Wednesday 25 January 2012

European Court of Human Rights: Worth fighting for?

In his speech today in Strasbourg, David Cameron has argued Britain must use its chairmanship of the European Court of Human Rights to reform the court.

A move likely to appease the eurosceptic wing of his party, Cameron’s call is one which paints the ECHR as overly interventionist and an unwelcome party in national legal proceedings. But is this really the case? Or is the Prime Minister overstating the impact of the ECHR on British justice and in the process guilty of “peddling myths”?

To answer this, one must consider the charges the Conservative leader has brought against the ECHR. Addressing Strasbourg, Cameron focused on three criticisms in which he stated the court is a “small claims court”, transfixed with petty rulings rather than the substantial protection of human rights, argued it is bogged down by a 150,000 strong caseload and finally that the court delivers verdicts that unnecessarily undermine the authority of national courts.

For all too willing sceptics these arguments provide ample cannon fodder to push for wide-ranging reform that would reduce the backlog of cases, but much more importantly for anxiety ridden anti-Europeans limit the scope of the ECHR. With a growing concern that the court will push for the British ban on prisoner’s voting to be lifted, an issue which was incidentally subject of a Commons vote last year, governance of the court presents an ideal opportunity to counter a perceived threat to established national law.

But in contrast with claims being made from the right, statistics reveal that Cameron’s argument that Britain needs to be allowed to make more conclusive rulings is plain wrong. An excellent post on the Human Rights Blog shows that in reality, only 3% of cases the court considers regarding Britain receive a judgment. This hardly seems like the actions of an intrusive interventionist body in dire need of reform.

Perhaps more aptly, as Sadiq Khan MP has claimed, Cameron is “more concerned with placating his restless backbenchers than he is about protecting and promoting human rights across Europe.” Talk of the court undermining British law provides weight to this theory and in actuality with the majority of cases brought before the court arising from countries such as Russia, Romania and Ukraine, it seems difficult to envision Conservatives being overly fussed about the court imposing decisions on these states.

The criticism extends beyond the opposition though, with Britain once again being forced to the fringes in a supranational setting by a party seemingly hell-bent on nullifying European influence. As with the veto in December, the warning signs are plain to see. Prior to today’s speech the ECHR's most senior judge, Sir Nicolas Bratza QC, stated, “It is disappointing to hear senior British politicians lending their voices to criticisms more frequently heard in the popular press, often based on a misunderstanding of the court's role and history, and of the legal issues at stake.”

Unlike Cameron, Bratza’s viewpoint is statistically supported and it is imperative that any push for reform is grounded in a reality-based understanding of the court. This includes honesty about the statistics and a better articulation from supporters of the positive and necessary impact the court has and continues to have on the guarantee of human rights across the 47 signatories to the ECHR.

This is a guest post by Kenneth Way

He is writing ahead of the Fabian Society’s conference “Social Europe: Worth Fighting For?” which will take place on 25th February 2012. Amongst other things, the Conference will consider the issue of human rights in a European context.

You can buy your ticket, priced £10 for non-members or £5 for members/concessions here.

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