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Friday, February 04, 2011

Prisoner voting: Convicts are human beings, with human rights

Prisoner voting: Convicts are human beings, with human rights

Most other member states of the Council of Europe already allow prisoners to vote – and this has caused no real problems

Thomas Hammarberg, Guardian, Friday 4 February 2011 10.01 GMT

More than 2500 complaints have been submitted by prisoners deprived of their right to vote. Photograph: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Five years ago the European court of human rights ruled in a case against the UK that prisoners should have the right to vote in elections. The Labour government never implemented this judgment.

There is therefore still a blanket ban on voting in national and European elections for convicted prisoners in the UK. The parliamentary election last May was conducted on the basis of legislation which is in conflict with the first protocol to the European convention on human rights.

This issue was dealt with again by the Strasbourg court last November. More than 2,500 complaints had been submitted by prisoners deprived of their right to vote. The court selected one of them for a "pilot judgment" and found the UK to be in breach of the convention once again.

The court demanded that the UK introduce changes to the law which would correct this injustice. When this ruling shortly becomes final, the authorities will have six months to enact the remedial measures requested.

The strong position taken by the court on this issue has been the subject of some controversy in Britain. There have been emotional reactions against the very idea that criminals, including those who have committed serious offences, should be able to have any influence in politics. Moreover, I understand that there have been reactions against the fact that a European institution could have such a decisive voice in this matter. Both these objections require a serious response.

It may be sobering to remind ourselves that democracy was once established through the idea of universal suffrage. Previous generations accepted the principle that not only men, nobles, and those who owned property or paid taxes should have the right to vote, but everyone – irrespective of their status in society. We may now feel that some of these right-holders do not deserve this possibility, but to exclude them is to undermine a crucial dimension of the very concept of democracy – and human rights.

Therefore, it is only logical that international human rights law has established that the right to vote in elections should be granted to all citizens above a certain age. The 1948 universal declaration of human rights stated that everyone has the right to take part in the government of his or her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. It further stipulated that the will of the people shall be expressed in elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.

To receive judgments on such an issue from the court in Strasbourg may be felt as a humiliation. However, the court is not an alien institution; the UK is an integral partner to its proceedings and has ratified the convention which serves as a basis for all court decisions. The UK is of course one of the founding members of the Council of Europe.

In my work as human rights commissioner I have repeatedly seen the enormous value of the court's rulings in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. It is true that sometimes governments appear to be irritated by requests to take further steps to protect human rights. But most often they do comply – and the situation is improved.

Convicts are human beings, with human rights. I hope the British authorities will respect the court ruling on voting rights for prisoners. They could do that knowing that most other member states of the Council of Europe already allow prisoners to vote – and this has caused no real problems and is not even an issue in these countries.

With the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland drawing near, it is high time that the UK made good on its obligations.

Thomas Hammarberg is Europe's commissioner for human rights


Philip said...

Sorry, it is very simple, you go to prison and you lose your vote, once you have paid yoyr penalty you regain your vote, thats it.

With regard to the European Court of Human Right, that is an organisation which Tony Blair committed us to and the sooner we get out the better.

Parliament will vote solidly against the proposal to give the vote to prisoners and then probably pass a law that forbids prisoners from claiming compensation for anything, there you have it, job done.

I think you must realize, the game is up for the sleazy prison van chasing Human Rights lawyers and for the prisoner gravy train.

In the meantime
Best regards

mrsmarkleham said...

Tony Blair? No, it was Winston Churchill's idea, the European Court of Human Rights, and we were committed to it in 1959, when Tony Blair was 6.