It is bad enough that the UK government has driven a coach and horses through the Refugee Convention by banning asylum seekers. Now our home secretary has crossed the Atlantic to implore the United States and other like-minded countries to tear the treaty up and start again. This is not just a surprising position for a liberal democracy like Britain to promote, it is positively reckless.
The whole point of the 1951 Refugee Convention and other human rights treaties adopted after the catastrophe of the Second World War was to make the world safer, by setting rules to safeguard human dignity and ensure international safety for those at risk in repressive states.
These norms are the bedrock of vital ongoing global work to prevent abuses and hold perpetrators to account. Britain, under past Conservative and Labour governments, has been an important backer of these efforts, including via valuable support for torture prevention programs and national and international prosecutions.
Sadly, torture and persecution remain rife across swathes of the planet. Torture is creeping back across Europe, too. From its routine use in Russian prisons, it has spilled into the Ukraine war and is becoming part of the extreme brutality of Eastern European states towards asylum seekers. Nor have liberal democracies always had clean hands, as the CIA’s notorious torture program, rolled out with British complicity, demonstrates.
But every day at Freedom from Torture’s specialist rehabilitation centres in Birmingham, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Newcastle, we see the remarkable practical effect of the global protection system for people who have escaped torture chambers in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Sri Lanka, Syria and elsewhere. With the help of our therapists, and hope of being granted asylum here in Britain, torture survivors can rebuild their shattered lives.
So, when Suella Braverman urges a re-write of the Refugee Convention to curtail protection for groups including women and LGBTQI+ communities, she is threatening to weaken one of the most effective parts of the international human rights system.
We know from our clinical work that people tortured because of their gender or sexuality suffer the same pain as those targeted for their religious or political beliefs, for example, and they deserve the same protection, too. It is shameful for a senior British politician to stoke prejudice by suggesting otherwise.
The home secretary surely knows that her proposal to re-write the treaty is a “non-starter”. Even usual cheerleaders like Alexander Downer, the former Australian foreign minister who the UK recruited to advise on anti-refugee policies, told LBC this morning that it had no chance of success.
So, it seems clear that the point of this sabre-rattling is political, with her real intended audience not the policy community in Washington but the British public, as extensive briefings to UK media from Saturday onwards suggests.
This also explains her fearmongering about global migration, grossly exaggerating the scope of people falling within the scope of the Refugee Convention by wrongly suggesting it covers any woman or gay person who fears discrimination. The legal test is much tougher than this, as any Home Office lawyer or survivor of torture wrongly turned down despite extensive medical evidence of torture from our doctors, will attest.
Braverman’s speech will not convince the international community to resile from the Refugee Convention, but it is damaging nevertheless. It risks inflaming anti-refugee sentiment here in Britain which has been promoted by certain politicians for their own ends.
It will make survivors of torture and persecution feel less welcome, and less safe here.
It will do nothing to stop desperate men, women and children, who have no safe routes, from risking their lives in the Channel, or reduce the backlog of asylum claims that so many torture survivors are languishing in.
It will also push Britain into closer alignment with rogue states that show contempt for liberty, equality and human rights, thereby making the world a more dangerous place, not only for people fleeing torture and persecution, but for all of us.
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