This area of work was an unplanned addition to our priorities in 2016. Although we regarded the threatened repeal of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a “British” Bill of Rights of unknown content as a threat both to human rights in general and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in particular, last year we did not foresee the existential threat of the campaign for Brexit and the Leave vote. One of our fundamental priorities has been to make a reality of the unfulfilled human rights promises and commitments in the Agreement, pushing ever harder for a genuine rights-based society. The campaign and vote for Brexit, together with the increased chances of the repeal of the Human Rights Act, has forced us to defend what we have: a partially completed, partially successful peace process faced with the threats of constitutional uncertainty, if not chaos, and emboldened xenophobia.
Our opinion before and after the vote made clear that there were potential threats to human rights visible during the referendum campaign, which is why we unusually and specifically urged a Remain vote. CAJ would not normally take a position on constitutional arrangements, since different structures can offer equivalent human rights protections. In respect of the European Union itself, we noted back in February that its record on human rights was mixed. However, the context of the actual debate was that a Brexit victory would be led by the xenophobic Right and would lead to a “carnival of reaction.” In the concrete reality of the UK in 2016 a vote to leave, in what primarily transpired to be a plebiscite on migration, was a vote to reduce human rights protections.
Those voices leading the Leave campaign majored not on democratic or socio-economic deficits in the EU project but rather on nationalist sentiment, xenophobia and thinly veiled racism. This result will embolden them and place them in the ascendency.
So the first consequence of the vote has been the normalisation of anti-immigrant discourse, a huge boost for racist groups and an increase in racist attacks. From the perspective of human rights, this is perhaps the most dangerous scenario. Racism is a fundamental enemy of human rights. Human rights are universal, applying to everyone by virtue of their simple humanity – racism is the complete negation of that philosophy. Furthermore, it is insidious – once allowed into the political conversation it becomes the ready and available put-down of any attempt to express human solidarity.
The second area of concern is a retreat from the EU protections of workers’ rights, data protection, environmental and anti-discrimination legislation. Exiting the EU would remove a backstop for rights protection, making it easier for current or future governments to erode protections for workers’ rights and equality.
Thirdly, the withdrawal of EU peace and structural funds and the likely increase in austerity policies will affect many people. The expected ending of peace and structural funds will decimate the voluntary and community sector and remove support from many projects, such as ex-prisoner groups, which are vital for the peace process. Together, these economic pressures will pose a real threat to the social and economic rights of the most disadvantaged.
Fourth is the threat of a “hard” border on the island of Ireland and the threat to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. A “hard” border would threaten the free movement across the island implicit in the Agreement and, even if the Common Travel Area is protected, could become the site of racial profiling as passports are demanded from those who look “different.” The issue of equality of Irish of British citizenship, so central to the Agreement, will be put at threat.
Lastly, as we have noted the referendum result may pose an indirect threat to the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. There is a huge range of threats that this prospect makes to human rights protections on everything from the Agreement itself, through policing to dealing with the past.
In this context, we have been doing everything we can to explore the consequences of the Brexit vote and to prepare to fight for human rights protections and the Agreement that brought an end to our conflict as this dangerous process unfolds.