Supreme Court backs ‘unbeliever’ asylum right
The Supreme Court today unanimously upheld the right of asylum seekers not to be forced to hold, seem to hold or express a political opinion in order to protect themselves from persecution in their own countries.
The judgment, for the first time, makes the law clear that the right to be an unbeliever or not hold an opinion is as fundamental as the rights given explicit protection in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Lord Dyson, in giving the lead judgment, said: ‘The right to believe or not to believe is a key ingredient of a person’s dignity. The right to dignity is the foundation of all the freedoms protected by the [ECHR]. It is the badge of a truly democratic society that individuals should be free not to hold opinions. They should not be required to hold any particular religious or political beliefs. This is as important as the freedom to hold and - within certain defined limits - to express such beliefs as they do hold.’
Dyson added that ‘under both international and European human rights law, the right to freedom of thought, opinion and expression protects non-believers as well as believers and extends to the freedom not to hold and not to have to express opinions’.
He cited the HJ (Iran) principle, which in a case last year held that it is ‘no answer to an asylum claim by a gay man that he should conceal his sexual identity in order to avoid the persecution that would follow if he did not do so’. The same principle, Dyson said, prevents requiring individuals to lie and feign loyalty to a regime that they do not support.
James Howard, immigration partner at Midlands firm Blakemores, who represented one of the claimants, said: ‘After a lengthy legal challenge, the UK judiciary has recognised the importance of protecting the freedoms of holding or not holding political opinions. This judgment will have widespread application.’
The court was ruling on the case of four politically neutral asylum seekers who were seeking to avoid deportation to Zimbabwe, where they risked becoming victims of an ‘astonishingly brutal wave of violence’ aimed at people who cannot prove their loyalty to the ruling Zanu-PF party.
Dyson said that ‘undisciplined militias’ have been punishing whole communities for a March 2008 poll showing popular support for the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party. Not only opposition party supporters were being targeted, he said, but also ‘anyone who cannot demonstrate positive support for Zanu-PF or alignment with the regime’.