Leading by example?

29 February 2012

Author: 
Rachel Robinson, Policy Officer

The Convention and Court of Human Rights only exist because less than a century ago, much of Europe descended into tyranny and butchery. Britain's Winston Churchill sometimes stood alone but he knew the enduring value of defending fundamental rights and freedoms with the Rule of Law so as not constantly to have to defend them through war. The ECHR is his post-war legacy.

Governments of all hues tend to be suspicious of those charged with holding them to account, but the UK’s draft declaration on reform of the Court of Human Rights includes a particularly obvious attempt to place the UK above rebuke. Of course our Government won’t always be happy with judgments against it, but surely this is pretty strong evidence that the Court is doing its job? A court which invariably bows to the whims of national authorities or – as the Government would have it – refuses even to consider cases addressed by national courts, is not providing the impartial protection of rights and freedoms we’re entitled to expect.
 
At the very heart of Court protection is a recognition that even established democracies – such as our own, which played such a major role in shaping the protections offered by the Convention – need to be held up to basic common standards. If proposals in the UK’s draft declaration had already been in place cases which have compelled our Government to reconsider the indefinite retention of innocent people’s DNA and rethink arbitrary stop and search powers may never have reached the door of the Court.
 
What’s more, this draft declaration is likely to prove as divisive as it is self-serving. It’s easy to envisage the reactions of Russia and Turkey to the UK’s attempt to avoid effective supervision – if the UK doesn’t need to listen to the Court, why should they? Our Government seems to think the Court’s scrutiny should be reserved for newer democracies, with dubious records on human rights, but what message do we send them if we shirk our responsibilities? These proposals risk fuelling an undercurrent of cynicism; weakening the already tenuous commitment of some governments to fundamental freedoms.
 
Elsewhere in the draft we see a welcome commitment to encouraging better protection of rights and freedoms at a national level – who could argue with this approach? If states took their responsibilities more seriously, protection for human rights cross Europe would be dramatically enhanced and the backlog created by waves of repeated violations would disappear. But what the Government has overlooked is the fact that a greater commitment to human rights at a national level goes hand-in-hand with oversight provided by the Court. Of course other governments should follow the example set by the UK in protecting rights and freedoms at home; the Court’s backlog would be nowhere near what it is today if more countries had their own Human Rights Act. But our message becomes hypocrisy if while preaching commitment to human rights abroad we declare ourselves immune to criticism at home.