Strasbourg: L’enfant terrible

18 January 2012 by

A bit like news of a wayward celebrity, judgments from the European Court of Human Rights are now awaited with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Whatever are those crazy unelected judges going to do next? Will this be the latest “Judgment day” for the enfant terrible of Strasbourg?

Yesterday the court released three judgments involving the United Kingdom. All three were about controversial issues: extradition, murder sentencing and terrorist deportation. The UK triumphed in the first two but failed in the third, although for surprising reasons. None of the judgments are “final”, in that the parties can still attempt an appeal to the court’s Grand Chamber if they wish. The rulings were:

  • OTHMAN (ABU QATADA) v. THE UNITED KINGDOM: Deportation of suspected terrorist Abu Qatada to Jordan would breach his article 6 rights to a fair trial as any criminal trial would be likely to rely upon evidence obtained under torture. His Article 3 claim failed, however, as the court trusted in diplomatic assurances that he would not be tortured. This is the first time the court has ruled that Article 6 should prevent a deportation – see our summary post
  • HARKINS AND EDWARDS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM – Article 3 rights of 2 men indicted for murder in the United States would not be violated if they were extradited despite risking risked death penalty or sentences of life imprisonment without parole – see the court’s press release

The Abu Qatada ruling has generated predictable controversy, although the coverage has also been somewhat nuanced. The Telegraph’s Philip Johnston reports: Abu Qatada: once again, he has made fools of us.

But the Telegraph also reports, rightly, that in the long run the court’s new trust in diplomatic assurances may allow more criminals to be deported to otherwise unsavoury states. Joshua Rozenberg makes a similar point in The Guardian. And the Daily Mail covers the “whole life” sentencing decision (a win for the UK) directly below its Abu Qatada coverage. The Mail’s coverage is critical but fairly accurate, and I expect this is because of the European Court of Human Rights’ excellent press releases produced for each judgment yesterday.

Eric Metcalfe, formerly of JUSTICE, argues in The Guardian (whose coverage of the judgments was very good) that the ruling may cause trouble in future. He legitimately asks “Would you believe the promise of a torturer not to torture someone?” The BBC have published this excellent Q&A: Terrorism deportations.

Richard Norton-Taylor, again in The Guardian, asks a question which is lurking in the background of the Abu Qatada coverage, and is potentially embarrassing for the police: Why Abu Qatada can’t be tried in the UK.

Obiter J has a predictably sensible post, which I recommend if you want to read about the law rather than the controversy.

It seems that every judgment raises the profile of the Strasbourg court, and what were formally obscure legal areas such as extradition law are being combed over by the mainstream press. This is not necessarily a bad thing; at least someone is paying attention.

On that note, whatever your views on the European Court of Human Rights, UK courts – even the best-in-the-UK-class Supreme Court – could learn a lot from the Strasbourg court’s publicity machine. Alongside clear and attractive press releases, the court produces video explanations (e.g. this one of the murder sentence case) and podcasts to explain the rulings.

Having such resources available on the day of a judgment makes journalists’ lives a lot easier. This will not prevent wilful misrepresentation of judgments, which does occur sometimes, but it should prevent sloppy mistakes, which are rife in legal coverage by newspapers without dedicated legal correspondents (these days, almost all of them).

These are interesting times for the court, and as the Council of Europe’s Secretary General recently told Sky News, much-needed reform is imminent. He also rightly pointed out that the UK is a good human rights citizen relative to most other states. But, amidst the almost daily headlines, controversy and well-rehearsed outrage, it is easy to forget that, unlike celebrities, judges are not meant to be popular; they are meant to be right.

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1 comment;


  1. says:

    Harkins and Edwards did not say that the applicants could be extradited to the US even though they risked the death penalty – the Court said that UK could reply on diploamtic assurances that they woudl not face the death penalty – bit of a difference!

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