UK’s Suella Braverman: It’s not racist to want to change European rights treaty

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LONDON — It is not racist or “anti-refugee” to want reform of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Britain’s home secretary declared Tuesday.

Speaking in Washington at the American Enterprise Institute, Suella Braverman — seen as a top contender in a future leadership race for the U.K.’s governing Conservatives — argued Western culture could “disappear” without harder borders.

And she called for changes to international asylum rules, as well as reform of the ECHR, to make that happen.

Braverman argued that the international community had “collectively failed to explore any serious reform of the global asylum framework,” in part because of the “fear of being branded a racist or illiberal.”

The U.K. interior minister said “any attempt to reform” the U.N.’s own refugee convention “will see you smeared as anti-refugee,” adding: “Similar epithets are hurled at anyone who suggests reform of the ECHR or its court in Strasbourg.”

“I reject the notion that a country cannot be expected to respect human rights if it is not signed up to an international human rights organization, as if the U.K. doesn’t have a proud history of human rights dating back to Magna Carta, and the ECHR is all that is holding us back from becoming Russia,” she added.

Braverman said seeking changes to the convention — which enshrines human rights and political freedoms in Europe — is not “particularly novel, nor should it be particularly controversial,” pointing to previous Conservative leaders who had argued for exit and adding: “I’m merely advocating for reform.”

Leadership pitch

Conservative politicians in the U.K. have long flirted with leaving the ECHR. Such calls have been amplified after the Strasbourg court which upholds the convention halted the U.K.’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Braverman’s call for reform of the convention is unlikely to harm her chances in a future Tory leadership contest.

Hard-nosed rhetoric on immigration may also fire up the Conservative grassroots. Speaking Tuesday, Braverman warned of threats to Western societies from mass migration, arguing: “If cultural change is too rapid and too big, then what was already there is diluted. Eventually, it will disappear.”

Braverman’s speech — including her pre-briefed argument that fear of discrimination should no longer be sufficient grounds for granting asylum under international rules — has already prompted criticism from human rights groups and NGOs working with refugees.

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UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Ruth Elrich, head of policy and campaigns at campaign group Liberty, said: “Threats to tear up international treaties are extremely dangerous and undermine the vital protections owed to people fleeing persecution — including LGBTQ+ people fearing for their lives.” 

The opposition Labour Party also hit out at the speech, with Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper accusing Braverman of “resorting to grandstanding abroad and looking for anyone else to blame” for problems with the U.K.’s own asylum system, which is facing huge backlogs in processing claims.