UK could ditch European rights pact after Rwanda plan blocked

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Britain's government Wednesday refused to rule out abandoning a European human rights pact after a judge dramatically blocked its plan to fly asylum-seekers to Rwanda, sparking fury among Conservatives.

The last-gasp intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) forced the government to postpone the first flight on Tuesday night, after the number of claimants aboard had already been whittled down by domestic legal challenges.

Interior minister Priti Patel, however, told parliament the government "will not be deterred from doing the right thing".

She attacked the "usual suspects" among lawyers' firms and rights groups for defying the "will of the British people", as well as "evil" gangs behind a flourishing cross-Channel trade in migrants.

"We will not be put off by the inevitable legal, last-minute challenges, nor we will allow mobs to block removals," Patel added, after repeated public protests against deportations.

The ECHR is unrelated to the European Union, which Britain left in January 2020.

But Tory backbenchers, fresh from rebelling in large numbers against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's leadership, said the ruling infringed on British sovereignty.

"Yes, let's withdraw from European Court of Human Rights and stop their meddling in British law," MP Andrea Jenkyns tweeted, echoing others in the party and banner headlines in right-wing newspapers.

- 'Whatever it takes' -

The European convention was enshrined in UK law in 1998 by the Labour government of Tony Blair. It notably underpins the Good Friday Agreement of the same year, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of bloodshed.

The prime minister's spokesman said "we keep all options on the table" to facilitate the deportation plan.

"We will do whatever it takes to deliver this new approach, including to explore any and all further legal reforms, which may be necessary," he told reporters.

But the spokesman added: "We would do nothing that would in any way jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement."

Johnson's government is already in a bust-up with the EU over post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland, and critics allege it is picking a separate fight over asylum-seekers to distract from economic trouble and political scandals.

The convention has been used frequently by human rights lawyers to frustrate Johnson and Patel's hardline policy against illegal migrants.

Last month, in the "Queen's Speech" opening a new session of parliament, the government committed to replacing the 1998 act with a new bill of rights.

- Johnson's grandfather -

Johnson's own maternal grandfather, James Fawcett, helped to write the European convention and was the commission's president for a decade in the years after World War II.

Anneke Campbell, a cousin to Johnson's late mother, wrote last week that Fawcett would have been "appalled" at the government's actions.

She noted that Johnson had previously described human rights lawyers working to halt deportations as "lefty activists".

"Would you have called your grandfather a lefty human rights activist to his face? Where did you pick up this kind of contempt?" Campbell wrote in the Byline Times newspaper.

Under the UK's agreement with Rwanda, all migrants arriving illegally in Britain are liable to be sent to the East African nation thousands of miles away for processing and settlement.

More than 10,000 migrants have crossed the Channel from northern France since the start of the year.

On Tuesday, 444 people were detected in 11 small boats on the perilous waters, the Ministry of Defence said.

Good weather saw more intercepted on Wednesday.

The ECHR, ruling in favour of an Iraqi claimant, said his expulsion should wait until London's High Court has taken a final decision on the policy's legality at a hearing next month.

Various legal challenges had highlighted concern over human rights in Rwanda. But the government in Kigali insists it is a safe country.

"We are not deterred by these developments. Rwanda remains fully committed to making this partnership work," government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told AFP.

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