Jewish human rights campaigners have welcomed the Government’s commitment to continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights in its White Paper on Brexit, published on Thursday.
The ECHR, together with the Equalities Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, gives a range of protections to different groups within society, and was recently cited in a landmark case for the Jewish community.
Lawyers acting for an Orthodox Jewish burial society said London Coroner Mary Hassell’s notorious “cab-rank rule” of not prioritising the release of bodies on religious grounds breached this legislation, which underpins Britain’s dedication to supporting a diverse and pluralist society. The Court agreed.
The Convention, which is seen as the cornerstone of legal human rights protections in the UK, was created as a direct response to the Holocaust and was intended to be a safety net to prevent European states falling back into totalitarianism.
It protects the right to free speech, the right to family life and the right to freedom of religion, and these rights can be enforced by the European Court of Human Rights.
Jewish jurists, such as the Cambridge professor Hersch Lauterpacht and French jurist René Cassin, were central to the Convention’s development, along with Conservative leaders such as Winston Churchill.
Adam Wagner, a Jewish human rights barrister and founder of several human rights organisations, said the Government’s commitment to the ECHR was “huge” but said it would be “incendiary to hard-core Brexiteers” who wanted the UK to leave.
“It has been ‘brought home’ through the Human Rights Act, which allows us to claim our rights in local courts,” he said. “It now plays a key role in protecting religious freedoms across Europe.”
Wagner said the UK has been “a leader in setting international human rights standards” since the Nuremberg Trials in the 1940s, adding: “It would be good news if it showed its long-term commitment to the ECHR in the final EU agreement.”
Dr Edie Friedman of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) said: “So much of the origins of human rights are Jewish. It’s an important part of our tradition, of who we are, and it’s important that we don’t lose touch with that.”
She added: “We must make sure everyone is protected, and everything that strengthens so should be welcomed. We have to understand why human rights exist and what they do and don’t do.
“The protections need to extend to everyone, including refugees, asylum seekers and all minority communities. We were refugees once, so we should certainly understand this. Human rights should be more than just the law. It should be part and parcel of our culture.”
Last year Jewish human rights group René Cassin called on Theresa May to abandon plans for the UK to leave the ECHR, and this week director Mia Hasenson-Gross the Jewish community should feel “extremely encouraged” by this aspect of the Brexit White paper.
“International human rights treaties, like the ECHR, were developed in response to Nazi atrocities, which took place in a world with no effective political or legal response to totalitarianism,” she said.
“The ECHR is British in both its ancient and modern origins: it was advocated by Winston Churchill and drafted by a former British Home Secretary, while its intellectual roots stretch back to English common law dating from the 13th century.
“By maintaining a commitment to its ECHR membership, the UK government is maintaining a link to an essential part of a British human rights heritage which holds a unique significance for the Jewish community.”