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Our Human Rights, Civil Society And Brexit

October 18, 2019

Human rights cannot be a matter of pick and mix. We either have our rights to liberty, safety, free speech, associations and faith of our choosing, and much more; or we don’t.
As I have explained before, I am very concerned about the impact that the UK leaving the European Union (EU), Brexit, would have on efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Europe. But ‘just’ that one concern cannot be isolated from the many other issues which Brexit presents.

Brexit was conceived and supported by people who want the EU to fail, yet any UK government that is committed to the rule of law and democracy should want the EU to thrive….  One way emboldens forces of division and nationalism; the other way strengthens the project that was founded to resist those forces.  (Rafael Behr, 16 October 2019.)


On 24 June 2016, just a few days after the EU Referendum, a Fabians post by Eric Kaufman reported an analysis (white respondents only) of who voted Leave or Remain.  It told us that the probability of voting Brexit ‘… rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.’

Since that time similar findings have been reported on several more occasions. There is, we are told by psychologists such as Dr Rosie Campbell, a correlation between fear of change, desiring certainty, and demanding harsh penalties for criminals and discipline for children. Increasingly, she tells us, an ‘order-openness divide’ is emerging as the key political cleavage, overshadowing the left-right economic dimension.

The massive Leave-Remain fissure is fundamentally not about ‘London versus the regions, poor versus rich’. The evidence shows that Brexit voters, like Trump supporters, are motivated by identity, not economics.

Education, class, income, gender and age play a role, but explain less than 10 percent of the variation in support for the death penalty; and support for the death penalty correlates very highly with the Leave vote.


Fast forward to more recent events….

First, we have the now-Home Secretary, Priti Patel, feeling obliged to deny her previously apparent support for capital punishment. And now, via the Queen’s speech at the opening parliament, we learn of the Conservative Government’s claimed intention to focus especially on ‘law and order’, introducing harsher punishments.

As Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform has since tweeted,  ‘Desperate and weak governments always try to curry favour by stirring up hate, increasing punishment is a race to the bottom of politics, particularly as it flies in the face of evidence and won’t protect victims.’

And beyond that the Government is also considering legislation to reduce the rights of all citizens, innocent or otherwise. A Liberty statement this week tells us that ‘ (t)he Government (has) made clear it intends to neglect fundamental rights in favour of increasing the police state.’

The time for disinterested analysis of Britons’ civil and personal rights is surely now past.  Those who favour an open and fair society must face up to some big challenges.

We are well beyond the point of nay-saying ‘Democratic Deficit’ pessimists and hoping for the best.  Current threats to our open society correlate significantly with the Brexit ‘order’ mindset.

The European Union

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is clear about our rights; it brings together all the personal, civic, political, economic and social rights enjoyed by people within the EU in a single text.

Similarly, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights was set up in 2007 to provide assistance and expertise relating to fundamental rights to EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, and to EU countries when they implement EU law.  Its duties include the promotion of dialogue with civil society in order to raise public awareness of fundamental rights.

Amongst those fundamental rights are all the rights found in the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU, and the rights and freedoms enshrined in 1948 by the European Convention on Human Rights – the very rights agreed, including by the UK as a primary signatory, between the 47 members states of the Council of Europe (not ‘just’ the member states of the European Union).

These agreed rights are also embedded in the UK Human Rights Act, an act which Amnesty fears is on the ‘to-do’ list to be scrapped by the UK Government. As early as 2016 then-Home Secretary Theresa May proposed that the UK withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (although at that point she still wanted to stay in the European Union).  So who is to say what will now happen to the UK Human Rights Act?

Human Rights and Liberties

Civil rights (or liberties) and human rights are not abstract concepts; they form the basis for democracy and are often denied people living in a dictatorship.  Human rights, first formally declared by the United Nations in 1948, are even more fundamental: they are the universal rights and freedoms – to life, liberty, safety, belief, association, movement and much more – to which all people throughout the world are deemed to be entitled.

These rights often converge, touching on our everyday lives in many and meaningful ways, including freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religious worship.


In such contexts Brexit becomes immensely concerning. British citizens’ rights and freedoms are at risk.


  • freedom of association is being constrained: Think the sudden prohibition across London of Extinction Rebellion on 14 October, held by many to be ‘massive over-reach’, this very month;
  • constraints are emerging on the right to vote: The Electoral Commission recently reported that in the 2018 UK European Elections many non-British EU citizens in the UK were prevented by failures of government from voting. We know too that the EU Referendum was flawed, being skewed by illegal money and the illicit use of web-based data. And now the Queen’s Speech includes legislative provision for ID cards as a condition for future election voting, not via a gradual process of familiarisation with new requirements, but soon – bringing, in the words of Michela Palese of the Independent newspaper, a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ at substantial cost to the electoral engagement of several vulnerable and/or often excluded groups of citizens;
  • future Government plans may even include ‘administrative detentionafter a No Deal, which, as Jolyon Maugham QC observes, could be ‘(d)istinctly worrying for those who have the temerity to oppose Government policy;
  • the security of international law enforcement via European collaboration is in question, as for example is seen if we consider fraud or human rights matters such as the need to eradicate harmful practices including female genital mutilation (FGM);
  • serious concerns have been expressed about the UK Government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, one element of which we now know to be a secret Government database of referrals received under the programme – even including children. The human rights lawyer Amrit Singh has concluded that by imposing a statutory duty on its public servants (such as teachers), the UK has with little justification strayed further than any other country into the surveillance of people’s everyday lives. Where is our protection against further intrusions if we leave the EU?
  • British dual nationals detained in the country where they also have another nationality, (such as the British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kameel Ahmady), are receiving scant attention by the UK to their rights: it seems the European Union is more willing to raise the issue of their detention than is the British Government;
  • environmental legislation in the EU is amongst the most advanced in any part of the planet. The very bases of our rights to clean air, healthy food, biodiversity in our natural environment and moves to address climate change are underpinned by EU regulation;
  • cherished improvements in the rights of women and girls are at risk if the UK leaves the EU, which has secured many improvements towards gender equality including maternity and parental rights, anti-discrimination legislation, personal safety across borders and measures towards equal pay. Best for Britain asserts that Brexit would be the biggest step backwards for women’s rights for over a century;
  • extraordinarily, the determination of Brexiteers to achieve their ambition has seen a sweeping aside of the significance of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which, with the support of the EU, has kept the peace in Ireland now for twenty years. To quote the 2016 report (Chapter 4) of the Lords Select Committee on the European Union: ‘The peace process is supported by a majority of people from across the communities, and it would be irresponsible to overstate the threat posed by Brexit. Nevertheless, Brexit is already proving politically divisive. All sides must remain vigilant to ensure that the momentum behind the peace process is maintained.’ Since 2016 the risks to that peace process have probably increased considerably.

We could continue; what of the planned restrictions on (especially juvenile) asylum seekers and refugees if there is No Deal?  Or the intended (and brutal) settled status regime for EU non-Brits and their children?   Or the anticipated impacts on health (including mental health), medicine and research to keep us well? What of media which report and fail to interrogate ‘fake news’? Workers rights? Or hate crime and threats to abolish the UK Supreme Court?

But enough….

Our human rights, so hard-gained by the efforts of so many, are precious, and also vulnerable.

Yes, economics and services are crucial to the Brexit debate, but it is difficult to understand why peace and civil and human rights have not also featured vibrantly at every stage in UK public discourse on the European Union . The Bruges Group offers an alternative account, reflecting long-standing Conservative antipathy to the European project (British Parliament will be reduced to the ‘status of a County Council’); but the European Economic Community or ‘Common Market’, set up by the Treaty of Rome and predecessor to the European Union, was devised expressly to preserve the peace (Pax Europaea) and foster human well-being after World War II.

Perhaps with time we have simply become used to taking rights such as peace, like our current right to Europe-wide health care and consular protection, for granted?

It is very difficult to understand why, for example, a minority of Labour MPs, including some with strongly held humanitarian concerns, seem willing despite its acknowledged defects to ‘respect the EU Referendum’ by supporting Brexit. Not only will that support open up significant risks to human rights, but also research now shows that in even strongly Leave constituencies two thirds of Labour voters want to support Remain.  It is an ecological fallacy to suppose that just because Labour voters disproportionately live in Leave areas they themselves are more likely to be Leave voters.

No longer may we be complacent in either our socio-political analysis, or about our hard-won civil rights.  These rights are at immediate risk.  The loss of ‘even’ some of them is unconscionable.

We know from research on attitudes (the order-openness divide above, etc) that many Leavers are less concerned about these rights than are most Remainers –

but Leavers and Remainers, both, would be the poorer

if through Brexit any of their rights were lost.


Read more about FGM and Brexit

Read more here about Human Rights and Democracy

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Your Comments on this topic are welcome.  
Please post them in the box which follows…..

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Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

18.04.12 FGM books together IMG_3336 (3).JPG

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.

FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.


There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email:

Details of NHS Specialist Services for FGM here.

More info and posts on FGM here.

Activists, service providers and researchers may like to join the LinkedIn group Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Information, reports and research, which has several hundred members from around the world.

The (free) #NoFGM Daily News carries reports of all items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.

Also available to follow at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.

Twitter accounts:          @NoFGM_UK  @NoFGMBookUK @FemaleMutlnBook  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA @NoFGM_Kenya  @NoFGM_France  @GuardianEndFGM [tag for all: #NoFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity


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