What is the ECHR and what does it mean for the UK?

Suella Braverman this week demanded Rishi Sunak 'blocks off' the ECHR. (PA)
Suella Braverman this week demanded Rishi Sunak 'blocks off' the ECHR. (PA) (Phil Noble/PA Wire)

Sacked home secretary Suella Braverman has called for Rishi Sunak to “block off” the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

It came after the Supreme Court ruled his flagship policy of removing asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful.

Braverman, a hardliner on immigration policy, said: “Given the current state of the law, there is no reason to criticise the judges. Instead, the government must introduce emergency legislation. The bill must block off ECHR, HRA [the Human Rights Act], and other routes of legal challenge.”

However, Supreme Court president Lord Reed said the ECHR was not the only international treaty relevant to the court’s decision about the Rwanda policy. It also took into account domestic law.

Nonetheless, the ECHR issue is never far from the surface in Conservative circles – and the Rwanda decision brought it into focus once again.

Here, Yahoo News UK explains what the ECHR is, what it does and what the implications of quitting it would be.

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What is the ECHR?

It's a human rights charter. It was advocated for by leaders such as Winston Churchill following the Second World War.

It started with the creation of the Council of Europe (CoE) in 1949, followed by the adoption of the ECHR itself in 1953. The UK was one of the states which drafted the convention.

The European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, makes binding judgments on the ECHR.

How does it relate to the UK?

It's a legal commitment which compels all 46 CoE members, including the UK, to abide by its human rights rules.

It's not linked to the EU, so Brexit did not affect the UK’s obligations.

The European countries not signed up to the ECHR are led by dictators: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko (L) pose for photographs prior to their meeting at the Constantine (Konstantinovsky) Palace in Strelna, outside Saint Petersburg, on July 23, 2023. Russian President Vladimir Putin has met his closest ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, for the first time since the latter helped broker a deal to end a mutiny by Wagner fighters inside Russia last month. (Photo by Alexandr Demyanchuk / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDR DEMYANCHUK/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
The UK would be joining Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus and Vladimir Putin's Russia if it quit the ECHR. (AFP via Getty Images) (ALEXANDR DEMYANCHUK via Getty Images)

What protections does it provide to us?

Rights, freedoms and protections in the ECHR include:

  • right to life

  • prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment

  • prohibition of slavery and forced labour

  • right to liberty and security

  • right to a fair trial

  • prohibition of retrospective criminal penalties

  • right to private and family life

  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion

  • freedom of expression

  • freedom of assembly and association

  • right to marry

  • right to an effective national remedy for breach of these rights

  • prohibition of discrimination in the protection of these rights

Additional rights ratified by the UK include:

  • abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances

  • right to free enjoyment of property

  • right to education

  • right to free and fair elections

Is it possible to leave it?

Yes, by enacting Article 58 of the convention. This says a country "may denounce the present convention... after six months’ notice".

In recent years, both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss kept the threat of leaving on the table as they sought to placate the right of the Tory party.

Following the Rwanda decision, Rishi Sunak also hinted at this, saying he was “prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships” if they were still “frustrating” his plans.

But new home secretary James Cleverly said disregarding the ECHR was not “necessary” in order to stop small boat crossings over the English Channel.

He also pointed out the Rwanda judgment was not contingent on the ECHR, and said the row was a "distracting conversation".

Watch: Sunak vows to sign new Rwanda deal after Supreme Court rules his plan unlawful

What could happen if the UK quits?

Liberty, the human rights campaign group, says leaving "would put everyone’s rights at risk".

It says the "UK government would have the power to do whatever it wants to individuals’ rights with no threat of consequences".

The ECHR, as former government lawyer Sir Jonathan Jones KC said in an Institute for Government article last month, has "profoundly influenced the protection of rights in the UK in areas including the treatment of homosexuals [and] corporal punishment in schools".

There would also be major political implications. For example, the UK being part of the ECHR is part of the Good Friday Agreement, which continues to underpin peace in Northern Ireland.

In the wider picture, quitting the ECHR would hit the UK's international credibility. Law Society of England and Wales president Lubna Shuja said in August: “Leaving the ECHR would mean the UK would sit as an outlier in Europe, alongside only Russia and Belarus who are already outside of the convention."

In any case, even the government itself has tried to use the ECHR to its own means. Earlier this year, it cited – unsuccessfully – Article 8 of the convention (right to respect for private and family life) to try and stop Johnson's WhatsApp messages being handed to the COVID inquiry.