Michael Berendt's blog

For many British politicians and for much of the UK press, the European Court of Human Rights is the very embodiment of foreign meddling in British life. Two particular findings of the Court have stirred passions in Britain: a 2005 ruling that anyone in prison should be allowed to vote in elections (not currently permitted under UK law); and the recent judgement that the militant Islamist preacher Abu Qatada, currently held in a British jail, could not be deported to Jordan as long as any witness testimony against him in a Jordanian court might have been obtained through torture.

These rulings provoked storms of protest and fed into calls for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and other European organisations.

Against such a political backdrop it is little surprise that prime minister David Cameron has used the opportunity of Britain’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers to demand reform to the workings of the Court.

Cameron’s rendez-vous in Strasbourg on January 25 was played in the British press as if it were to be a full frontal attack on the Human Rights Court, on the Convention and on the Council of Europe as a whole. That’s how the mood music was played for press and politicians in advance of the speech. The reality was more nuanced.

The prime minister’s main aim was to bring down the temperature. He used the classic device of calling for reforms which are in fact well under way, and of assuming progress over time. Attacking the case backlog he cited the 160,000 cases which built up, partly owing to the surge in countries joining the Council of Europe after 1989. The backlog is now being dealt with because of changes in the Court’s practice, although judges are still having to handle more than 50,000 cases a year.

Cameron used the example of “the applicant taking a bus company to court for 90 Euros compensation, because they felt their journey from Bucharest to Madrid hadn’t been as comfortable as advertised” to suggest that the Court of Human Rights was becoming “a small claims court” and said that “we are hoping to get consensus on strengthening subsidiarity – the principle that where possible, final decisions should be made nationally”.

In a most unusual intervention, President of the Human Rights Court, Sir Nicolas Bratza (a British lawyer educated, just like David Cameron, at Brasenose College, Oxford), decided to respond to criticism of his Court in the Independent newspaper (which also outlines the most pertinent ECHR cases involving Britain). Sir Nicolas notes that of 955 applications to the Court against the UK in 2011 only eight were found to violate the Human Rights Convention. He spells out how ECHR judgements have extended human rights in Britain over many years.

Still, there is no question that the European Court of Human Rights must accelerate reform. Until 2010 the Russian Duma blocked a protocol which would have helped speed the handling of cases, but that obstacle has now been lifted.

As to Cameron’s demand that national courts be regarded as final arbiters in human rights cases, it has its dangers. National courts across 47 countries cannot always be relied upon to uphold the provisions of the Convention on Human Rights. It is surely no coincidence that a majority of cases coming to the Court relate to Russia and the Ukraine, where individual rights are often under pressure.

Implementation of rulings is also a big challenge for the Court, but for the UK or others to question the Court’s jurisdiction would make it all the more difficult for the provisions of the Human Rights Convention to extend across Europe – a debate which may have particular topical relevance to Hungary.

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  1. Michael Berendt misses the point totally by comparing UK with Russia when it comes to the number of complaints and application of the European Law on Human Rights. How can you compare the likes of the UK which was a founder member of the European Court with Russia where even the Electoral Law is fiddled by a totalitarian state?

    I agree with Cameron that local courts should have some room to recognise each state’s history and any special circumstances. In order for this to happen it may be that the UK may have to incorporate ECofHR laws into a constitution for the UK.

    It is also ridiculous to say that there is not a problem because only 8 judgements were upheld against the UK. It is not the number that matter but the repercussions of the ones we lose. How when we are fighting a battle against terrorism can we not be allowed to deport/Jail someone who has clearly stated that he wants to harm the UK and its citizens. Why should the developed nations within the Europe have to accept a judgement from say a Bulgarian judge when the law in that country is a couple of centuries in the past?

    Why should be we be unable to deport someone who has raped one of our citizens but has been allowed to stay because he has since married and had a child and is therefore entitled to a ‘family life’. How ridiculous and yes you have guessed it he has raped again.

    I am sorry if we come across as superior but of course we are Michael and you are right, we don’t like Oicks interfering where they are not needed.

    The ECofHR and the EU have one thing in common we should all agree that they are better off without the UK, please!

    1. Comparing the UK with Russia is precisely the point! The ECHR is the most effective body which exists for the extension and protection of personal freedom across the 47 countries which have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. You may be unconcerned about what happens beyond British shores; I am not.
      I accept that the further east we look, the more difficult is the task of implementation, but if a founding member of the Convention on Human Rights like Britain were to ignore ECHR judgements or declare certain areas out of bounds, then it would completely undermine the Court’s effectiveness in protecting individuals across Europe from arbitrary state control. The provisions against torture, for instance, are potentially important to all of us.
      Of course in Britain the European Convention of Human Rights is already applied through the Human Rights Act (not to be confused with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, from which the UK has an opt-out) with a right of appeal to the ECHR. In light of your comments, you may be interested to look at the Jesse Norman and Peter Oborne pamphlet for Liberty, which stresses the grounding of the Convention in British common law.

  2. …Talking about human rights, I got a little hint:
    There is an exciting documentary project:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MWaaK0fDJA

    A film crew accompanies a human rights seminar for young adults from Belarus, Germany and Ukraine, where the participants get the necessary know-how to realize human rights campaigns.
    The documentary will show the progress of the project and portraits the generation, their living conditions in Central and Eastern Europe, and the limitations they have to face.

    The Project urgently needs financial support to finish the project. Here you can support it: http://startnext.de/en/speak-up

    I would be glad if you reblog this…

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