Rishi Sunak demands ECHR reform as UK emerges as leader on human rights

Rishi Sunak discusses migration in Reykjavik speech

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the Council of Europe on Tuesday that the “current international system is not working” when it comes to illegal immigration.

Last year, a record 54,000 people were found to have entered the UK illegally, as small boat crossings of the Channel soared 60 percent on 2021 levels. Home Office projections for 2023 run up to 65,000.

So far, the UK’s plans to tackle the issue have faced significant pushback from the ECtHR – the Strasbourg-based court whose judgments are binding for ratifying members of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Calls to pull out of the treaty have been growing louder ever since an urgent interim measure last June grounded the Government’s first scheduled deportation flight to Rwanda. The Illegal Migration Bill is likely to cause further tension.

Despite the furore, a look at the data on ECHR judgments reveals the UK has one of the best track records in Europe.

In his address to the summit, Mr Sunak said: “The moral case for action is clear: we can’t just sit back and watch as criminal gangs profiteer on people’s misery. He added: “Friends, the United Kingdom may have left the EU, but we have not left Europe.”

Set up in the wake of the Second World War, the Council of Europe is an organisation designed to “uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law” entirely separate from the EU. All 46 of its members signed the ECHR, and it has been in force since 1959.

A UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) analysis examining the UK’s relationship with the court found that since the introduction of the country’s own Human Rights Act in 1998, the number of judgments against the UK has “declined significantly”.

There have been 245 rulings finding at least one violation against the UK since 2001. While the average between 2001 and 2011 was 18 per year, between 2012 and 2022 it was fewer than five.

Dr Alice Donald, Associate Professor of Human Rights Law at Middlesex University said: “This research shows that behind the fractious rhetoric of some UK ministers about the ECHR, the UK has a well-functioning relationship with the ECHR system – one which it could use to exert moral and political leadership across the continent in the post-Brexit world.”

In 2022, the UK had the lowest number of applications to the ECtHR per capita of all member states. The number of judgements, however, is generally far lower as roughly 90 percent of applications are found to be inadmissible.

Of the 240 applications the Court received from the UK, just two judgements were issued finding the UK in violation of an ECHR right – the 13th joint lowest tally of all members.

Just under 22,000 judgments have found at least one violation since the Court’s inception – of which the UK accounts for only 1.5 percent.

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The primary reason behind this enviable trend, experts believe, is the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). Coming into force in October 2000, it incorporated ECHR rights into domestic law.

Among its provisions, the HRA created a legal provision for all public bodies – from councils to police forces to hospitals – to protect the rights it outlines in everything they do, meaning fewer breaches occur in the first place.

Cases that have passed through the UK courts can still be elevated to Strasbourg, but most are now handled by UK judges saving considerable time and expense. When they do go that far, the ECtHR is also likely to follow the decisions reached by applying the HRA.

Senior researcher at UKICE Joelle Grogan said: “Nearly 25 years since the Human Rights Act ‘brought rights home’, the UK’s human rights record with the ECHR has improved to the extent that it is now among the best in Europe.

“However, the question going forward is whether current and slated laws – for example on public protest and asylum seekers – could reverse this trend.”

When it has been found to have gone astray, the UK also has one of the best histories of compliance with ECtHR judgments.

Some 97 percent of the 470 judgments and decisions issued by the Court since the first ruling against the UK in 1975 have been fully implemented – the eighth-highest share of all 46 members.

No current Council of Europe member has ever enabled its home courts to overrule ECtHR judgements or orders. The Government’s Illegal Migration Bill – currently making its way through the Lords – is set to give Ministers the power to ignore the Court’s orders to block the “expulsion or extradition of people”, as it did with the Rwanda flight last year.

Even if this were to pass, the international legal obligation to comply would still stand so long as the UK remained a party to the ECHR.

Head of public law at the Law Society, Ellie Cumbo told Express.co.uk: “This country has a wonderful record around the world for upholding and promoting the rule of law and our excellent record at the ECtHR is one example of that. From our view, it would be unnecessary, damaging and a shame to compromise that record by pursuing a policy, whose ends may be considered entirely legitimate, through unlawful means.”

In a poll running between February 14 and 16, 89 percent of Express.co.uk readers responded that they thought the Prime Minister should push the UK to withdraw from the convention.

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