By Benjamin Ward
As every parent knows, children are prone to telling it like it is, unvarnished and unfiltered by adult rationalisation. So when children worry about their future, worry about their parents being deported, worry that they have suddenly become strangers in their own country, then so should we.
The EU referendum vote may have far reaching consequences for how the UK is governed and the protections those who live here enjoy. Those are important and deserve attention. But what concerns me most right now is that our children's fears are real. A Pandora's Box of hate has been opened in the country, putting our shared values at risk.
The evidence is impossible to ignore. The Met police confirm a 50% increase in reported hate crimes in London since the referendum. The national police website for hate crime has recorded a 42% rise in incidents in the last two weeks of June compared to the same period in 2015.
A survey found that 12% of Polish people living in the UK have experienced hostile behaviour following the EU referendum vote. The media is full of reports of people subjected to verbal abuse or worse, because of their perceived foreignness, including an arson attack. And the leader of the union of head teachers has warned that children from European backgrounds are worried they may be forced to leave the UK.
To their credit, the authorities seem to be taking the issue seriously. The prime minister condemned the wave of hate crimes as "despicable" and said they must be stamped out. The mayor of London has spoken of a "zero tolerance approach to any attempt to hurt and divide our communities." The Met Police and other forces also seem to be responding diligently, with the commissioner telling the London Assembly this week that arrest rates for hate crimes in the capital are up 75% since the referendum.
These efforts must be continued and redoubled so that no-one is in any doubt that hate crimes are, and will always be, unacceptable acts with no place in our society.
Sadly this feels normal now! This was taken by my wife today outside the Health Centre in Torquay where she works. pic.twitter.com/8bS1rpMdad
— Paul Roberts (@PaulRobertsNHS) July 5, 2016
The upsurge in xenophobia is a stark reminder that the human rights framework—protecting human dignity and ensuring equal treatment—is a compass in times of crisis. That is by design. Forged in the ashes of the Second World War, the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights understood that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind" and that the best bulwark against them in future is human rights "protected by the rule of law".
The UK leaving the European Union could put some protection of important rights at risk: there is a danger that labour rights and protections against discrimination in UK law, which are underpinned by EU rules, could be watered down by parliament in future. That must be guarded against.
The UK will still be bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), inspired by Winston Churchill and mostly written by a UK Conservative politician, David Maxwell Fyfe. This is protected by the European Court of Human Rights, and the Human Rights Act, which incorporates it into domestic law and allows courts in the UK to make sure local authorities and central government act in ways that protect people's rights. The Human Rights Act has made a huge contribution to improving people's lives in the UK, despite being smeared in the media and blamed by politicians for unpopular decisions.
In its 2015 election manifesto however, the Conservative party vowed to replace it with a British Bill of Rights, although it is yet to publish any such plans. Doing so would be at best unnecessary and at worst give the UK government cover to weaken core rights of people in the UK protected under international law, such as their rights to privacy or family life. It is also hard to see the logic of opening such a can of worms now given the magnitude of the challenges facing the UK. Theresa May clearly agrees. She recently confirmed that whatever happened to the Human Rights Act, the UK would be staying in the ECHR.
Some British politicians have also floated the idea of leaving the European Court of Human Rights, in part because of politically unpopular decisions such as on prisoner voting. But doing so would mean leaving the Convention too, which could weaken human rights protection for millions of people in the UK and across Europe, including in countries like Russia and Turkey where the Court can offer the only chance of justice for those whose rights are abused.
Two weeks after the referendum decision, there is still great uncertainty about where the UK is headed. But for the sake of all our kids, no matter where they were born, we need to make sure that it is a future guided by respect for human rights.
Benjamin Ward is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @Benjamin_P_Ward
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