Europe Convention on Human Rights: stay signed in

20 Sep, 2023 | Protecting Human Rights in the UK

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The European Convention on Human Rights – let’s stay signed in

As we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights coming into force (on 3rd September 1953), we find ourselves arguing to keep the UK signed in.

In recent months, some senior Conservative MPs have been pushing for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention.  The trigger relates to the government’s attempts to prevent those seeking asylum from arriving by boat across the Channel.

The Court of Appeal determined that sending people seeking asylum to Rwanda would result in them facing a real risk of inhumane treatment which is in breach of the European Convention.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Equality and Human Rights Commission each found that the provisions of the Illegal Migration Act risk placing the UK in breach of its international legal obligations to protect human rights.  They state that this puts individuals including refugees, children and victims of modern slavery at increased risk of harm.

Legacy of the Holocaust

The European Convention was written in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Still within living memory, many of our families were directly affected. Following the murder and stripping of dignity from millions of people, there was an international move to introduce a new commitment to values of dignity, justice and respect.

The Conservative MPs’ calls are ironic given that the European Convention was written by a British Conservative David Maxwell Fyfe (who became Attorney General, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor) and strongly supported by Winston Churchill.

The only countries not signed up to the European Convention are Russia and Belarus, not nations we would normally associate with or should consider being grouped with.

Additionally, withdrawing from the European Convention would damage the Good Friday Agreement which maintains peace in Northern Ireland.

Hersch Lauterpacht, international human rights lawyer

Influence of a Jewish lawyer

We have some history to add to how the European Convention emerged.

Even before our namesake, Monsieur René Cassin, a French Jewish lawyer who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948…

Even before Maxwell Fyfe wrote the European Convention in 1950…

A Jewish lawyer named Hersch Lauterpacht developed a human rights framework which would hugely influence both of these.

As the war was ending in 1945, Hersch Lauterpacht published his book “An International Bill of the Rights of Man.”

Hersch Lauterpacht

Lauterpacht came to London from Lviv (now in Ukraine) in 1923 to continue his law studies (fleeing antisemitism and discrimination).  He became a naturalised British citizen in 1931, was called to the bar in 1936 and lived the remainder of his life in Cambridge as an international lawyer. He lost all his family, except for one niece, in the Holocaust.

Lauterpacht was Professor of Law at Cambridge University, part of the British prosecuting team at the Nuremberg trials and a judge at the International Court of Justice. He developed the concept of crimes against humanity – first used during the Nuremberg Trials establishing the foundation for international human rights law.

Lauterpacht became a leading intellectual force on human rights. Protecting individuals from the power of the state was a logical conclusion in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  Suggesting that individuals could be protected by legally recognised rights was an innovative concept at the time.

Drafting the European Convention

Human rights articles that Lauterpacht set out in his book were subsequently included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the European Convention. These included the right to liberty, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, association and assembly and privacy of the home.

Maxwell Fyfe said “I had the good fortune to have [Lauterpacht’s] personal help when I was preparing the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Developing the European Court

Lauterpacht believed that an unenforceable human rights declaration was insufficient.  Human rights could only be protected if an institution was created to enforce them.  In his book he described an institutional structure that eventually emerged as the European Court of Human Rights.

British lawyer, John Harcourt Barrington, who worked on the development of the court, said “we shamelessly borrowed many ideas from Hersch Lauterpacht’s framework of the rights of man.”

Stay signed in

There is a pattern here. The development of human rights is founded in our experience of the most appalling breach of human rights in history.  The fact that some of those at the forefront of the thinking and development of human rights are themselves Jewish and from families affected by the Holocaust is no surprise.  Our religion, history and values lead to both the Jewish community’s obligation and determination to fight for human rights.

Human rights are a legacy of the Holocaust.

Let’s stay signed in.

By Debora Singer

As Safeguarding Human Rights Lead her focus is on protecting and promoting the human rights framework in the UK. Debora’s background is in policy and campaigning for the rights of women seeking asylum at Asylum Aid and for survivors of sexual and domestic violence whilst at Victim Support. Debora’s family were refugees from Nazi Germany and this underlies her passion for human rights. In 2012 she was awarded an MBE for services to women.

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