by the Ministry of Defence as evidence of the verity of these allegations.

A troublingly long list of human rights issues plagues the UK government as Theresa May begins her time as Prime Minister. Ultimately it will be up to her to tackle rising xenophobia, make Britain a more effective partner in dealing with the international refugee crisis, and to seek a just conclusion to the debate over the future of the Human Rights Act.

You can find out more about the Human Rights Act and add your voice to defend it here.

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