UK Government’s Proposed Laws Will Embolden Autocrats

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Prince Charles reads the Queen’s speech next to her crown during the State Opening of Parliament, at the Palace of Westminster in London, May 10, 2022. 
© 2022 Arthur Edwards/Pool Photo via AP

In this week’s Queen’s Speech, the British government heralded itself as playing a “leading role in defending democracy and freedom across the world.” Its legislative proposals for the year ahead, some of which would not look out of place in an autocrat’s playbook, risk doing the exact opposite. Several proposals pose a grave danger not only to the human rights of people in the UK, but also to British democratic institutions that protect them, and the maintenance of international human rights standards.

The government plans to rip up the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, undermining the integrity of the human rights system across the UK and Europe. Alongside stripping away rights protections domestically, the proposed reforms will hamper the UK’s ability to effectively advocate for human rights overseas. With authoritarianism on the rise and as the international community is trying to stand up to abuses committed at the hands of autocrats, the UK is sending the message that international standards can be set aside.

While the UK government fights efforts globally to stifle opposition voices and close democratic space, there is more than a whiff of irony in this week’s proposals. The government plans, through its Public Order Bill, to further clamp down on the right to protest, including by introducing new criminal offenses. These laws could have prevented protests that led to some of the most significant democratic and human rights achievements in the UK, including universal suffrage.

The government is also proposing to introduce a Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Bill with the vague aim of stopping public bodies from taking a different approach to the UK government’s foreign policy on sanctions, boycotts, and divestment. The proposals face widespread opposition from civil society organizations, and risk interfering with the responsibilities of public authorities to conduct effective human rights due diligence and ensure they aren’t supporting companies that cause or contribute to human rights harms.

These bills follow a recent string of laws that already undermine the rights of the most vulnerable, encourage voter disenfranchisement, limit judicial oversight, and place new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.

At a time when respect for international norms is vital, the UK is playing right into the hands of autocrats and dictators. This poses a grave threat to the rights of people in the UK and to UK efforts to promote democracy and human rights globally.

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