Brexit: what does it mean for human rights?

This topic has no shortage of expert commentary, so let me throw my hat into the ring. One week on from the United Kingdom’s historic referendum in which 52% of the voting public chose to leave the European Union, the dust is beginning to settle. With heightened emotions subsiding, we have an opportunity to reflect on what the Brexit vote means for each of us in our personal and professional capacities.

Personally, it’s difficult to tell. Reports that many Brexit voters were principally concerned with surplus immigration is bound to invoke some anxiety, as the annual drama of securing a visa is something I have only recently been able to avoid. One can imagine that immigration rules will tighten once more, possibly restricting the flow of non-EU migrants. In the event that I am eventually able to regularise my immigration status in this country by obtaining indefinite leave to remain and eventually becoming a citizen (a difficult prospect even now having lived here for 5 years), I will of course be disappointed if freedom of movement is bartered away in exit negotiations. But again, it seems too early to do more than speculate on these personal impacts. I would hope that all those engaged in the vibrant discourse on social media can exhibit some temperance in their discussions, as there are no foregone conclusions and the status quo may well persist for years to come.

Professionally, too, it is hard to estimate how Brexit will impact on human rights lawyers and practitioners. On the one hand, the state of flux throws up myriad questions that require legal analysis and opinion, such as the status of the rights enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, whose protections will fall away upon formal exit from the EU. We can expect to be busy analysing the potential human rights impacts of the various models that the UK may adopt upon exit: Norwegian, Icelandic, Swiss, etc. And in many ways, we continue as before. The Conservative government’s proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998 and the dangerous and misleading threats by some (including Home Secretary Theresa May MP) to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights remain live. With this in mind, I would strongly recommend that all human rights lawyers submit evidence to Bright Blue’s Human Rights Commission, which is seeking proposals for the content of a British Bill of Rights. The Commission is made up of high-profile Conservative thought leaders and journalists and represents a crucial opportunity to make our voices heard. You can find information on submissions here: The deadline is 16th July, so get cracking.

In terms of the substantive impacts of leaving the EU, I would like to have faith that the rights accrued to date will remain intact. The UK is a party to a broad range of international treaties which have been implemented in national legislation, so we needn’t fear a sudden black hole opening and swallowing up tried-and-true labour rights, discrimination protections, and privacy rights. The UK’s updated National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights remains in effect, and despite the vote to exit the institutions of the European Union I have seen no empirical evidence that the country intends to move away from internationalism generally. It is a proud global leader intent on maintaining its status on the world stage, and playing that role requires maintaining strong leadership on human rights both domestically and abroad. This may become more difficult in the short term, but it is undoubtedly in the nation’s best interest to try to preserve its diplomatic power by assuring the international community that it remains committed to human rights and the rule of law.

Thus, amidst the anxiety of the last week, I choose to remain optimistic and firmly resolved to play my part in British society to ensure that human rights remain protected, respected, and secure.



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