Theresa May says UK should leave European Convention on Human Rights

British home secretary says ECHR makes the United Kingdom ‘less secure’

Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and not the European Union, home secretary Theresa May has said. Ms May said that, although she was "no fan" of the EU's charter of fundamental rights or the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ), neither was as intrusive as the ECHR.

“The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So, regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave, but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court,” she said.

Britain is a signatory to the ECHR on foot of its membership of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, a 47-member organisation which predates the EU and is quite distinct from it. All EU member states are part of the ECHR and all new member states are required to sign up to it.

Under the Belfast Agreement, Britain agreed to incorporate elements of the ECHR into Northern Ireland law “with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the convention, including powers for the courts to overrule assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency”.


Human rights activists condemned Ms May's call to leave the ECHR and Liberty's policy director, Bella Sankey, accused the home secretary of "mud-slinging and myth-spreading" about the convention.

“Britain founded it, it is the most successful system for the enforcement of human rights in the history of the world, and every day it helps bring freedom, justice and the rule of law to 820 million people,” Ms Sankey said.

Special relationship

Ms May said that, as home secretary, she was persuaded that Britain’s national security was enhanced by its EU membership, citing the European Arrest Warrant among other security and policing co-operation measures. She warned that, although Britain’s “special relationship” with the US would survive


, it might become a little less special.

"The Americans would respond to Brexit by finding a new strategic partner inside the European Union, a partner on matters of trade, diplomacy, security and defence, and our relationship with the United States would inevitably change as a result," she said.

An Ipsos/MORI poll on Wednesday found a plurality of voters believed US president Barack Obama was entitled to voice his opposition to Brexit during his visit to Britain last week. However, 62 per cent said his intervention would be "not at all important" in determining how they will vote.

Immigration focus

Leave campaigners sought to regain the initiative yesterday by shifting the focus on to immigration, which polls show to be their strongest issue. Justice secretary

Michael Gove

, who heads Vote Leave, warned the free movement of EU citizens in a union that could soon accept new member states would put a strain on the

National Health Service


"Public services such as the NHS will face an unquantifiable strain as millions more become EU citizens and have the right to move to the UK. We cannot guarantee the same access people currently enjoy to healthcare and housing if these trends continue. There is a direct and serious threat to our public services, standard of living and ability to maintain social solidarity if we accept continued EU membership," he wrote in the Times.

Former business secretary and EU commissioner Peter Mandelson said that Vote Leave had given up trying to fight the referendum on economic issues and was adopting a "Ukip-lite" strategy focused on immigration. "First the treasury then Barack Obama demolished their flimsy arguments about trade and prosperity and so they have turned instead to . . . immigration."

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times