THIS is going to be a tough year for human rights across the world. Let’s start with some of the challenges closer to home. Few of us probably even noticed it over the festive period but news broke that Prime Minister Theresa May plans to fight the 2020 election by campaigning for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Not content with taking a bulldozer to the European Union, Mrs May seems hell-bent on putting the kibosh on an agreement that is crucial to protecting our national and international commitment to human rights.

Three years might seem a long way away but any fight to head off this damaging course of action needs to start now.

Let’s just remind ourselves of what Mrs May has in mind and why stopping her matters. In short she aims to transfer the rights from the ECHR into British law, to be applied by the Supreme Court.

On the face of it her proposal isn’t a particularly new one. Throughout his premiership, David Cameron periodically pushed proposals for a British bill of rights to replace the ECHR.

Unlike Mr Cameron’s proposals, however, where the European Court would have retained a role in hearing appeals, Ms May is looking to break off all relations with the court.

The end result of this would be that, without Britain's participation in the ECHR, it would be British judges making the final judgements rather than those European troublemakers the Prime Minister’s party has spent decades vilifying.

Mrs May has had a bee in her bonnet about leaving the ECHR ever since she experienced difficulties during her time as Home Secretary deporting the radical cleric Abu Qatada.

“The (convention) can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals, and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights,” Mrs May was quoted as saying in an address in April last year.

Many critics, among them Lord Falconer, former justice secretary and shadow Lord Chancellor, have said she is wrong on every point.

They highlight, also, the fact that the likes of the Good Friday Agreement, a key aspect of the Northern Ireland peace process, depends on the ECHR and withdrawing from the convention could put that at risk.

The ECHR has other more widespread positive aspects too, of course, in that it protects freedoms such as the prohibition of torture and slavery, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression.

Though easily confused with the EU's European Court of Justice, the ECHR was set up to safeguard basic human rights across the continent after the Second World War, and is quite separate from European Union membership.

The UK itself was instrumental in drafting the convention and today it has almost 50 signatories. It counts among its members not just the other 27 members of the EU but also the likes of Serbia, Macedonia and Georgia. Crucially, too, Russia and Turkey are both members of the court.

These are important factors in the world in which we live.

Having countries such as Russia and Turkey locked into institutions like the ECHR means that other members, including the UK, can bring constant but subtle pressure and leverage to bear over human rights violations.

What kind of message would Britain’s abandonment of the ECHR send out? Not only would it give every wannabe despot even more of an excuse for abandoning any commitment to human rights, but each could point to Britain and say look how they do it there.

Each of them when confronted with a human rights abuse would have a new defence. They would almost certainly argue that human rights – just as in the UK under Mrs May’s proposals – would have to be tailored to the particular circumstances of that country.

Britain, by any standards, has in the past largely been a bulwark in the support of human rights.

Now, in this time of populist politics, overt racism and intolerance, the rule of law and a commitment to basic human rights becomes all the more important.

With the world looking on are we seriously prepared to turn our backs on the principles we have long championed?

Not only is this the worst possible news for our own citizens but it also seriously weakens our voice on the global diplomatic stage and with other European nations.

It will undermine, too, the protection of our citizens abroad and will weaken the chain of solidarity necessary for the protection of human rights everywhere.

By their very definition, human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent.

Yes, this sometimes means that callous or undesirable people can take advantage of human rights legislation and it will on occasion be open to exploitation by a few.

In many ways it is similar to the benefits systems. If we give benefits to people, there will be a level of abuse. This is the price we must pay for a decent society.

Likewise the same applies to human rights legislation. A degree of exploitation is, however, a price worth paying. The alternative is far worse.

In the vast majority of cases human rights legislation protects “normal” people.

As we confront the political challenges that lie ahead in 2017, home and away, the time has come to defend and reclaim human rights and the shared ideals and values they represent.

Legal treaties are one thing but so too is the need to move beyond legislation and make human rights a meaningful part of people’s everyday lives.

Professor Lorna McGregor, a commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, hit the nail on the head recently when she said: “Too often human rights are presented in a narrow way which risks overlooking their fundamental importance to us all. Although they do not seem it at first glance, so many stories in the media are actually about how human rights law has protected us or where the government has failed to meet its obligations.”

By way of examples Ms McGregor cited how the duty to investigate deaths and other forms of ill treatment led to the Hillsborough football disaster inquests and investigations into child abuse in Rotherham by Asian men.

Human rights clearly touches every aspect of all our lives, be it the right to education, adequate food, clothing and housing, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to health, the right to life, and the right to work and social security.

All matter to every one of us, and every one of us must step up to the plate in their defence.

Mrs May’s efforts to remove Britain from the ECHR will only make that defence all the more difficult. For that reason alone her moves must be resisted.