Danger of 'contagion effect' in Europe if UK scraps Human Rights Act

The Conservative party's proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act could have a contagion effect on other European states, some of which have dreadful human rights records.

David Cameron's party proposed in their pre-election manifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights, and to curb the influence of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

In comprehensive proposals put forward last October, the former Conservative justice secretary Chris Grayling said the party would make ECHR decisions non-binding, meaning that the UK's Supreme Court could overrule decisions from Strasbourg.

ECHR decisions currently have the status of international law and are binding in 47 countries, with Belarus the only European state not signed up. It implements decisions based on the European Convention of Human Rights, drafted after the Second World War to protect fundamental rights.

The proposed repeal has caused outrage amongst human rights activists, who worry repeal of the act could lead to abuses both in the UK and abroad.

In 2014, the ECHR dealt with almost 16,000 cases referred from Russia - the highest for any member state. Almost a third of the ECHR violations last year took place in Russia, Turkey and Romania.

In a case resolved in February, the ECHR found that the Ukrainian regime under Viktor Yanukovych had cited the UK's anti-ECHR stance as justification for their refusal to reinstate a Ukrainian judge who had been wrongfully dismissed.

Newly-promoted justice secretary Michael Gove is expected to include an outline of the replacement bill in the Queen's Speech which is to be delivered by the prime minister at the end of this month.

While Adam Wagner, a barrister and founder of human rights blog RightsInfo, warns that this decision would have "a corrosive effect on confidence in the Conventions", Professor Philip Leach, director of the London-based European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, says Britain would be setting a dangerous precedent if it were to disregard decisions from Strasbourg, as the UK is a founding member of the Council of Europe which runs the ECHR.

"I think there's definitely this risk of contagion," says Leach, who represented clients in Strasbourg against Russia, Turkey and the UK. "For a founding Council of Europe member to take these backward steps will be significantly damaging for the UK and the European human rights system."

Bella Sankey, director of policy at campaign group Liberty, says a withdrawal from the Convention would mean the UK would have little legitimacy in trying to counter human rights abuses in other countries.

"Withdrawing from the Convention system would trash the UK's reputation for upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights on the international stage – we would be in good company, though, right alongside the military dictatorship of Belarus," she says.

The ECHR has a strained relationship with the UK. In 2012, Strasbourg blocked UK home secretary Theresa May from deporting Islamist cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan, while in 2005 the court ruled that the ban of prisoners from voting was a violation of their human rights, though the UK has not enacted this decision.

However, according to Pawel Swidlicki, policy analyst at Open Europe, the idea that a British withdrawal from the Convention would lead to human rights abuses elsewhere is not realistic.

"A lot of people make the argument that it would encourage Russia not to listen to Strasbourg, but the idea that the Russian government currently listens to everything that comes out of Strasbourg and would only stop doing so if the UK did so too, is not very convincing," says Swidlicki.

The proposal is proving controversial both within and outside the party. Cameron reportedly faces a revolt from Conservative backbenchers on the issue, with senior party members speaking out against the proposals.

The issue is also a thorny one in terms of devolution. Politicians from the Scottish National Party, which now holds 56 seats in Westminster following a very successful election campaign, have said they will oppose any attempts at repealing the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the Convention into UK law.

The act is a reserved power, which means if Westminster chooses to repeal it, it is repealed across the entire UK. However, acts of the Scottish parliament must comply with ECHR decisions, meaning that any attempt at repeal would likely require approval from Holyrood.

Some 822 million people live within the jurisdiction of the ECHR, which is manned by 47 judges, one from each member state.