Be careful what you wish for? UK takes over in Strasbourg
7 November 2011
After months of wrangling over the influence of Europe on our human rights law, today the United Kingdom begins its 6-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe (CoE)’s Committee of Ministers. Amongst other things, the CoE supervises compliance with judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.
The CoE, not to be confused with the European Council, European Union, European Commission, Court of Justice of the European Union or European Parliament, is an international organisation with 47 member states comprising over 800 million citizens – see its Wikipedia entry for more on its many functions. The UK was one of the CoE’s founding members when it joined on 5 May 1949.
Coincidentally, the court’s new British president, Sir Nicholas Bratza, began his presidency on Friday; only the third British judge to do so (see my post from July). So there is a genuinely British feel to the organisation, at least for the next 6 months.
Two questions arise. First, what does the UK want to do with its presidency, and second, will it be able to achieve those aims?
As to the first question, the UK has set its priorities in its Priorities and Objectives document. It will also push forward an ambitious reform agenda for the European Court of Human Rights, including:
a set of efficiency measures, which will enable the Court to focus quickly, efficiently and transparently on the most important cases that require its attention;
strengthening the implementation of the Convention at national level, to ensure that national courts and authorities are able to assume their primary role in protecting human rights;
measures to strengthen subsidiarity – new rules or procedures to help ensure that the Court plays a subsidiary role where member states are fulfilling their obligations under the Convention;
improving the procedures for nominating suitably qualified judges to the Court, and ensuring that the Court’s case law is clear and consistent.
These aims follow those recommend by the Bill of Rights Commission, but it is important to note that they are not really new. In fact, as Graeme Hall pointed out on this blog, they represent longstanding criticisms of the court and they are also not shared by all of the CoE’s 47 members.
So, in answer to the second question, the democratic structure of the CoE and the views of its members mean that the UK will not be able to drive through, by force of will, any particular agenda whilst it is President.
That being said, the reform proposals do to a large extent represent agreements already reached at the recent Interlaken and Izmir conferences on the future of the court, so it is not inconceivable that the UK may be able to speed up the reform process during its short tenure – see the CoE’s webpage on reform of the Court.
A clue to the UK’s expected timing of the reforms is in the title of the conference the UK will be hosting on 17-19 November 2011: “2020 Vision for the European Court of Human Rights“. The high-level conference is invitation only but the programme can be downloaded here.
The European Court of Human Rights has become something of a pariah in the UK’s popular press, which as readers of this blog will know, has led to some silly political statements and reporting. The UK now has a good opportunity to remould the court and perhaps even public opinion, at least a bit. Hopefully, the Government will be able to put this controversy aside and get something useful done whilst it is, temporarily, king of the hill in Strasbourg.
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