Thursday, 9 February 2012

No time to be throwing out human rights

The European Court of Human Rights has played a vital role in safeguarding citizen’s rightsThe Prime Minister recently took to berating the Council of Europe about the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).The Premier was looking for restrictions on the right to take cases to the ECHR in Strasbourg. Mr Cameron takes his brief on human rights from the rabid tabloid press which has whipped up a frenzy around the concept as though upholding them is in some way aiding criminals. A focus of the most recent hysteria has been the rights of prisoners to vote and the case of the Jordanian man Abu Qatada who it was ruled could not be deported because he would be likely to face a trial where evidence obtained by using torture could be used. Qatada has variously been described as being part of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden's "right hand man in Europe."Where these descriptions came from can only be speculated about but enough to say they suggest a less than fair trial maybe available to Qatada, not only in Jordan but also in the UK. Not that he it would seem is ever likely to come before a properly constituted court of law in the UK.Qatada is one of a number of men who has been held under immigration law overseen by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission for the best part of the past 10 years.The existence of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention) has not stopped this detention taking place but it has resulted in modifications. This meant that in 2004, some three years after detention without trial was established, under the Anti-terror crime and security Act, the law lords ruled it unlawful under the Convention. This then resulted in the control order regime, bringing detention in accommodation and the surrounding area, being established.The Human Rights Act brought in by the Labour Government simply amounted to the downloading of the ECHR into domestic law, thereby avoiding so many cases as in the past having to take the long and winding path to the court in Strasbourg. There was though still the ultimate appeal to the ECHR. It is difficult to see how Mr Cameron's proposal that the most trivial cases should not go forward could work. Who makes the judgement on triviality, a politician taking his or her brief from the British tabloid press.Under such a new construction what would have happened to cases like the one against the government back in 1978 when the ECHR ruled against the use of the five interrogation techniques by the British army in the north of Ireland. These the court ruled amounted to "inhuman and degrading treatment" and a breach of the Convention. Then there was the ECHR ruling in 1995 of unlawful killing in the case of the three IRA volunteers shot dead in Gibralter in 1988. In Britain, there have been ECHR decisions stopping the police retaining the DNA of innocent people indefinitely and restrictions on stop and search powers. How can this be bad?Human rights have been hard won over the years. The ECHR was established after the Second World War with the British ironically playing a crucial founding role in that process. The reason there is a backlog at the Strasbourg based ECHR is mainly because of the number of new countries coming under the auspices of the ECHR. It is having a civilizing effect.Having fought long and hard to obtain human rights now is not the time to go throwing them away. The vista of justice denied being whipped up around cases like that of Abu Qatada and the right of prisoners to have a vote needs to be seen off. It is just cheap populist political point scoring. Human rights are inalienable to each individual, not something to be given or taken away at the behest of some populist politician. This is something not universally understood. This allows the unscrupulous politician to reconfigure the whole idea of rights as in some way amounting to privileges to be bartered away in populist fashion. It is still difficult to fathom a supposedly educated nation supporting politicians who offer to take away their human rights.There should be no change in the Human Rights Act or the European Convention on Human Rights. If anything the Convention needs strengthening with the judiciary given stronger rights of enforcement, certainly not watering down in the name of short term populism.

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