Leading article: Our problem is not too many rights, but too few

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The Independent Online

If we are to believe our most senior politicians, ours is a country shackled by its international commitments on human rights, a nation now incapable of conducting the daily fight against terrorism and organised crime. Afghan hijackers, released foreign offenders, illegal migrants have all fuelled high-level calls for the amendment of the Human Rights Act, or even its repeal.

Yet, as a report from the European Parliament shows, the Government is far from being a stickler for international conventions. Three important international agreements guaranteeing basic human rights still have to be implemented by the UK. Worse, the Government's cowardly and shortsighted refusal to take a stand on basic rights is undermining both its position abroad and the fight against organised crime at home.

Take, for example, the failure to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. This, entirely sensible, international agreement ensures that women who have been trafficked into the sex trade are given medical support and counselling rather than simply being thrown out of the country. It is controversial for the Government because it allows a cooling-off period of 30 days before victims can be deported.

Yet the point of the breathing space is to allow those who have suffered the evil of human trafficking to escape their abusers and agree to co-operate with the authorities. There is evidence that, until recently, police investigations were languishing - and gang-masters escaping - because the immigration authorities were deporting trafficked women as soon as they could, without investigating their evidence. Though the Home Office now says this problem is solved, it could not have arisen had the convention been in place.

Incredibly, the Government has also fought shy of agreeing a declaration to ensure that migrant workers are afforded basic human rights and are not forced into any form of slavery. Too often the political reflex has been to ratchet up the rhetoric, however counter-productive the outcome.

But serious consequences flow from this disastrous loss of perspective. Basic standards once taken for granted are swept aside in the rush to crack down on illegal migration. As the European Parliament report shows, around the EU, "policies to address illegal immigration have moved so far as to curtail the ability of asylum-seekers to exercise their human rights".

Meanwhile the ability of the UK to act as a beacon of human rights on the international stage is fatally weakened. As yesterday's report puts it: "To have credibility on the international stage, EU member states need to be firm in setting dates for the ratification of all key human rights conventions and their optional protocols." For example, the UK's international stand against child soldiers is compromised by its incomplete endorsement of the relevant convention (a problem for the Ministry of Defence because it recruits from the age of 16). More generally, the world's more odious regimes have an easy retort when lectured by Britain on matching international agreements: practise what you preach.

Other European countries are not much better. When a visa ban was slapped on Uzbekistan last year, it was flouted by Germany which gave the country's interior minister a visa to visit for medical treatment days before the blacklist was published. The EU's human rights "dialogue" with China takes place, it emerges, without simultaneous interpretation. Some dialogue.

But for Britain, the message sounds loud and clear. Far from rolling back agreements already in place, the Government should look to its conscience and sign up to the provisions it has dodged.

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