People who defend the European Union (EU) often argue that it protects human rights and that these cannot be taken away, under any circumstance.
But European states violate these rights all the time. Muslims are witch hunted inside the borders of EU states and these same states close their borders to people fleeing from the West’s wars in the Middle East.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove has threatened to repeal the Human Rights Act of 1998 which made the principles set out in the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Some argue that if this happened then leaving the EU would leave us with no rights at all.
But the EU and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) are separate organisations. So leaving the EU would have little effect on the ability to take cases to the ECHR. Norway is not a part of the EU, but people living there can still take cases to the ECHR.
Neither would leaving the EU have any effect on people from Britain's access to the European Convention on Human Rights. This is separate from the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.
Michael Gove would find it difficult to get rid of the Human Rights Act. In 2013 a High Court Judge claimed that even if the Human Rights Act were to be repealed the Charter would still remain as part of British law.
And on the Remain side of the debate Theresa May said last month that “It isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.”
Both sides of the mainstream debate are led by people who want to get rid of rights for ordinary people. And it’s not the case that people have equal access to these rights at the moment.
Capitalism takes the results of collective struggle and frames them as individual rights, then puts up barriers making it difficult for ordinary people to access them.
For instance, workers fighting discrimination or unfair dismissal may have to go to an employment tribunal which can cost up to £1,200.
In most immigration cases people cannot claim legal aid, which the Tories wanted to cut by £220 million in 2013. The changes would have meant that thousands of people would not have had access to legal representation. A campaign by lawyers and their supporters pushed the Tories back.
The EU did nothing to defend our right to a fair trial then. And it does not call on its member states to ensure them for migrants and refugees or others.
The refugee crisis has shown that human rights under capitalism are not universal and can be taken away if they do not serve the interests of the ruling class.
But last month the Tories blocked an amendment to their poisonous Immigration Bill that would have allowed 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees into Britain.
The reality is that working class people would have few protections if we had not fought for them. Socialists must defend these rights but we mustn’t forget how they were won. Nor should we rely on capitalist institutions to protect us from the worst excesses of a rotten system.