Rwanda, humanist values, and what the ECHR has done for us all

11 April, 2024

As the UK government doubles down on its Rwanda deportation plans – even considering withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to push the policy through – Humanists UK yet again condemns the inhumanity of both policies, as well as pointing out how it endangers people seeking asylum on grounds of their non-religious beliefs because of Rwanda’s blasphemy laws. The defiance of the European Court of Human Rights – a vital part of the UK’s legal system – marks a dramatic turning point in UK immigration policy, and Humanists UK’s critique highlights the urgent ethical and legal issues at stake.

What has the ECHR ever done for us?

The instrumental role of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in upholding our fundamental human rights cannot be overstated. From safeguarding the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression to freedom of religion or belief, the ECHR has been at the forefront of advancing human dignity and liberty – including the UK. It acts as a crucial check on the potentially arbitrary power of governments, reminding nations of their human rights commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The Good Friday Agreement

The incorporation of the ECHR, achieved through the Human Rights Act, was an explicit commitment of the Good Friday agreement, which secured peace in Northern Ireland.

Justice for the victims of Hillsborough

The tragedy at Hillsborough, which resulted in the deaths of 96 people in 1989 during a football match, is a poignant example where these laws played a significant role in the long journey towards justice for the victims’ families. The ECHR provided a legal framework that the families could use strategically to push for a wider investigation that brought the truth to light.

Two decades of positive change

For humanists, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act are cornerstones of societal progress. Despite threatened abandonment by the UK Government, these frameworks have fueled over two decades of positive change: from securing humanist marriages in Northern Ireland to abolishing archaic blasphemy laws in England and Wales. These tools unequivocally protect the rights of all, including the non-religious. They make sure equal respect for humanism in educational curricula, provide much-needed non-religious pastoral care in prisons and hospitals, and guarantee the non-religious a fair voice in governmental discussions often dominated by religious groups.

These are just three easy-to-understand examples, but there’s so much more. If the UK Government is serious about defending human rights and international law, it cannot take steps at home that undermine the most important international human rights mechanism there is.

The Core of the Controversy

The Rwanda Deportation Bill seeks to facilitate the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, asserting the African nation as a ‘safe country.’ However, Humanists UK underscores a glaring contradiction: Rwanda’s retention of blasphemy laws, which poses a direct threat to the freedom of religion or belief. For non-religious people and religious minorities, such laws could result in imprisonment for dissenting views, essentially rendering Rwanda an unsafe place. The Rwanda policy is at odds with the principles of the ECHR, and this is why the UK Government wants to withdraw from it.

A Dehumanising Policy

Humanists UK’s stance is unequivocal: the policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is dehumanising and immoral. The notion of sending them to a country where they could face further persecution, or at the very least, not have their claims fairly processed, would be a grave injustice.

Our opposition extends beyond the specific risks posed by Rwanda’s blasphemy laws to encompass the broader human rights impact of the legislation. It highlights how the bill seeks to disallow some protections under the Human Rights Act for asylum seekers, challenging the very foundation of human rights adherence in the UK. The Home Secretary’s inability to assert the bill’s compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights is a telling indicator of the potential legal and ethical conflicts at play.

Reflecting on Humanist Values

The controversy brings to the forefront the importance of aligning national policies with universal human rights principles. For Humanists UK, the opposition to this bill is a reflection of their broader commitment – advocating for a rational, ethical, and compassionate approach to all other human beings. As humanists, we see the intrinsic value of every person, the right to freedom of thought, expression, religion or belief, and the necessity of a just and humane asylum process.

As the UK navigates these complex legal and moral waters, it serves as a crucial reminder of the need to prioritise human dignity and rights in all aspects of governance. The debate over the Rwanda Deportation Bill is not just about legal technicalities or immigration control; it’s about the kind of society we aspire to be – one that respects human rights and affirms the worth of every individual, regardless of their beliefs or origins.

Humanists UK Chief Executive, Andrew Copson said:

‘Constant nationalist-titillating hints that the government may pull us out of the European Convention on Human Rights are terrible mood music for our country. Few achievements of human civilisation are as inspiring as the creation of international human rights treaties.

‘Imperfect? Yes – it’s the creation of human beings and there’s no such thing as perfection. But there’s no doubt that the Convention, since the UK adopted it over 70 years ago, has had enormously positive practical effects on our rights and freedoms.

It’s also just such a wonderfully aspirational creation. The ultimate step in taking seriously the idea that every human being should be of equal worth and dignity. So many philosophies in our history have expressed this belief; so few ever attempted to realise it in this life. Our unique attempt to do so needs further strengthening, not undermining.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at or phone 020 3675 0959.

Read the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill

Read our initial response to the Rwanda Bill

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 120,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.