Apr 24 2012
Human rights and the Right:
On Friday the coalition government presented its proposals to reform the European Court of Human Rights. Unsurprisingly, there is little that is progressive about the government’s approach. The UK currently holds the Presidency of the Council of Europe and has used the summit last week in the liberal city of Brighton to present its very conservative proposals for reform. It is perhaps no surprise, given the reticence of the ConDem government to uphold unpopular rulings from the Court and its reluctance to approve European Union accession to the Convention.
The European Court of Human Rights is often confused with the European Union Court of Justice (it does not help that it also is housed in Strasbourg). In fact the European Court of Human Rights is a separate institution and much older than the European Union (EU). The Court of Human Rights brings together 47 European countries, and rules on cases brought before it on suspected violations of the European Charter of Human Rights (ECHR) The ECHR was drafted by the newly-formed Council of Europe (the Council of Europe grew out of an idea promoted by the British Conservative Prime Minister, Winston Churchill) in the 1950s, emerging from the ashes of the Second World War as a bastion for peace and human rights across the continent.
The ECHR sets out the rights of individuals in Europe. Anyone who believes their rights have not been upheld can challenge their abuse in a domestic court and, if needed, can take their country to the European Court of Human Rights for failure to uphold the principles of the ECHR. These are not abstract hypothetical rights. Rulings from the Court have overturned serious breeches of human rights in the UK – without the 1982 case Dudgeon v United Kingdom (UK), for example, homosexuality could still be illegal in some parts of Britain.
The current, conservative, UK proposals, which have been presented along with France, attempt to reduce the backlog of cases which are waiting to be heard in the Court. This is fair enough – the number of cases in the queue is very high and some procedural reform is necessary to reduce the administrative burden. However, screening the cases, as the government would like, to throw out inadmissible cases before they reach the Court is a risky move and a real threat to access to justice. Just five countries, led by Russia and Turkey, account for 60% of cases before the ECHR, where legal redress at the European level can be crucial.
The UK Con/Dem coalition is also keen to give signatory states a “margin of appreciation” and allow them greater freedom to interpret Court rulings. Changing the rules of the game when it comes to human rights and justice is a dangerous move. The ECHR safeguards the rights of every human in Europe. Divorced from media hype, electoral fever and party politics the judges in the European Court of Human Rights assess each case on its merit. Curtailing human rights is most often a slippery slope: removing a few civil liberties, overlooking the threat of torture abroad, setting precedents for the treatment of prisoners and criminals and terrorists against a climate of fear or anger where human rights are ‘balanced’ against national security.
47 European countries including the UK as a founding member, have signed up to the ECHR because they recognised the Charter as a fair and decent pledge to the people of Europe. They also know the difficulty – electorally, publically and personally – of applying our high human rights standards to those who do not respect the rule of law and the right to life in modern Europe and actively seek to undermine it.
But electoral expediency and prejudice are no basis for the reform of human rights. The UK pledged its commitment to the ECHR and the Court in the 1950s and in doing so elevated our commitment to universal human rights above party politics, media courtship and populism. This is no time to start sliding backwards.