Friday, February 11, 2011

Human Rights in Europe - Where does the UK stand?

“IT’S UP EURS”, says today’s Sun Newspaper. The headline in the Daily Express is “BRITAIN IN THE EU: THIS MUST BE THE END”. The Daily Mail’s front page reads; “DAY WE STOOD UP TO EUROPE”.

Its not uncommon of course for the media in the UK to confuse anything “European” with the European Union. Whether it is the Council of Europe, the European Council, the European Courts of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights, they are all “Eurocrats” who can over-ride the UK’s national interests. Of course, serious matters of sovereignty are raised when reporting on any supra-national issue but the media could be more careful about apportioning blame.

The UK Parliament last night kept a ban on the rights of prisoners to the vote despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. It was immediately hailed in the press as a victory against Europe, with implications even for the UK’s membership of the EU – even though the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution. European Commission officials can only despair of news reports in the UK which mislead the public on the EU.

Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly to adopt a backbencher’s motion which calls on the Government to oppose the granting of democratic rights to convicted prisoners. However, it would only be fair to say that the UK government was never instructed to give all prisoners a vote – the ECHR had said that a blanket ban on prisoner votes was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The UK Attorney General, Dominic Grieve has acknowledged this and believes that the UK could comply with the most minimum application of voting rights – perhaps for those on sentences of less than four years. He has said that the UK would be in breach of the “rule of law” if it simply ignored rulings from the court. For a country that is a big believer in the rule of law, simply rejecting the rulings is not an option.

The question is: should the UK leave the European Convention on Human Rights and have instead a supreme court in the UK which interprets a Bill of Rights. UK centre-right think-tank, the Policy Exchange, this week issued a timely report on the UK and ECHR jurisdiction which argued that the UK could withdraw from the ECHR’s jurisdiction and quit the European Convention which the UK signed 60 years ago.

The author of the report, Dr Michael Pinto-Duchinsky, believes that mission-creep has meant the court has gone beyond protecting human rights and instead is influencing policy by issuing increasingly eccentric judgements. He also points to the lack of experience of the Courts judgements and a backlog of cases that would take 46 years to clear.

Dr Pinto-Duchinsky believes that withdrawal would not affect UK membership of the EU. However, if the UK does leave the jurisdiction of the ECHR, will there be pressure on the government from human rights groups to sign up to the European Union’s own human rights rules?

In 2007 the UK opted-out from the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

An intergovernmental conference in 2007 made the Charter legally binding without incorporating the text into Lisbon Treaty. Nevertheless, the Charter contains no new rights beyond what is covered by the Convention.

The effect of the opt-out protocol will essentially be that the charter cannot be used to challenge current UK legislation in the courts or to introduce new rights in UK law. One argument for the opt-out was that it was unnecessary given that the UK, like all other EU member states was already a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights which is much more binding. But for how much longer? The United Kingdom has traditionally been a standard-bearer for human rights but withdrawing from international and EU treaties on human rights could damage that much-cherished reputation.

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