PETER YOUNG: How is Britain controlled by European courts?

PROTESTERS stand outside the High Court during a ruling on Rwanda deportation flights in London on June 13. Photo: Alastair Grant/AP

PROTESTERS stand outside the High Court during a ruling on Rwanda deportation flights in London on June 13. Photo: Alastair Grant/AP


Peter Young

THE country of Rwanda, situated in the heart of the vast continent of Africa, has been the centre of attention in the British press this past week. This was not on account of some newsworthy drama within what is now a stable and thriving nation after recovering from the horrors of a civil war and genocide in the early 1990s. Rather, it is because Rwanda has been drawn in to a political row about immigration following its agreement to receive and process refugees and asylum seekers sent by Britain.

For many years, the thorny issue of both legal and illegal immigration has been top of the political agenda of successive British governments. Historically, the nation has a proud record of providing a safe haven to genuine refugees fleeing persecution. But its ability to control levels of immigration was constrained through the country’s membership of the European Union. So pressure to reassume direct control of its borders and enforce immigration laws – especially preventing illegal migration in small boats across the English Channel from France – was one reason for withdrawing from the EU. Nearly 30,000 migrants made the dangerous crossing in 2021 and, already this year, 10,000 have reached Britain’s shores by this means.

The public pressure on politicians to take action to stop what has become almost a parallel illegal immigration system has reached breaking point. For a relatively small and heavily populated country like Britain, uncontrolled mass immigration is unsustainable and unacceptable; not only because of the extra strain on public institutions and services – including housing, schools and health services – but also for security reasons. Moreover, many of those arriving are not genuine asylum seekers escaping persecution in their own countries but economic migrants seeking a better life in Britain to which they are attracted by the country’s generous welfare state and traditional tolerance as an old established democracy.

In recent months, the Conservative government has come up with a new scheme to tackle the surge in illegal immigration. This is to send all but bona fide asylum seekers - who would be assessed after arrival in Britain in the normal way - to Rwanda where they would either be allowed to stay permanently or would be returned to their country of origin. The aim of the plan is to reduce illegal immigration, protect lives and break the stranglehold of the criminal human smuggling gangs which control the illicit cross-channel trade. It is also designed to deter economic migrants who are unlikely to want to end up 4,000 miles away in Africa. Inevitably, however, this innovative plan has been controversial and has been variously described as nasty, cruel and callous – with the Archbishop of Canterbury even calling it “ungodly” while, reportedly, Prince Charles has described it as “appalling”.

What has now brought it all to a head is last week’s blocking of the first flight carrying deportees from the UK to Rwanda. In recent years, unscrupulous human rights lawyers, aided by left-wing activists and social justice pressure groups, have exploited any loophole they could find in Britain’s 1998 Human Rights Act to prevent deportations.

It is contended that this legislation puts the rights of offenders ahead of the law-abiding public by allowing foreign criminals to abuse the UK system. But UK courts, including the Supreme Court, had declared this first flight to be legal and could go ahead with just a handful of failed asylum seekers. At the last minute, however, an anonymous judge of the European Court of Human Rights in an out-of-hours informal hearing decided it should be grounded pending further consideration by the UK High Court of the policy’s legality. Britain is bound by decisions of the ECHR because it adheres to the European Convention on Human Rights which is quite separate from the EU. Indeed, Britain was a founding member of this international convention that codified human rights in Europe in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War in order to prevent any future persecution or genocide.

Without debating the merits and demerits of the government’s immigration policy, what is interesting is the effect of this intervention by a judge of the ECHR on attitudes in Britain. It has been called outrageous interference and has caused a furore. Many now say the issue goes beyond a political skirmish over immigration control because what is essentially at stake is who is responsible for running the country. People are asking the basic question whether the UK is a democratic, sovereign nation whose laws are made by its elected representatives – who can be thrown out at election time if they get things wrong – and interpreted by its own judges. Or is it to be forever subject to the arbitrary impulses and findings of a court of anonymous foreign judges who have little knowledge of the country? Most people agree that it is absurd and intolerable for Britain’s national policies to be undermined by unelected and unaccountable European institutions or by a group of foreign judges. Such practice subverts democratic self-governance, and a faceless judge in Strasbourg cannot be allowed to determine or dictate government policy. The Home Secretary has declared the ECHR decision “a scandalous ruling” that is “politically motivated”, and the Attorney General says that the British people rather than European judges “must decide who can and cannot stay in our country”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is quoted as saying that, despite the ECHR decision, the government will continue with its immigration policy in relation to Rwanda. It has a mandate to crack down on illegal immigration. Through Brexit the public voted to take back control of the country’s laws and are genuinely baffled why immigration controls can still be blocked by European judges. So there is public support for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and introduce a domestic equivalent, which would be a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act - and that seems to be the likely course the Conservative government will now take.

Investigative journalism or criminality and espionage

A brief item in the UK press last week about the extradition to the US of the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, appears to have escaped wider media attention even though his case is of interest internationally. He has lost his bid to avoid extradition after the Home Secretary in London approved an order for him to be sent to the US to stand trial there. He faces numerous charges of espionage over leaked documents published more than 10 years ago relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as diplomatic cables. He has 14 days to appeal.

This authorisation of his extradition is said to be a dark day for press freedom and democracy because it is claimed by some that Assange was conducting legitimate investigative journalism which is essential in any democracy. But, if convicted on espionage charges, he now faces the possibility of solitary confinement and life imprisonment, though the US has apparently given assurances he would not be held in a high security prison and that he could serve his prison term in his native Australia. Nonetheless, his wife now says such assurances cannot be trusted and that conditions in the US would be so oppressive that he might commit suicide. Meanwhile, Amnesty International says the British government’s decision to extradite him sends a chilling message to journalists the world over.

By all accounts, Assange is an unappealing character who has been brazenly reckless, imprudent and unwise, if not stupid, in his actions and cavalier about other people’s lives in seeking to expose classified official information. He certainly has an unsavoury background. Having jumped bail in England in 2012 to escape an arrest warrant for extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges which were later dropped, he took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for 7 years but was later rearrested and has been held since then at a UK high security prison. His extradition to the US was then blocked by a UK judge because of concerns about his mental health.

Assange and his supporters say he was “shining a light on all the corruption in the world” and exposing war crimes and other abuses carried out by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks to him, we now know about some of the ruthless, illegal and barbaric steps the US was prepared to take in its post-9/11 war on terror. But many people wonder whether it can ever be acceptable in a democratic society to allow a self-appointed organisation like WikiLeaks to determine what ought to be exposed in the public interest and thereby justify the theft and leaking of classified information belonging to an elected government. It is argued that it went beyond the limits of investigative journalism, since, according to the US indictment, it involved conspiring to crack government computer codes and proactively, systematically and illegally hacking into government-owned computers containing classified material. Others, however, suggest that, rather than espionage, these acts – serious as they were -- amounted to no more than criminality rather than espionage.

The widely-held view in the UK now seems to be that a life term for Julian Assange would be excessive. He should not be treated as a spy who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, especially in what are likely to be harsh conditions in the US. The importance of a free press in a democracy should be given greater weight in this case. He is clearly not a person deserving of much sympathy, but is it ever a crime to publish truthful information?  Is there a danger that harsh treatment of him might embolden authoritarian states who regard a free press as their worst enemy. Freedom of the press is vital in a democracy and investigative journalism is essential in holding authority to account. So it comes as no surprise that there are many who hope Assange’s extradition order will be overturned on appeal.

Commemoration of Falklands war

There was a significant date last week in Britain’s modern history. June 14 marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War. A service of remembrance organised by the Royal British Legion took place at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire where the Prime Minister was joined by veterans, bereaved family members and senior defence figures. 

Wreaths were laid and Mr Johnson praised the “incredible daring and bravery” of the veterans in securing a future for the Falklands which, since the ending of the conflict, have “thrived in peace and freedom”. Similar events were held elsewhere in the country, and, at the same time, a service was held at the monument in Port Stanley, the Falklands capital, where Islanders paid their respects to those who had lost their lives in the conflict 40 years ago.

The ten-week war began after Argentina unexpectedly invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982. This was a British territory with a population of less than 3,000 who were fiercely opposed to any interference in their lives by Argentina. Britain quickly sent a naval task force to reclaim the Islands and its armed forces landed there on May 21. After fierce fighting, the Argentines surrendered on June 14. During the conflict 255 British and 649 Argentine military personnel were killed and many more wounded, and three Islanders also lost their lives.

As I wrote in this column in April, judging from Argentina’s most recent pronouncements, it continues its claim to what it calls the Malvinas situated some 250 miles from its coastline. But, for its part, Britain has consistently made clear that, in accordance with international law, it has no doubts about its sovereignty over the Falklands which it has administered for 150 years; and, as recently as 2013, 99.8 per cent of the islanders voted in a referendum to remain British.

Some say these hostilities to secure the freedom of a remote territory in the South Atlantic are now largely forgotten. But for those involved in it, or affected by it, the Falklands War remains as vivid as ever – and, for them, commemoration of the 40th anniversary of its ending has maintained awareness and recognition of the brave actions of those who served in this mercifully short, but bloody conflict.


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