How Will Brexit Affect Human Rights?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

In January, it was reported that Theresa May was considering ‘axing the Human Rights Act after Brexit’, as revealed by an unnamed Minister. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, while the UK is a member of the EU, human rights in EU law extend to and protect those in the UK. This includes many of our rights to non-discrimination, which are protected by EU law.

When (or indeed, if) the UK leaves the EU, this means that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union will have no legal effect on UK law. This also includes trade agreements that demand respect for human rights within the clauses, and upon entry to EU trade.

When the UK leaves the EU, it will still be signed up to the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights), which is protected by the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Back in 2015, the Conservative manifesto included scrapping this to have a “British Bill of Human Rights”, and was planned as new legislation to replace the Human Rights Act. This has been recently discussed again and is becoming an ever growing worry for those who agree that human rights should be a universal agreement, rather than defined by each nation.

What rights do we get from the EU? We get many of the rights we are seeing and arguing over today, including data protection, protection from human trafficking, rights for victims of crimes, equal pay, and action against workplace discrimination. It was the EU that outlawed discrimination in the workplace, and advocated for improved protections and accessibility at work for disabled people. The EU also ensured that individuals had greater protection and power over their data, including the current GDPR laws. It’s the EU as an entity that holds others to account when certain “modern” human rights such as workplace discrimination and data protection are threatened. It also holds other nations to account that disrespect other human rights, such as the right to be free from poverty, the right of freedom of expression (Article 10) the right to healthcare (Article 2), the right to be free from violence from authority and freedom from torture (Article 7/3/4/5), through their trade laws.

Some Brexiteers are in support of a “British Bill of Human Rights” because they argue that the UK needs to have control over its own laws, its own accountability and its own ethical development. For example, discrimination against someone for their sex, race, and disability was already outlawed in the UK, and equality in the public sector already comes from domestic law in the UK, as well as the provision of goods and services. They have also criticised the convention for its perceived flaws, such as giving voting rights to prisoners, protecting foreign nationals who commit serious crimes in the UK, and other “loopholes” that people who commit crimes can use to avoid persecution.

However, many are worried about Brexit affecting accessibility to healthcare, with many medicines coming from EU trade, and the right to affordable health care being protected by the ECHR. People are also worried about prices of medicine skyrocketing, especially with the recent privatisation of the NHS. The NHS is also threatened under Brexit, through many angles, such as access and trade of medicine, immigration laws affecting the intake of specialised doctors working in the NHS who are immigrants, as well as the stricter laws possibly affecting migrants accessibility to the NHS. In 2017 it was reported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that overall, 14 million people lived in poverty in the UK, which is approximately 1 in 5 of the population, making affordable healthcare essential for many.

In the context of the so-called “Brexit election” of 2017, there was a 40% rise in hate crime against people because of their religious beliefs in 2017-2018 compared to the previous year, and 52% of all offences were aimed at Muslims. Temporary migrants already have to pay double the charge to access the NHS, and the government’s policing cuts have seen a surge in crime across the country. It seems already, human rights are not being respected as it is. It’s a scary time for minorities whose rights could be threatened by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, for refugees and asylum seekers with hate crimes on the rise, and LGBT+ people who are afraid of progress being stunted due to the UK’s ever flirtatious relationship with the US, who recently outlawed transgender people from serving in the military.

The answer to this debate about how our human rights are going to be affected by Brexit is the same as the answer to many other questions – we simply don’t know. There are many outcomes that could affect different people and communities. However, the future very much depends much on who is Prime Minister when and after we transition, what the next election could bring us, and the current culture surrounding Brexit.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws asked that if the government’s ‘sincere’ in its commitment to the ECHR, ‘why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British Law?’.

The withdrawal agreement declaration back in December noted that it would ‘agree to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights’, which is a stark change from pledging its ‘commitment’ to it. Junior Justice Minister Edward Argar attempted to assure that the ‘difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR’. However, he later suggested that the HRA could be scrapped when Brexit is concluded, adding that ‘it is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of new constitutional landscape’.

It may be reductionist to state that no matter the outcome of Brexit, the whole point of human rights are their universality. Why should a government feel threatened or trapped by a framework that ensures legal accountability of nations to protect its people as fundamentally, human beings?

It’s hard to provide statistics, to be factual. We can only comment on the current arguments, on the current situations and balance the benefits we get from the ECHR compared to a “British Bill of Human Rights”. It seems evident, though, that above all, it’s the uncertainty and lack of national solidarity of Brexit that is harming the people the most.

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