The British government’s aggressive politicisation of human rights is a dangerous assault on democracy that must be halted before irrevocable damage is done, the UK director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Yasmine Ahmed, who has been the UK director of HRW since November 2020, said the government indicating it could “disapply” the Human Rights Act to an emergency bill that will allow it to send asylum seekers to Rwanda – despite the supreme court ruling the policy illegal – is part of an escalating attack on human rights.
“With previous governments there was always an attempt to at least try to appear as if they were complying with domestic or international human rights law and to respect the courts and human rights institutions,” Ahmed said. “Now there is no attempt to do this – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.”
She continued: “Rishi Sunak’s government must know that even scrapping the Human Rights Act will not prevent it from facing significant legal barriers to its Rwanda policy, but what we’re seeing is the UK moving towards a place where the government feels it can undermine the integrity of the judiciary, undermine or scrap human rights laws that don’t serve its current political agenda, and create new laws that do. This is a dangerous place to find ourselves in. This can start to look very much like authoritarianism.”
Ahmed says that since she took up the UK directorship of Human Rights Watch three years ago, the government has launched an unprecedented attack on human rights enshrined in British and international law.
“Not only is the government talking about ripping up domestic human rights law and ignoring its international obligations, it has launched an open attack on the right to peacefully demonstrate, is locking up climate protesters, criminalising refugees and has given the police unprecedented powers over citizens,” Ahmed said.
“This approach not only discredits and undermines our ability to hold other human rights violators to account on the international stage, but it creates a model of governance that puts political ideology over a state’s legal obligation to uphold basic human rights that were put into law to protect us all. Once you attack, discredit and tear up these laws and frameworks it could be almost impossible to put them back together.”
She says that in recent weeks, attempts to stop pro-Palestinian protests “ by the former home secretary Suella Braverman and the government’s attacks on the supreme court’s ruling that its Rwanda asylum policy is illegal shows how emboldened the state has become in showing contempt for human rights.
“They have been successful in making us believe that ripping up human rights laws and putting new ones in place will only affect vulnerable and controversial groups,” she said. “But all of us, at any time, may need to exercise our rights or hold the state to account and suddenly discover that we have lost the power to do so.”