The inversion of accountability

Written by Frances Webber

While the government increasingly treats human rights as optional and legal accountability for its actions as undesirable, it demands more and more accountability from citizens in the policing of migrants and ‘extremists’. 

What does democratic accountability entail? At a minimum, we expect our government to comply with fundamental human rights norms and with the rule of law, to take responsibility for its actions and offer redress to those adversely affected, through the courts. But this government is changing the meaning of accountability. It is increasingly treating compliance with international legal norms and human rights as optional. It is systematically attacking the mechanisms of legal accountability, through legal aid cuts, removal of appeals, hiking court fees and even by vilifying human rights lawyers. While seeking to loosen, dilute or remove mechanisms of redress for violations, it is demanding more and more accountability from citizens – not just in terms of our own actions being policed more intensively, but also forcing us to become involved in the policing and monitoring of others.

Human rights norms optional

In October 2015, the ministerial code was amended to remove references to ministers’ obligations to comply with international law when carrying out their duties. This quiet change, which the government insists will make no difference in practice, seems to come from the same approach to government which underlay the justice ministry’s 2014 proposal to make the European Convention on Human Rights ‘advisory only’: the idea that government compliance with international human rights norms it has signed up to is optional.

So we should not be surprised at the announcement on 7 March that UK troops are to help intercept and return refugees trying to reach Europe from Turkey – actions denounced a few years ago by the EU Commission and by the European Court of Human Rights as ‘collective expulsions’ violating EU and international human rights law. The week before, home secretary Theresa May announced a ‘compassion quota’ which would limit numbers of refugees accepted outside official resettlement programmes and possibly deny access to refugee determination procedures to overstaying students and foreign national offenders – measures which would breach the Refugee Convention. It appears that the government, having realised that repealing human rights laws would be too fraught with political and legal difficulties, has decided simply to ignore them when they interfere with policy objectives. Whether in the field of foreign policy, arms sales, business operations abroad or refugee reception, the government has sought to avoid international legal obligations, or dilute them by re-interpretation.

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