Chris Grayling has a pretty toxic record of having people's rights curtailed. Photo: Getty
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The takeover of the Tory party by those opposed to human rights is complete

Walking away from Strasbourg and abolishing the Human Rights Act would merely serve as a convenient smokescreen for an out-of-touch government playing dog-whistle politics.

Announced last week, the Conservative party’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and almost certainly leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) represent the latest attack on the post-1945 settlement that all main parties have remained signed up to until now.

It is as significant as their undermining of legal aid, the welfare state and the NHS, though for the first time it does not have the support of their Lib Dem coalition partners.

An angry mix of europhobia and the threat of Ukip has brought us to a point where a mainstream party of government is openly suggesting that the UK join Belarus as the only European country willing to walk away from the universal principle of human rights.

The 1998 Act enshrined in UK law our commitment to the ECHR. Although it was the Labour party that introduced the HRA, it did so with cross-party – including Conservative party – support under the banner of ‘bringing rights home’.  The same slogan is now being used to justify repeal of the Act, a hint at the incoherence of the policy.

Practitioners have already indicated that refusing to take account of European Court judgments may have a snowball effect which will make the UK’s position incompatible with membership of the European Union or the Council of Europe – of course a large number of Tory MPs would welcome this also – not to mention throwing into doubt both the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution settlement for Scotland.

Historically, there is support for human rights within the Tory party. Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe were enthusiastic supporters of the Convention which Britain took a leading role in drafting and was the first country to join. Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan has recently expressed his fears that “were Churchill to be in the Tory cabinet today, Cameron would have sacked him.”

In the aftermath of the proposals former cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve have powerfully made the case for the HRA, rebutting Grayling’s "puerile" "howlers".  The silence of the new Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, by contrast, shows how the takeover of the Tory party by those opposed to human rights is complete. There can be no doubt that the price for speaking up for the rule of law in the Tory Party now is the sack.

It is regrettable that the libertarian wing of their party, ably represented by David Davis, who spoke out strongly against the revival of the Snoopers’ Charter this week, is also silent on this issue. Their irrational hatred of Europe trumping their rational support of the citizen against the state.

And this is the crucial point. The HRA exists to support the citizen against the state. Not only to protect him or her from its excesses and arbitrary exercise of power but to give positive duties to governments to uphold fundamental rights of citizens.

Seen from this perspective, the jettisoning of the Act and convention fit very well with Grayling’s record as Lord Chancellor. Almost every policy and legislative initiative has seen him rebalancing the law away from the individual and toward the state or other powerful vested interests like big corporations. Slashing legal aid, curtailing judicial review, making freedom of information requests more difficult, and introducing policies that have seen an 80 per cent fall in employment tribunals add up to a pretty toxic list of people’s rights curtailed.

The reality is that these back-of-the-envelope plans will not even achieve what the Conservatives truly desire or claim. Walking away from Strasbourg and abolishing the HRA would merely serve as a convenient smokescreen for an out of touch government playing dog-whistle politics. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives find themselves turning inwards, ignoring international treaties and pandering to its base. This is not the United Kingdom that we know and love. We should be leading the way in the world, proud of our legacy, not falling back.

Andy Slaughter is Labour MP for Hammersmith and a shadow justice minister

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear