What is the European Court of Human Rights anyway?

If you’re anything like me, you read this morning that the Conservatives want to ditch the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and thought: “hmm. That doesn’t sound good, but I don’t really know much about it”.

You know the Magic Schoolbus, where everyone goes on a fantastical adventure together and learns lots of stuff?

This is like that, but without the fun bit.

It’s something to do with war crimes and the EU, right?

Actually, no.

People accused of genocide and other war crimes are now brought to heel by the International Criminal Court, which came into being in 2002. Prior to that, the UN would set up temporary tribunals to investigate specific grim scenarios (Yugoslavia and Rwanda both got one).

Similarly named, the International Court of Justice deals with disputes between states (squabbles over territory boundaries, etc)

Both of these are in The Hague—the third largest city in the Netherlands and host to an awful lot of embassies, as well as a bunch of other international organisations like these International Courts.

Amsterdam must feel a little bitter about this.

By contrast the ECHR is in Strasbourg (France), residing in this rather pleasant-looking building:

Photo of the ECHR by Wikipedia user CherryX, click for info.
Photo of the ECHR by Wikipedia user CherryX, click for info.

It also isn’t related to the EU; the ECHR has jurisdiction in all member states of the Council of Europe, which isn’t controlled by or linked to the EU. The EU is more of a shared market between its 28 member states, which grew out of the coal and steel communities of Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands back in 1951. The Council of Europe includes 19 extra states (including Norway, Russia and Turkey), and is aimed at ensuring cooperation between its members and certain minimal standards of behaviour in democracy and human rights.

EU is all about money. The Council is more about law and behaviour. Ish.

So what does the European Court of Human Rights do?

One thing.

It enforces the European Convention on Human Rights within the 47 states of the Council.

The Convention was drafted in 1950 by the founding ten members of the Council (which included the UK), with the horrors of the second world war in everyone’s mind.

The Convention secures:

  • the right to life;
  • the right to a fair hearing;
  • the right to respect for private and family life;
  • freedom of expression;
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and
  • the protection of property.

The Convention prohibits:

  • torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • slavery and forced labour;
  • the death penalty;
  • arbitrary and unlawful detention; and
  • discrimination in the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set out in the Convention.

(Summary taken from the ECHR’s ‘The Court in brief’ guide)

The idea is that the member states of the Council would create their own laws to protect these rights, with the ECHR sitting as the last possible appeal for anyone feeling things haven’t worked out.

With a momentary UK-centric view: our Tory government at the time were deeply involved in defining the Convention, and it closely represents how Britain viewed itself at the time (having ‘won’ a world war, we presumably thought we were worth copying). In 1966, the Labour-led government approved an Act which allowed anyone who felt their human rights had been violated to complain directly to the ECHR. And then we come to 1998…

Cameron has made a big deal about revoking the Labour Act of 1998. What’s that, and what would repealing it achieve?

A big political statement to try and drag Ukip voters back towards the Tories, block out Labour, and appease some of the right-wing red top newspapers. Oh, you meant the Act? I see.

Before 1998 the judges in this country had a problem in that, although they knew of the Convention, there was no mechanism for them to actually enforce it. If you felt that the government or some other public body was infringing a human right (detention without trial, for example), you would have to go straight to the ECHR in Strasbourg. Judges within the UK had no domestic law which they could use to defend human rights.

The 1998 Human Rights Bill (tagline: “bringing rights home”) changed that. From that point, any UK judge could assess a case against the Convention and deliver a judgement. The ECHR still sat as a last resort, but the hope was most people could resolve their differences without having to go abroad. British judges could now resolve British issues.

It didn’t secure any additional rights for anyone. The Convention was already in force (we signed up in 1951). Repealing the Act won’t change that, it would just mean that the British justice system would lose the ability to make judgements on it.

There’s quite a pleasing irony there.

The Tories also said that the ECHR takes no account of the responsibilities that earn people their rights?

Of course not. To define what constitutes a ‘model citizen’ really would be meddling with local affairs. As it has always been, it is up to individual countries to decide what responsibilities their citizens hold. The Convention only defines your rights—it is up to your government to say how you should behave.

But be very careful here. Take this extract from the Tory paper:

We will set out a clearer test in how some of the inalienable rights apply…The Conservatives’ proposals for changing Britain’s human rights laws

It’s hard not to read that as “in some cases, we will decide whether you get your human rights”.

A right is not a privilege. You don’t lose it, no matter how naughty your government thinks you’ve been. Otherwise you end up in the situation where Russia lock up Pussy Riot without trial because they regard supporting gay rights as “naughty”. Or in the UK, where GCHQ will remove your right to privacy if you use words on the naughty list in an email.

Human rights are totally independent of the behaviour of an individual. This will inevitably result in some despicable people being treated more fairly than they deserve.

Such is the price of civilisation.

The corollary is the list of innocent people executed by the US.


PS: I give thanks to the contributors to the CityCyclingEdinburgh forum, which remains the best place for intelligent discussion on the web. In particular, I have liberally stolen the insights of Instography, Morningsider and SRD. Ta much!

PPS: for a much more informed rallying call on behalf of Human Rights, read the transcribed speech by Lord Bingham, of the organisation Liberty. It’s fiery stuff. Thanks to Instography for digging it out.

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