Opinion

MPs have backed Rishi Sunak's offensive Rwanda bill. Here's how it threatens our human rights

Rishi Sunak's Supreme Court-busting Rwanda bill is offensive in a number of ways, writes leading human rights expert and Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti

Rwanda deportation flights protest

Protesters gather outside Rwanda House, London: Greg Barradale / The Big Issue

They are wonderful movies but which serious political movement would actually name itself after the “five families” of The Godfather saga? Still, the governing right wing of the Conservative Party was more soap opera than cinema when their much-anticipated rebellion over the so-called “Safety of Rwanda Bill” evaporated. This allowed legislation designed to overturn the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court to pass through the House of Commons on Wednesday night.  

The Rwanda Bill is offensive in a number of ways. 

Firstly, as a matter of fact – facts found not by a “foreign” court, but our own supreme one – Rwanda is simply not safe for refugees. In the 1988 film Working Girl, a secretary warns a friend who is impersonating her boss: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna – it never will.” It’s bad enough when politicians gloss, spin and even misrepresent the truth. With a weird combined fragility and arrogance worthy of Donald Trump, Sunak thinks he can legislate to actually change reality. How will we teach our young people to obey the orders of local magistrates when their prime minister offers two fingers to the highest court in the land?

Secondly, despite lecturing governments all over the world about their obligations, the UK’s Rwanda scheme breaches international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention was agreed in the wake of the Holocaust and ratified in this country by Winston Churchill. Its core principle is that you don’t send vulnerable people to unsafe places. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is the guardian of the convention and restated only a couple of days ago that what the Tories are proposing would put the UK in violation. On the same day, Rishi Sunak described the European Court of Human Rights not as an “international” but a “foreign court”. The bill makes provision for ministers to ignore even interim orders of its judges not to remove people. Orders of this kind currently bar Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation from executing Ukrainian prisoners of war. 

Thirdly, the bill and its philosophy brand asylum seekers – many of whom are in fact genuine refugees – as “illegal migrants”, when as a matter of law, logic and common humanity, a refugee can never be “illegal”. In 1985, Ronald Reagan, a Republican president not known for being “woke”, gave a speech at Bitburg airbase in Germany. He said: “I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam. I am a Laotian, a Cuban and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua. I, too, am a potential victim of totalitarianism.” What does Rishi Sunak say in 2024? “Stop the boats.” 

And even if it wasn’t illegal and immoral, this third dog-whistle immigration bill in as many years, with its expensive financial bill of millions and millions of pounds to Rwanda, simply will not work. The government talks “deterrence”, but the desperate people still come as they will, until we work more; not less internationally to make them, us and the world – safer.

Shami Chakrabarti is a Labour peer, former shadow attorney general and director of Liberty. Her new book, Human Rights: The Case for the Defence, is released 2 May 2024.

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