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?
Photo credit: Guardian.co.uk
It is easy to forget that our domestic debate over the European Convention on Human Rights might be having an international impact. But the UK is only one of 47 states which is party to the Convention, and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg protects over 800 million people.
This morning, we brought you exclusive interviews with survivors of the Beslan massacre who are rightly worried that if the UK leaves the Convention, or even threatens to leave as the Conservatives did recently, that will affect their fight for justice. In short, Vladimir Putin would have a ready excuse for ignoring any conclusions reached by the Court.
Well, here is another example of the effect which political trash-talking about the ECHR can have. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is facing war crimes charges in the Hague relating to ethnic violence which erupted after the 2007 elections leaving 1,200 dead and 600,000 displaced.
He has recently stepped down in order to face the charges. He made a speech to the Kenyan Parliament (PDF) on 6 October strongly asserting Kenya’s “sovereignty”, and in doing so he said this: Continue reading
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.
Hansen v. Norway, ECtHR, 2 October, read judgment
In any system of appeals, there is always a tension between giving everyone a fair hearing and concentrating on the appeals which do stand a reasonable prospect of success. The UK, like many countries, has introduced some filters on civil appeals in relatively recent times, enabling unmeritorious appeals to be dismissed at the threshold. In doing so, it gives short (sometimes very short) reasons for refusing permission.
You might have thought that this was a classic area where Strasbourg would be wary about intervening in domestic practice and striking the balance between speed and fairness. Yet the Court was persuaded that the Norwegians got the balance wrong, and found a breach of Article 6(1). We therefore need to read it carefully to see whether the same could be said about our system.
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
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, The Sun has got it badly wrong on human rights. Again. On 24 August 2014 Craig Woodhouse reported that “Euro judges go against UK in 3 out of 5 cases” (£). This is false and seriously misleading.
I explored this issue in detail back in 2012 when the Daily Mail as well as others claimed that the UK loses 3 out of 4 cases. Since that debacle, the European Court of Human Rights has produced some very clear documents on the statistics page of its website.
According to page 8 of this document, there have been 22,065 applications against UK 1959-2013. That means that 22,065 people or so have brought cases against the UK. Of those cases, there have been 297 resulting in a violation.
I am no statistician but 297 as a percentage of 22,065 is not “3 out of 5″. It is in fact 1.35%. Less than 2 in 100.
R(Long) v Secretary of State for Defence  EWHC 2391 (Admin) – read judgment
When will a court order an inquiry into the deaths in combat of soldiers serving overseas? Following recent judgments of the English and Strasbourg courts extending the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to zones of armed conflict overseas in certain circumstances, the question is likely to arise frequently over the coming years. In R(Long), the Divisional Court strongly endorsed the doctrine of combat immunity and appeared to set its face against the recent rise in claims against the MoD by soldiers deployed abroad and their next of kin.
This claim involved the deaths of six military police, who were murdered by an armed mob in Majar-al-Kabir, Iraq on 24 June 2003. They were visiting an Iraqi police station and, contrary to standing orders, did not have an iridium satellite telephone with them. The Oxfordshire Coroner had previously held an inquest into the deaths, which opened in 2004 and closed with an unlawful killing verdict on 31 March 2006. He dealt with the lack of effective communications equipment in a Rule 43 report (now a Report to Prevent Future Deaths), but it could not be said in the circumstances that, had they had a radio, their lives would have been saved. As the coroner said, the only person who might have been able to help them in time was the commander of a nearby paratroop patrol and he thought it possible that “had he endeavoured to help, I would be holding an inquest into the deaths not of six brave men but of 18” – .