The impact of Brexit on human rights protection

It is known that Brexit will have disruptive consequences in the British economic, social, legal and politic system, while one of the least debated aspects concerns the impact it will have on the protection of human rights.

According to Tobias Lock of the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh, Britain's exit from the European Union will probably have three main effects:

- the population of the United Kingdom will lose their rights currently guaranteed only by the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which applies directly in all EU member states;

- although some rights similar to those safeguarded by the Charter will still be protect by the national law, the citizens of Great Britain will no longer take advantage of the interpretation given to them under the European law, which is quite progressive;

- the European citizens living in the United Kingdom will experience a substantial loss of rights.[1]

These statements must be put into the context of the UK regulation related to this field: the UK does not have a constitution and, therefore, cannot rely on a rigid fundamental law that defends human rights. Of course, it doesn’t mean that human rights are not defended at all: London has, in fact, transposed by internal law - the Human Rights Act 1998 - the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are talking about the international treaty of 1953, that was ratified by several States of the region, but it was not included in the institutional and legislative framework of the EU.
Furthermore, until now, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights has been applied in the United Kingdom, giving all citizens of the Union a series of inviolable rights and freedoms.

However, of course, by leaving Brussels, Great Britain will also renounce to the Charter. Also Lock notes that, as already mentioned, the interpretation contained in the Human Rights Act may result restrictive, compared with the one provided by the European rules; thus it would constitute a weaker protection to British citizens’ human rights today.
In addition, the European Convention on Human Rights does not specify how the signatory countries are required to implement it, leaving them ample room for manoeuvre.
Therefore the academic affirmed that by virtue of this possibility, London has considered the replacement of the existing Human Rights Act with a new law, which could be more permissive and, together with Brexit, create further confusion about the matter, aggravating the constitutional instability.

Similar concerns were also expressed by Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director for the United Kingdom of Human Rights Watch, an international NGO that investigates and denounces human rights violations around the world. According to Ward, the risk is that the abandonment of the Charter will put all rights now guaranteed at risk: for example, some Conservatives have already said that, in the event of an economic recession after exit from the EU, it may be necessary to reduce the protection for workers in order to attract investment.[2]

Finally, there is one more critical element worth highlighting . Leïla Choukroune,of the University of Portsmouth, points out that the United Kingdom, as a member of the EU, is a party to 40 trade agreements, all of which include clauses for the protection of human rights:[3] si tratta di one of the strategies used by the EU in order to promote human rights outside its borders. 

By including this type of obligation, Brussels seeks to ensure that, in the practical application of the trade treaties, some principles considered fundamental by the Union are not violated but - on the contrary - are upheld. Also, Choukroune affirmed that the EU can do this through its own weight, while in the trade agreements that London has concluded autonomously in recent years - to cope with the imminent exit from the European Common Market and all the treaties signed by the EU - the human rights aspect is clearly scaled down. A downsizing, according to the scholar, probably due to the lower negotiating power of Great Britain, when compared to that of the European Union as a whole.

From these considerations emerges a negative aspect of Brexit, that has been repeatedly omitted in the public debate. If, on the one hand, it has already begun to be evident in the new trade treaties concluded by the United Kingdom, on the other hand, it could soon become clearer within the country as well.

In order to be truly protected and safeguarded at different levels, human rights need a stable and increasingly rigid, detailed and progressive legislative framework, as society and legal culture evolve. On the contrary, the uncertainty due to the imminent Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and its Charted of Fundamental Rights, added to the possible replacement of the Human Rights Act, creates a situation of precariousness.

By Chiara Vona

Original article: published on 11 January 2020.

Translated by Simona M. Vallefuoco.

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From the World Europe Sections Human Rights International Organizations


Brexit Unione Europea European Union United Kingdom DirittiUmani human rights

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