When British Home Secretary Theresa May called for the United Kingdom to exit the European Convention on Human Rights, the cries of indignation were entirely predictable. Her comments were dismissed as ‘an irresponsible and dangerous strategy’ that ‘will provide comfort to human rights abusers‘. A video sketch starring actor Patrick Stewart swiftly followed. The sketch shows Stewart as the British Prime Minister asking his Cabinet ‘What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?’
The answer may surprise you. Apparently the European Convention gave human rights to the British people. According to this sketch it was responsible for – amongst other things – the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom from slavery. Before the European Convention it seems that the British people entirely lacked these basic rights and freedoms.
This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the historical foundations of these fundamental human rights. Human rights did not materialise only in modern times with the emergence of supra-national bodies and treaties. In fact, the origins of human rights can be traced well back in history, with key English contributions including the Magna Carta in 1215 and Bill of Rights in 1689.
Why does this matter? It matters because we all too frequently treat these regional and international human rights treaties and bodies with excessive reverence and fail to acknowledge the historical traditions they are building on. The European Convention didn’t gift human rights to the United Kingdom. Nor should it be the final word on human rights.
It is entirely fitting for the United Kingdom to think about their broader European involvement at the same time as they are approaching a referendum to decide whether or not to remain within the European Union. A treaty should never be beyond scrutiny or criticism, and should never be held up as either the first or last word on human rights.