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Monday, February 14, 2011

A united front against human rights

A united front against human rights

Author: Cillian Donnelly
13 February 2011 - Issue : 922

At least one world leader has been in defiant mood lately, keen to establish his credentials as the final arbiter of national law and governance. “I'm the Prime Minister” David Cameron helpfully reminded us on 10 February after a vote by MPs in London overwhelmingly decided to defy a European Court of Human Rights ruling which states that prisoners should not be allowed to vote. Cameron's government could now face a protracted battle with the Strasbourg court over a possible compromise, or not; the buck stops with the PM.

The vote to keep the ban on prisoners voting was passed by 234 to 22. When asked to comment, Cameron was adamant that the current UK law should not be changed: “In my view, prisoners should not get the vote, and that's that. But we are going to have to sort this out one way or the other”. Strong words from the posh pugilist, though the last bit hints at compromise. Cameron is going on a law and order crusade right now, and the last thing he needs is to be forced to concede votes to prisoners. We are already been told of vast compensation claims; the tabloid scream would be deafening.

As a signatory to the Convention on Human Rights, the UK cannot so easily duck out of its commitments, leading to what has been dubbed a 'pick and mix' approach to international human rights law. They could pull out of the Convention altogether, following in the grand tradition of the Greek Generals, or force a suspension from the Council of Europe, which would put the UK in the same bracket as Belarus. At least one British newspaper, the Daily Mail, has already, as with certain Conservative backbenchers, turned this into a fight against the European Institutions (sic), but it remains an internal fight. The right wants control of the Tory Party again.

David Cameron has opted to play tough with Europe, that old bugbear of the Tory right, but not with the satisfactory results that his Eurosceptic critics demand. Crime is a populist policy, coupled with Europe it is Middle England's worst nightmare. Failure to reassure on this issue is a sure-fire vote loser. Both the Conservatives and Labour know this; the shadow cabinet were obliged to vote for keeping the ban, while former Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, co-tabled the motion with senior Conservative David Davis. But a Tory leadership keen to accommodate its prickly old guard and avoid loses to the minority parties on the right, and a Labour party desperately fighting a rearguard action, should not coalesce to deny human rights.

Prior to assuming power in 1997, Tony Blair, made the slippery, and much ridiculed, claim that Labour would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. It was a shameless piece of doublespeak, an appeal to centre and liberal alike; but now it appears something that Labour might want to think about once more. One of the causes of crime that Blair said he wanted to eradicate undoubtedly stems from a feeling of resentment, of disrespect or disengagement from society. By denying prisoners the vote, an act linked to civic duty, they are effectively been denied the chance to interact with the political and civil process; in turn, candidates do not feel the need to canvass to them, to engage or solicit their opinions. They are not been prepared for rehabilitation, which becomes a dirty word, a taboo. Both the Conservatives and labour are complicit in perpetuating this state of affairs.

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has hinted that the UK cannot back out of the Convention so readily, which means that a compromise with Strasbourg is likely. But with Cameron desperately fighting his own battles and keen to appease all sides (he must realise the impracticalities of breaking the Convention), how strong will the UK's commitment to its international obligations remain, and what sort of signal will this send to other nations?

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