Only a matter of weeks ago, politicians were seriously discussing the possibility that the UK might need to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to be rid of Abu Qatada. Yet this weekend we saw him board a plane to Jordan – and no human rights treaties were harmed. It’s a triumph for Theresa May, who deserves credit for a significant achievement.
The government’s breakthrough came when it accepted legal reality – it was never going to win in the Supreme Court – and focused on changing the facts. It was the mutual assistance treaty concluded earlier this year with Jordan which made it almost impossible for evidence gained by torture to be used in any Jordanian trial of Abu Qatada, and removed the human rights obstacle to his deportation. Ministers’ success is all the greater because it was got by complying with, not defying, human rights legislation. This is a victory not just for May but for Britain and the rule of law. Because adherence to the convention is an important part of British foreign policy. Withdrawing from it would be a disaster.
There’s a certain kind of romantic, especially English, patriotism – often expressed by Eurosceptic Conservatives – which insists that we invented human rights, so no foreign court or treaty has anything to teach us about them. According to this view, international human rights treaties are of no use to us. We might as well tear them up if foreign judges show us the slightest disrespect. But the European Convention is useful to us precisely because human rights are so British. The European Convention, like every international human rights treaty, is an instrument of British soft power, projecting the British way internationally.
Looking around the world, it’s obvious that threats to British interests come from undemocratic places. It was a military junta that invaded the Falklands, for example, and the European Convention has been a vital instrument, coupled with EU membership, to bed down the rule of law in Spain, Portugal and Greece, which most of us have forgotten used to be military dictatorships not all that long ago. Central and eastern Europe used to be a hostile region, where intermediate range nuclear missiles were aimed at us. Europe looks very different now, and Poland and the Czech Republic are signatories to the ECHR. Where human rights are respected, prosperity and trade follow. British interests advance wherever human rights extend.
The political influence of human rights is even more vital on countries that are only partly open – like Russia – or where democracy is under pressure, like Turkey. Much of today’s wider world lives under shades of un-freedom where every human rights challenge and every judgment can slowly let in a little more light. Once you see this bigger picture, it’s clear that Britain’s irritation with Strasbourg over Abu Qatada really is just a little local difficulty. What’s at stake is far bigger. As the Attorney General Dominic Grieve said in a speech at Chatham House last week: the fact that the decisions of the institutional infrastructure do not necessarily always favour our approach and can be politically unwelcome and irritating … should not deter us from the path to maintain Britain’s strategic advantage.
In a small way, Abu Qatada’s case has exported human rights to Jordan. Torture is just a little less probable there now, and evidence gained by torture just a little less valuable. That’s a tiny step forwards. But the big win here is that Britain has achieved its tactical objective without undermining its wider strategic interests.
We’re much better served by pragmatism, not petulance, about the international rule of law and human rights. The case of Abu Qatada shows pragmatism can work.