Why are we so keen to stay in the same
human rights club as Russia?

The dreary British post office might not strike you as one of the most riveting places in the world, in fact I’d hazard many of us probably experience all manner of violent thoughts while in them, but they can provide the odd bits of amusement if you know where to look.

My mischievous father is certainly the type of person who does, and this week I had the pleasure of witnessing him questioning the poor man on the till about why the Post Office felt the need to ask him what was in his package before sending it. His argument, which was not unreasonable, was that very few people were likely to admit they were sending drugs, weapons or endangered Javan primates, and were perfectly capable of telling lies.

The response from our postal worker, who to his credit took the question in good cheer, was predictably that it was a formality the Post Office had to go through for security purposes. But if it was utterly ineffectual and easily circumnavigated, what was the point of it? Walking back to the car, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this wasn’t another symptom of that chronic problem of the modern age; that, unlike say in the Victorian era, we’re far more concerned with appearances and impressions than actual results.

The current furore over the Government potentially “abolishing human rights” by scrapping the Human Rights Act and withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights, replacing this with a codified ‘Bill of Rights II,’ seems to me a case in point of this malady. Rarely do the proponents of this argument cast our minds back to the dark days before 1998 when human rights did not exist on these islands and the British people were oppressed by Her Majesty’s despotic, jackbooted, government.

They don’t do this, at least not most of them, because they know it to be a complete nonsense, not least because Common Law (which, as interpreted in Somersett’s Case for example, clarified that slavery had no legal basis in Britain in 1772…meaning any slave to set foot on British soil would be free) has done a fine job of protecting our natural, rather than politician-given, liberties for nigh on a millennium.

But, then, you can’t expect poor luvvies like Benedict Cumberbatch to understand that. He probably has absolutely no idea the depths of irony behind his assertion that “Our Human Rights Act belongs to all of us. It’s not for politicians to pick and choose when they apply or who deserves protection.” Er, well, it kind of is, Benny, given that the “protection” of the Human Rights Act was introduced by said politicians – and all legislative Acts of Parliament can be repealed by future Parliaments. That’s kind of the benefit of having natural rights embodied in Common Law – they can’t be repealed by politicians.

Instead the argument hinges on what “message it sends” to the rest of the world if we were to join the likes of actual dictatorships like Belarus in a two-state club of European nations not signatories to the Convention.

Belarus is, no doubt, one of the most illiberal, despotic and repressive regimes this side of the Urals, and it is hardly surprising that Alexander Lukashenko is not especially keen to sign up his country, which he has ruled with an iron fist since 1994, to a Convention that expects him to respect his people’s basic civil liberties. But the idea that a country which sweated under the oppressive fist of the first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union for the last 200 years is in any way comparable to these islands, which established a precedent for liberty under the law at least 800 years ago, is absurd in the extreme.

But there is an even bigger elephant in the room; is joining the same ‘club’ as Belarus really any better than being a member of the same one as Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Human Rights Watch has an extensive dossier of the numerous abuses going on in Russia right now, which include oppressing civil society, persecuting homosexuals, a three-year prison sentence for “insult[ing] the feelings of religious believers” (although this is little different to a similar law in Sweden which considers “express[ing] disrespect” for faiths as a hate crime), and imprisoning anyone brave enough to take to the streets in protest.

Freedom House considers Russia “Not Free,” the Foreign & Commonwealth Office considers Russia a “country of concern,” Ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant of the UK Mission to the UN expressed in March concerns over “growing levels of human rights violations in Ukraine,” with Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch summing up the situation with the words: “They have taken authoritarianism to a whole new level” at the beginning of this year.

You can’t have it both ways. The European Convention on Human Rights cannot be both the guarantor of human rights in Russia and the UK, and the flagrant abuse of said Convention in the land of the Muscovites only goes to show it is not even worth the paper it is written on. Furthermore, its continued existence as a body of law which supersedes our own only serves to demean and weaken the free system of law we have enjoyed in this country for the last 800 years.