This post is adapted from a speech given by Judge Robert Spano of the European Court of Human Rights at Chatham House on 13 October 2014. It is reproduced here with permission and thanks.
There is currently a vigorous debate in the UK on the status and future of the European Convention on Human Rights in national law and also on the relationship between my Court, the Strasbourg Court (ECtHR), the UK Parliament and the domestic judiciary.
In principle, democratic debates on such fundamental issues should always be welcome. Indeed, discussions on the role and functions of institutions of public power lie at the core of the democratic concept. It is therefore essential for the Court and its judges to engage in reasoned and informed debate about their work and its wider European implications.
How Does the ECtHR Discharge Its Mandate?
I have been asked to discuss the question of how the Strasbourg Court discharges its mandate. To give an answer, one must first respond to the fundamental question: What is the Court‘s mandate?
Lords Pannick and Faulks
Last night saw the important Report Stage consideration of Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill in the House of Lords. Angela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE provides a summary.
Widely – and quickly – reported as a “crushing” or an “emphatic” defeat – in a rare turn – the Government was last night defeated in three consecutive votes on its proposals to restrict access to judicial review. With a ‘hat-trick’ of blows, on three crucial issues, votes on amendments tabled by Lords Pannick, Woolf, Carlile and Beecham were decisive. On the proposal to amend the materiality test – the Government lost by 66. On the compulsory disclosure of financial information for all judicial review applicants, and again on the costs rules applicable to interveners, the Government lost by margins on both counts by 33. A fourth amendment to the Government proposals on Protective Costs Orders – which would maintain the ability of the Court to make costs capping orders before permission is granted – was called after the dinner break, and lost.
Photo credit: Guardian.co.uk
The Conservative Party’s proposals to introduce a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that would weaken the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – and the legal chaos that would ensue if it was ever enacted – have been hotly debated. The proposal makes clear that if the Council of Europe was to reject the UK’s unilateral move, as it would be bound to, the UK ‘would be left with no alternative but to withdraw’ from the Convention.
The policy is highly isolationist. The brief section on the ‘international implications’ of the plan does not pause to consider the impact of withdrawal on the other 46 states on the Council of Europe or the Convention system as a whole. Nor does it address the implications for the UK’s ability to promote human rights and the rule of law in countries with significantly worse human rights records.
This is despite the evident risk of contagion to newer Council of Europe states. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, has argued that if the UK persists in its disrespect for the Strasbourg Court, exemplified by its protracted non-compliance with the judgment on prisoners’ voting rights, this would
… send a strong signal to other member states, some of which would probably follow the UK’s lead and also claim that compliance with certain judgments is not possible, necessary or expedient. That would probably be the beginning of the end of the ECHR system.
The announcement this week of a new Conservative Party plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’, has brought to a boil a cauldron of incredulity (pictured) about the Government’s attitude towards the law. The response from human rights lawyers and advocacy groups has been swift. Liberty describes the Conservative Party plan as ‘legally illiterate’. The several ways in which that is true have already been the subject of detailed exposition. Indeed, Liberty’s response is even more accurate than it might first appear. If the Conservative Party plan is legally illiterate then it is best read as a political tactic to assure its supporters that it is the party of anti-European sentiment.
Nevertheless, if the move helps to bring about a Conservative Party government after the general election next May, then there is a great likelihood that steps will be taken to weaken the legal protection of human rights in Britain. The political pressure to do so will be even greater if the government must rely on support from Eurosceptic Members of Parliament for its majority in the House of Commons. Thus, political tactic or not, a Conservative Party-led government will likely take action against human rights law after the General Election.
Resolution A/HRC/27/L.7 on the Safety of Journalists by the UN Human Rights Council
Another day, another dead journalist; or so seems to be the trend in the media profession following recent news of the brutal beheading of an Israeli-American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, by Islamic State militants in Syria on 2nd September 2014. This Resolution seeks to facilitate the prevention of further fatalities.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1055 journalists have been killed worldwide in the past 22 years. Gunilla Von Hall, an eminent Swedish foreign correspondent and journalist, opened the Annual Geneva Peace Talks by sharing her experiences as a foreign correspondent to conflict zones such as Iraq and Bosnia. Gunilla commented on her need to ‘write for a visa’, making her withhold certain information from print temporarily so that she could continue to enter certain countries. She has had to openly refuse calls to work in certain areas due to the risks she now faces. Following the birth of her children, Gunilla’s responsibilities have more recently prevented her from risking her safety by travelling to these regions. She observed that, as a result, inexperienced reporters who are based in the countries have to be hired instead. Research undertaken by UNESCO compiled in the report ‘World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development’ suggests that 94% of those targeted have been domestic journalists.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. … Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” Eleanor Roosevelt (1958).
For human rights to matter, they must be made real first, at home, in those small places that matter to us all. After almost four decades of debate, it was in this vein that the Westminster Parliament, with Conservative Party support, voted to “Bring Rights Home” in the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”). As we wake this morning to the front pages of two national newspapers decrying human rights “madness” and welcoming freshly minted (but fairly familiar) Conservative Party policy plans to condemn the HRA to history, this is a good message to remember.
The proposals are incoherent in their consideration of domestic law, incomplete in their engagement with the devolved constitution and disrespectful to the UK’s commitments in international law. They undermine the cause of bringing rights closer to home and seemingly have no care for progress of minimum standards in the wider world.
What rights? Continue reading
In his speech at yesterday’s Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister confirmed that the party’s 2015 election manifesto will include a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”. Last night, however, The Scotsman newspaper quoted a Scotland Office spokesman as saying that the change would not apply in Scotland. According to the article, the spokesman “confirmed that human rights legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament because it was ‘built into the 1998 Scotland Act [and] cannot by removed [by Westminster].’” As reported, this statement is seriously misleading. However, it does highlight genuine difficulties that devolution creates for the implementation of plans to reform human rights law. Continue reading