Rishi Sunak on Thursday rejected a demand from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) president that Britain comply with any 11th-hour intervention by judges against his Rwanda deportation plan.
The Prime Minister is pushing through legislation empowering his Government to ignore any “Rule 39” orders from the Strasbourg court over his plan to send some asylum seekers and economic migrants who cross the Channel in “small boats” to Rwanda.
But Siofra O’Leary, the Irish president of the ECHR, told a news conference: “There is a clear legal obligation under the convention for states to comply with Rule 39 measures.”
She stressed that the UK Government had itself argued that Russia should comply with Rule 39 measures in relation to the release of anti-Kremlin politician Alexei Navalny in 2021, and last year over the fate of UK nationals detained by Russian forces in Ukraine.
But Mr Sunak’s official spokesman rejected the comparison.
“It would be bizarre to draw any comparison between Russia’s cruel treatment of Alexei Navalny, who was a victim of an attempted assassination attempt, and our plan to protect and deter vulnerable migrants from making perilous crossings across the Channel,” he told reporters.
Asked whether the Government now accepted Ms O’Leary’s statement as definitive with regard to Rule 39 orders, the spokesman said: “No. I think we’ve set out our case very clearly.
“I think firstly, we are confident our legislation is compliant with our international obligations. We’re clear the Bill and the treaty address the (UK) Supreme Court’s concerns – there should be no need for Strasbourg to intervene to block flights in the way they did in 2022,” he said.
The spokesman added: “We’ve also drafted the Bill to give ministers the power not to comply with those rulings if necessary. And obviously every case is assessed on its individual facts. But the PM has been clear repeatedly that we will not let a foreign court block flights from taking off.”
In June 2022, the ECHR issued an injunction – known as interim measures under Rule 39 – to prevent the first deportations of asylum seekers to the East African nation. It was issued in the evening, leading to it being dubbed a “pyjama injunction”.
In November, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Government’s flagship policy to deal with the “small boats” crisis was unlawful because failings in the Rwandan system meant it would breach a number of international laws and conventions.
The top judges raised particular concerns that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda could be returned to the country from where they had fled even if they risked persecution, or death, there.
The Government responded by putting forward the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill and moving to sign a new Treaty with Rwanda which aimed to address the court’s ruling.
Mr Sunak is caught between Tory centrists, who want no violations of international law, and Rightwingers urging him to pull Britain out of the ECHR. His spokesman reiterated that withdrawal was not on the cards.
In a blow to the PM’s plan, the Lords voted by 214 to 171, majority 43, earlier this week to support a motion to delay the Rwanda treaty.
The treaty was drawn up to underpin the deportation bill which seeks to compel judges to regard Rwanda as a safe haven and to limit judicial appeal avenues.
Peers, though, took the view that too many questions still remain over Rwanda’s system for dealing with asylum claims.
The Lords is expected to amend the Rwanda Bill, which cleared the Commons despite 11 Tory MPs voting against it.
But the Upper Chamber is ultimately not due to block it, as it is a revising chamber, and it is set to become law in mid to late March.
The second reading debate on the Bill is due to be held in the Lords on January 29.