By James O'Malley

It appears that the European Union isn't the only international institution that Theresa May wants to take a wrecking ball to – as, according to The Telegraph, she is also planning to fight the 2020 election over Britain's participation in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The proposal doesn't appear to be a particularly new one: throughout his premiership, David Cameron would periodically reheat proposals for a British Bill of Rights to replace the ECHR. It appears that May has found the same proposals at the back of the freezer. The plan is apparently to 'lift and shift' the core values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which underpin the court, into British law. And the upshot is that without us participating in the court, it'll be British judges making the final judgements rather than dastardly European bogeymen the prime minister's party has spent decades vilifying.

What material impact this will have on us domestically remains to be seen: presumably May is hoping that it'll mean we can let the council rifle through the bins of benefit claimants, round-up immigrants more easily or that it will at least make opposition to the massively draconian Investigatory Powers Act harder. But zoom out from Britain's parochial concerns for a moment and you can see why dumping the ECHR is completely insane.

Soft Power and Legitimacy

Though easily conflated with the EU's European Court of Justice, the ECHR is completely separate to the EU. It has 47 member states, through of the Council of Europe. It counts among its members not just the other 27 members of the EU but also the likes of Serbia, Macedonia, and Georgia. Perhaps most crucially, Russia and Turkey are both members of the court too.

To take these latter two countries as examples, both are particular causes of concern for Europe and the rest of the world. Both have leaders who are not as interested in democracy, rule of law and human rights as we might like. I've written before about how Brexit dims Europe's collective soft power to influence these nations. Britain pulling out of the ECHR would be similarly fatal to an institution designed to rein in Erdogan, Putin and any other wannabe authoritarians.

Now, obviously it isn't as though ECHR rulings directly lead to Putin picking up the phone and telling his thugs to cool it, but if the ECHR is a credible institution, violating the court's rulings means losing credibility. And this means that other actors – such as Russian citizens or other world leaders – will be less inclined to trust or support him.

This credibility – what scholars sometimes call 'legitimacy' or good standing – is hard to exactly quantify, but perceptions of it really do matter in an otherwise anarchic international system.

Lessons from History

I admit this argument is relatively abstract. Nods towards human rights don't matter when someone like Putin is in charge, right? Why should we care about meaningless rulings that will probably be ignored?

We've actually been here before. In 1975, in the midst of the Cold War, 35 nations – both west and east – gathered in Finland and eventually agreed to what became known as the Helsinki Accords. At the time the agreement drew criticism, as it was where the west formally acknowledged Soviet territorial gains during WWII – but it was what the USSR conceded that was arguably more important.

For the first time, the Soviet bloc recognised the concept of human rights. In the published declaration at the end, point seven read that participants will "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief".

While this may not be as concrete as a patch of land, this declaration – and the subsequent monitoring and accountability it enabled – planted a seed that helped ferment eastern bloc civil society opposition to Soviet rule, and contributed to the causes of the 1989 revolutions.

As early as 1993 this was already being recognised. Writing in Beyond The Wall, a book published by the Brookings Institution, Elizabeth Pond argued that the accords were "instrumental in legitimising dissidence, foreign criticism of internal repression and increasing distance between Soviet clients and Moscow… This, in turn, emboldened more citizens to discover and speak their mind". She even claimed that former East German chancellor Erich Honecker himself felt pressured by the accords in order to make his country more "acceptable".

Essentially then, the argument is that this sort of criticism adds up and makes a difference. We might not feel the difference immediately – but having Russia and Turkey locked into such institutions means that constant pressure can be subtly applied. At the moment, they're locked into the ECHR – and it would hurt their international credibility if they were to leave.

So why would we want to destroy an institution that gives us leverage like this? The ECHR has its own credibility because of its universality: literally everyone else in Europe is a member. That's why Russia and Turkey still participate in a body that forces them to talk about human rights. If we quit, it loses that. And worse still, it would set a precedent. If – at some point in the future – Russia were to quit the body and say it was setting up an internal "Russian Bill of Rights" instead, Britain and other ECHR members would have less credibility when denouncing such a move. Putin would be able to look back at us, pull a face and shrug.

This is why Britain pulling out would be so devastating. Institutions like the ECHR tame a wild international system, and they're much harder to create than they are to destroy. So let's not break the few we have.

James O'Malley is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter here.

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