Source: New Yorker

A plane was on the runway when the European Court of Human Rights interceded. Now Britain may leave the court.

On Tuesday evening, a chartered Boeing 767 passenger jet, in a blue-and-white livery, waited in the summer sunshine on the tarmac of Boscombe Down, a testing site for military aircraft, in the South of England. The plane was scheduled to take off at 10:30 P.M. and fly to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, initiating a new arrangement in which the African country will process and house asylum seekers who have sought refuge in the United Kingdom.

Priti Patel, Boris Johnson’s Home Secretary, has described the deal—which almost certainly breaches international law and will cost at least a hundred and twenty million pounds in the next five years—as a “first-class policy,” but, as with anything agreed to by Johnson’s government, it’s usually worth checking the small print. Officials said that there would be a hundred and thirty people on the first flight to Kigali. But, after dozens of successful legal challenges, only seven asylum seekers were taken to the airbase. “I can’t say exactly how many people will be on the flight,” Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, told the media. “But the really important thing is that we establish the principle.” Around 7:30 P.M., the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, ruled that one of the seven, an Iraqi man known as K.N., should be allowed to remain in the U.K. until three weeks after all his legal options were exhausted. K.N. had crossed the English Channel in a boat on May 17th. Three days after he was ordered to be sent to Rwanda, a doctor found that he may have been a victim of torture. The European court ruling prompted a wave of emergency appeals from the other six passengers. At around 10 P.M., half an hour before the plane was due to take off, there was no one left to take to Rwanda. Later, the jet, which had been hired at a reported cost of five hundred thousand pounds, flew back to Spain.

The U.K.-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership was signed in April. It immediately invited comparisons to a similar arrangement that existed, until 2017, between Israel and Rwanda and Uganda. In the three and a half years of that program, which was secret, around four thousand Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers were relocated from Israel to sub-Saharan Africa, where they promptly disappeared. (Between 2009 and 2017, Israel accepted a total of ten refugees from Eritrea and Sudan.) The U.N.H.C.R., the United Nations’ refugee agency, takes a dim view of such initiatives, in which wealthier countries pay poorer ones to take their share of human misery. A seven-page analysis of the proposed British-Rwandan scheme by the U.N., published last week, concluded that it was “incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 [Refugee] Convention” and raised a host of potential problems, including a shortage of interpreters in Rwanda, a risk of discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people, and a lack of capacity to process hundreds, if not thousands, of diverted asylum claims.

“In comparison,” the U.N.H.C.R. found that the U.K.’s “national asylum system is highly developed and well capacitated.” The British Home Office, which oversees immigration and refugee policy, has an annual budget about five times that of the Rwandan state. In 2018, twelve refugees at a camp in Kiziba, in western Rwanda, were shot and killed after protesting against cuts to their food rations. Sixty-six more were detained and some were sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In April, the former British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is regarded as an immigration hawk, criticized the plan on the grounds of “legality, practicality, and efficacy.” One of the parties to the legal challenges against the removal of asylum seekers last week was a union for Home Office workers, which opposes the policy. According to the Independent, when news of the court rulings reached the jet on Tuesday night, some of the security guards on board hugged and congratulated the asylum seekers. Patel said many of those who were given reprieves would be booked onto the next flight to Kigali. “The government will not be deterred from doing the right thing,” she said.

The fact that it is European judges who stopped this harebrained and immoral plan from getting off the ground has played into the hands of Johnson and his ministers. They, and every Brexiteer, know that the European Court of Human Rights is separate from the European Union. The court was set up in 1959 to uphold human-rights laws on the continent after the Second World War. The Council of Europe, which runs the court, was founded in London. But it suits Johnson to conflate foreign judges, activist lawyers, people-smuggling gangs, and so-called economic migrants who risk their lives to cross the English Channel in underinflated dinghies into one great, invisible net that is somehow holding Great Britain back. After the ruling came in from Strasbourg, Johnson aired the possibility of passing legislation to take the U.K. out of the court and the international legal architecture of which it was a founder. (The only other countries to leave the E.C.H.R. have been Russia, earlier this year, and Greece, under a military dictatorship, in 1969.) “Will it be necessary to change some laws to help us as we go along?” Johnson mused. “It may very well be.”

Pulling out of things and shirking responsibility are important parts of Johnson’s standard operating procedure. They also go to the heart of the Brexit project, which is a fantasy of escape. The day before the failed flight to Kigali, the government introduced new legislation to override elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the critical (and duplicitous) piece of the eventual compromise that enabled Johnson to steer Britain out of the E.U., in January, 2020. The details of the protocol, which allows Northern Ireland to remain part of the European single market while under, supposedly, British sovereignty, have never fully come into effect because they are both politically and logistically unworkable. In 2018, May said that “no U.K. Prime Minister would ever agree to it.” But she reckoned without Johnson. The new British law would simply ignore parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol (to do with border checks and E.U. oversight) that Johnson’s government and unionist politicians in Belfast do not like. On June 15th, the European Commission accused the U.K. of breaking international law and launched legal proceedings in response. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” Maroš Šefčovič, the commission’s vice-president, told reporters, in Brussel. “This is illegal.”

To be cast as a rogue nation breaching its international obligations—by the U.N.H.C.R., the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Commission, all in the space of a week—used to pass as something unusual in British politics. But it doesn’t under Johnson and his team. “They’re messy bitches,” consumed by drama and division, a government official told Politico’s Esther Webber. It is exhausting to witness and traumatic to be caught up in. One of the asylum seekers who boarded the plane to Kigali earlier this week was a forty-five-year-old Iranian Kurd. He told the Independent that he spoke to his wife in Iran shortly before he was taken from his cell at a detention center near Gatwick Airport. “It was as if we were saying goodbye for the last time. It was very painful,” he said. He compared the drive to the airbase with being led to his execution.

One of the theories going around British political circles this week was that the deportations to Africa were never likely to get through the courts. The arrangement signed between the U.K. and Rwanda is only a “memorandum of understanding,” which means that it does not hold the force of law. But that wasn’t the point: the point was for Johnson and Patel to be seen to be doing something, to stage a drama, to make a mess. “Everyone can see that it is not serious policy,” Yvette Cooper, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, told the House of Commons, the day after the abortive flight. “It is shameless posturing and [the Home Secretary] knows it. It is not building consensus—it is just pursuing division. It is government by gimmick.” A few hours later, Johnson’s independent ethics adviser, a former diplomat and private secretary to the Queen named Lord Geidt, resigned. Johnson’s previous ethics adviser also left the job early, in 2020. Geidt didn’t resign because of the Rwanda farce. It was the accumulation of falsehoods and evasions—chiefly to do with the behavior of Johnson and his staff during the pandemic, what’s known as the Partygate affair—that he proved powerless to prevent in his fourteen months in the job. According to Geidt’s resignation letter, the final straw was being asked his advice earlier this week about Britain’s options when it comes to steel tariffs—some new international standoff, presumably, that has yet to take form. “I can have no part in this,” Geidt wrote, standing down with immediate effect. There are no ethics to advise. There is nothing to defend.