Site Meter

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Leading article: Britain should stick to the human rights gold standard

Leading article: Britain should stick to the human rights gold standard

The European Court of Human Rights is not some dastardly foreign imposition. Britain helped to make it

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Conservative side of the Coalition is, once again, talking up the idea of a British Bill of Rights. Last month the Prime Minister said action in this area was "imminent". And as we report today, a Coalition commission on the subject is likely to be announced soon.

The resurrection of the concept of a British rights bill is a response to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that Britain must end its blanket ban on prisoners from voting and the more recent ruling from the Supreme Court that paedophiles should have an opportunity to appeal against their inclusion on the sex offenders register.

The angry popular reaction to these rulings has been depressing; the collective failure of our political class (with a few honourable exceptions) to support them doubly so. Both judgements are examples of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protecting unpopular minorities – precisely what it was established to do.

Some argue that these sorts of rulings by the courts are an encroachment on Parliamentary sovereignty. This is grossly misleading. It was Parliament that passed the 1998 Human Rights Act giving British judges the ability to implement the ECHR in UK courts. Moreover, the ECHR was written in the wake of the Second World War with the help of British jurists. And when cases reach Strasbourg, rulings are made by a bench that includes a British judge. The ECHR is not some dastardly foreign imposition. Britain helped to make it.

And it has protected the rights of all Britons. The populist press shout about the protections afforded by the ECHR to prisoners and paedophiles. They never mention, for instance, that, thanks to the ECHR, children with special needs have a right to be educated in mainstream schools, or that breast cancer sufferers have a right to drugs such as Herceptin.

There is a glaring practical problem, too, with Mr Cameron's proposed British Bill of Rights. As the former Law Lord, Lord Woolf, argued last month, unless Britain tears up the ECHR, this new document would be meaningless since the ECHR would still have legal precedence. If the British bill stated that prisoners should not have the vote, but Strasbourg ruled that they should, Strasbourg would have to prevail. Of course, the real agenda of some Conservatives – and many on the right – is indeed to repudiate the Convention, and to quit the Council of Europe which supervises it.

We should be very clear about what that would mean. Our membership of the Council makes us an example to the world on human rights and gives us the moral authority to criticise other states, particularly those on Europe's borders, when they abuse their own citizens. Russia is a member of the Council. And the European Court is dealing with thousands of cases of human rights abuses there. It is true that the Kremlin has failed to curb its repressive behaviour in response to this legal pressure. But if Britain were to pull out of the ECHR, there would be even less reason for Moscow to take the opinion of Europe seriously.

And a British withdrawal from this gold standard of human rights would weaken the ability of the EU to push for respect for freedom in countries on Europe's periphery. This newspaper has been reporting this week on the escalation of assaults on human rights in Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship. Belarus is a nation that never signed the ECHR. Does Mr Cameron really want to set Britain on a road that could see us join the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in the illiberal darkness?

Comment: This leading article is a vast improvement upon the one by By Andrew Grice, Political Editor. It is a legal issue and should not be covered by a political journalist unless that writer is also aware of the legal implications.

It needs to be remembered that the human rights under the Convention are just the minimum standard. Many states go further and build upon this foundation. The UK, on the other hand, does not even grant its subjects of the Queen (still not citizens) the minimum under the Convention.

The 47 judges who sit at the Court are all foreigners to each other. But, I am not aware of any other country which attacks the judges for being foreign. In 2006 in the Independent "Kenneth Clarke has branded David Cameron's proposals for a British Bill of Rights "xenophobic" and "anti-foreigner"".

I do not accept that there has been an angry popular reaction. The Sun, and the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have made unpalatable noises, but that's about it. Then we have had the knee-jerking politicians reacting and offering 30 secoundbites upon sujects they know nothing about. In 2006 "Mr Clarke said: "In these home affairs things I think occasionally it's the duty of politicians on both sides to turn round to the tabloids and right-wing newspapers and say, 'You have your facts wrong and you're whipping up facts which are inaccurate'"."

I object to MPs calling each other the Right Honourable or Honourable, when many of them have not acted honourably at all in reelation to fiddling their expenses out of the public purse. I think a lot of this finger pointing from them is to distract attention from their own wrongdoings. For example, it has been argued that prisoners by committing their crimes and being sent to prison have lost the moral authority to vote. However, it has never been a criterion of the franchise to have moral authority. On the other hand, where is the moral authority to fiddle expenses?

Hirst v UK (No2), the Prisoners Votes Case, was lost by the UK which was represented in the Court by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On ther website is a map showing all the countries abroad where the UK is engaged in human rights. It is hypocritical of William Hague to only be interested in human rights abroad and neglect them in this country. He is responsible to the Council of Europe to ensure that Kenneth Clarke ensures that all get their entitlement to the human rights under the Convention. Unless he is prepared to do his job properly, he should resign.

Those Tories who believe that the UK can leave the Council of Europe and remain in the EU, for example, Dominic Raab, have not got a clue about international and European law. The EU acceded to the Convention in February 2010. And, the Lisbon Treaty gave new powers to the Council of Europe, particularly, Protocol 14. Dominic Raab has claimed that the Council of Europe has not got the power to enforce sanctions against the UK. Clearly he knows nothing about the Interlaken process. It is what the UN uses against rogue or pariah states to get them to to the line. The Council of Europe adopted this process at the Interlaken Conference in February 2010. All 47 member states reaffirmed their commitments to abide by the Convention and Court decisions. Baroness Scotland the then Attorney General signed the Interlaken Declaration, once laid before both Houses it became part of domestic law. In November 2010 the UN joined forces with the Council of Europe to tackle human rights abuses throughout Europe. This is why the UK is squirming at the moment. All this talk about surrending no more power to Europe is attempting to close the gate after the horse has bolted. It is time that the politicians told the public the truth. The UK is very close to being declared a rogue or pariah state like Belarus. Cameron and Hague can forget about telling Europe what to do, and talking about trade agreements. If the UK get suspended or expelled from Europe no state will trade with the UK. We cannot afford this economically, we'd sink. The public should be telling Cameron he does not abuse human rights in their name.

Jack Straw knows that he is in very serious trouble for ignoring the Court for 5 years. Those Tories who are welcoming him should examine his reasons for supporting them. He is trying to save his own political skin. His two co-accused Tony Blair and Charles Falconer are no longer in politics. He is feeling isolated and very vulnerable. The Tories and LibDems are equally guilty for allowing him to get away with human rights violations for 5 years unchallenged. Its time for name, shame and blame. It is also time that we cleaned up politics. The public need to make sure that those exercising public power adhere to these three objectives; Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law.

No comments: