Robert Buckland is MP for South Swindon and a former Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.
There can be no doubt that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a naked act of aggression. The people of Ukraine, more than 12 million of whom have been forced from their homes, have endured nearly three months of shelling, shelling, separation from loved ones, loss of homes, loss of livelihoods and, what it is more tragic, loss of life.
Sadly, they are destined to endure even more, with no peace deal in sight and no apparent sign of Putin making any concessions, despite his increasingly isolated position on the world stage.
The International Court of Justice ordered Russia to “immediately suspend” its military operations in Ukraine. International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan has opened an investigation into the conflict and said he has reasonable grounds to believe Russia has committed war crimes.
And the Council of Europe, the main human rights organization on the continent and home to the European Convention on Human Rights, has expelled Russia, after 26 years of membership.
For the past several months, Putin has displayed a blatant disregard for international law and disregard for the rights of his citizens at home. The West and its rules-based order have been branded an illegitimate “empire of lies,” and national dissidents are portrayed as “traitors” to be purged through a “self-cleansing of society.” Creepy, to say the least.
However, none of his actions or rhetoric have occurred in a vacuum. The crackdown on independent media, already muzzled in the early years of his rule, became overwhelming after his illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
At the same time, Putin consciously began to decouple the Russian legal system from the laws and principles established by the European Council. This manifested itself first in occasional high-profile cases, in which Russian courts ignored precedents set by the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
By 2015, a new law gave the Russian Criminal Court the ability to ignore the Strasbourg rulings on human rights if they conflicted with the Russian Constitution, and by 2020 Putin had signed a decree declaring Russian law supreme over international standards.
Disengagement from Western institutions and rejection of international law strengthen the Kremlin’s power and authority, but it is an authority that increasingly has to be manufactured, rather than genuinely earned. Even nominally democratic events, such as the referendum that validated Putin’s 2020 constitutional amendments, were riddled with corrupt practices, with Russians lured into voting by the offer of free smartphones or apartment blocks, and given the choice of only yes or no by ratifying 206 separate proposals.
While Russia’s expulsion from the Council of Europe sent a clear message to the Kremlin that its illegal invasion would not be accepted by the international community, it has left the Russian people even more exposed to the whims of a despotic regime and increasingly paranoid.
As a result of the Russian expulsion, they are no longer protected by the European Court of Human Rights, and the many thousands of Russians who have appealed to the European Court (just under one in four of all cases) are left in purgatory. legal. . On top of this, there is now also a very real possibility that Russia could reintroduce capital punishment, recently described by Dmitry Medvedev, the country’s former president, as “a good opportunity”.
The European Court of Human Rights has often come under fire here at home, but it is a force for good in the world and I strongly believe the UK should remain a party to the Convention it oversees.
It is always worth remembering that British lawyers drafted the Convention before it was adopted in 1950. Britain has led the way in protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine underlines more than ever how important it is to safeguard human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe and in the world.
Therefore, I was pleased to see the Government confirm its intention to update the Human Rights Law and reaffirm that the Government’s policy remains in the Convention. It is vital that, in the current context of war in Europe and the direct threat to our values, Britain maintains its leading role in defending fundamental rights and freedoms. I welcome Britain’s strong and continued support for the work of the International Criminal Court in its investigation of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.
The work of the Independent Human Rights Law Review, established by me as Lord Chancellor to consider the case for reform and ably chaired by Sir Peter Gross, provided a thoughtful, comprehensive and stable platform for change.
However, I am not convinced to call for a “Bill of Rights” to completely replace the 1998 Act. I am concerned that, by trying to make a political comment about the primacy of our own laws, with which I fully agree, the Government it risks creating more uncertainty but giving rise to a new set of rights, the meaning of which will be determined by national courts. in a way that will only increase the tension with Parliament, rather than reduce it.
Many of the problems that the Government has identified as a reason to reform the Human Rights Act cannot be solved on a purely national basis anyway, and some of the proposed solutions could make matters worse, by increasing the number of people in the UK Kingdom who feel the need to go to the European Court.
More importantly, proposals that would allow the UK Parliament to ignore European Court rulings and define Convention rights as something more than the Court, as final arbiter, determines for itself, send the totally wrong message about the UK support and commitment to international law.
The Government would be better off implementing Gross’s recommendations and codifying the recent approach taken by the Supreme Court, which has made it clear that the rights contained in the Convention have no autonomous meaning in our domestic law and that it is not for the courts to , in effect, “bañen de oro” these fundamental rights.