The UK Government should thank the European Court of Human Rights

Frederick Cowell

Image © ex_libris_gul

Following the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) ruling about Abu Qatada’s extradition the anti-Human Rights Act (HRA) brigade have been out in force. In his recent speech about the ECHR David Cameron claimed that the ECHR was in danger of undermining public support for civil liberties. This claim was accurate in large part because the same right wing newspapers that support him have been busy whipping themselves up into a self-righteous rage about the EHRA.

The UK government has received good results from the ECHR recently (not that you would know it) as they ruled that the system of whole life tariffs was not a form of torture. Forty six prisoners in the UK are currently serving whole life sentences and following an application from Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter (who are between them guilty of murdering nearly a dozen murders) the ECHR ruled that it was not “inhuman and degrading” for them to die in jail. The ECHR also approved the UK’s policy of deportation with assurances (assuming reliable guarantees against torture are given) in spite of the policy being strongly criticised by Amnesty International.  Needless to say these cases are nowhere to be found in the anti-HRA pieces from Michael Burleigh in the Daily Mail, Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph and Douglas Murray in the Daily Express. Instead the ECHR is presented as a judicial factory producing ‘outrages’ to be inflicted on the UK, even though the government wins the vast majority of applications to the court. Additionally these critics do not mention that Abu Qatada has not been convicted, let alone faced a criminal trial, in the UK. Whilst he is definitely unpleasant and has been involved with terrorist organisations, the fact that neither the Crown Prosecution Service nor the Director of Public Prosecution has been able to bring him to trial over a ten year period, despite numerous changes in the law, is illustrative of how the problem is much wider than ‘activist judges’ at the ECHR.

Some critics of the EHRA are also, unwittingly, becoming fellow travellers with human rights abusers.  Deporting people back to the country of their origin will, in some circumstances, directly lead to their torture or death. This is never acknowledged by the anti-EHRA brigade, which argues that these individuals have ‘lost their rights’. Take Ed West’s anti-EHRA diatribe where he asserts that, as a refugee, Qatada shouldn’t have rights and that the things he has said and done justify his deportation. The actual conclusion of his argument is that the UK should assist and condone the use of torture in Jordan. The logical conclusion of his argument is that the UK government should be able to declare people ‘rights-less’, something the philosopher Hannah Arendt described as the antithesis of democratic state and a step towards totalitarianism. Francesca Preece, writing in the Daily Mail, has a slight different view. She laments that the ECHR has held that “the rights of one man overrule those of a whole nation” and as such she presumably favours the inverse – i.e. that the rights of the nation should trump those of the individual. This vision of rights is almost identical to statements made by the Chinese delegation at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights who argued that the rights of the state should be considered more important than rights of the individual, a position Jack Donnelly, a leading expert on  international  human rights, has  described as  ‘being roughly equivalent to having no rights at  all.’

To be fair to the government they are aiming to be proactive in their position as rotating chair of the Council of Europe. The court has an astronomic backlog. There are problems with the interpretation of judgements in the UK and more generally about ECHR precedents. Additionally there urgently needs to be some reform surrounding Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which has become a  magnet for crazy litigation. However the misdirections, misrepresentations and near lies about the HRA from some commentators should be ignored.


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