Why the ECHR Matters
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th June, 2013
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated Court in Strasbourg is a favourite Aunt Sally of right-wing Conservative MPs and Britain’s tabloid Press (which these days, alas, includes the broadsheet Daily Telegraph), but unjustly so. The Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as it is more formally known, has since its drafting in 1950 and later adoption by the Council or Europe done a huge amount of useful work in promoting the Rule of Law throughout Europe (including Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey; only the dictatorship of Belarus is outside the fold), as well as providing individuals who feel their rights have been violated by their own State to seek redress. Despite the fact that the Court is a separate institution from the European Union it still gets tarred with the Brussels brush by virulent Europhobes, who seem to believe that the United Kingdom has completely abandoned its national sovereignty to foreigners — not that many of these anti-Europeans seem particularly worried about the fact that US influence is far more marked in various aspects of British public and foreign policy, not to mention our culture. Two things have been like juicy bones to these frothing xenophobic hounds. First, the Court’s ruling that it was wrong for the UK to deprive all prisoners of their rights to vote, no matter how short their sentence or trivial their offence. Theresa May could easily have got round that issue by accepting that prisoners with a sentence of less than six months should still retain their vote, but others not — a compromise that would have satisfied Strasbourg. The other even more famous ECHR “outrage”, of course, relates to the prolonged delay in the expulsion of the vile Islamist extremist Abu Qatada because there has not been up till now a credible assurance from his home country, Jordan, that evidence that might be used against him in any trial in Amman would not have been obtained by torture. Now I, like almost everyone in this country, long to see the back of Abu Qatada, who has milked the system here, including claiming benefits. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by saying, oh well, as he is so wicked it does not matter if witnesses against him have been tortured. When we accept that, then we surrender our commitment to human rights (as the last Labour government alas did, with respect to extraordinary rendition). Moreover, it is utter nonsense for Theresa May to float the idea — seized on by relish by some of her backbench MPs and the right-wing Press — that Britain could temporarily withdraw from ECHR so it can expel Abu Qatada, then reapply once he is out of the way. Anyone who knows anything about International Law and diplomacy knows that is shamelessly playing to the gallery while undermining the very foundations of our credibility as a nation. What is really lacking, I believe, is a concerted campaign in Britain to champion what the ECHR actually achieves, in which politicians, NGOs and the enlightened media should participate. It is not just the future of our involvement with the Strasbourg Court that is at stake but our values as well.