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 spectre of contagion has now found expression from a surprising source – the bereaved families of the Beslan massacre in 2004, in which 331 people, including 179 children, died after a three-day siege at a school seized by Chechen separatists came to a violent end.
A decade on, the families were in Strasbourg last week for a public hearing in their case against the Russian authorities, which stand accused of failing to prevent the massacre despite having detailed intelligence warnings; compounding the loss of life by the use of indiscriminate weapons such as flame-throwers; and failing to conduct an adequate investigation into the events in order to establish responsibility.
As their case was put by lawyers from the Russian NGO Memorial and the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) based at Middlesex University, bereaved relatives and applicants who were themselves hostages watched and wept, many wearing photographs of their lost loved ones.
‘The UK must not think only of itself’
The applicants, interviewed by EHRAC, spoke eloquently about the importance of the Strasbourg Court to their struggle for justice. Any future UK withdrawal would be a ‘catastrophe’ for the rule of law in Russia, they argue, and would be taken as a green light for President Vladimir Putin to flout Russia’s human rights commitments.
Voiced mainly by Ella Kasayeva, and her sister Emma Tagayeva, who lost two sons and her husband in the massacre, the reflections of the families should make for sobering reading for the UK isolationists.
They are translated below from the original Russian.
The European Court of Human Rights is a benchmark of justice; it is a body that should be seen as an example to everybody … Once they have adopted the European Convention on Human Rights, states should follow it, otherwise chaos will ensue… Beslan happened, and not a single person has been found responsible. We could not find justice in our country; and this again proves that we need such a Court. If even the Strasbourg Court was not there to support us, it really would be a scary world in which to live.
In the case of Russia, in order to prevent the rise of corruption, it is important that an external body takes decisions, so that the government understands that it has acted wrongly or unfairly. Somebody unbiased from outside must do that, because Putin won’t punish himself… The European Court of Human Rights exists as a deterrent to totalitarian regimes like Russia. It works to deter Putin’s imperialistic behaviour.
[If the UK was to withdraw], it would be an excuse for our government to say “We don’t want it either!” Putin would point at the UK straight away. It would be a catastrophe. [The UK] has to understand; we all in live in the same world and we all have an impact on one another. The UK must not think only of itself, because this will lead to other countries completely disregarding the rule of law…
It is hard to overestimate the significance of the European Court of Human Rights for the Russian people. It is the only deterrence from this lawlessness. It is our only hope.
Dr Alice Donald is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and Politics and Middlesex University. Fourteen of the more than 400 Beslan applicants attended the hearing at the European Court of Human Rights on 14 October 2014. They were interviewed by Beth Saffer and Marina van Riel of EHRAC. Their remarks were translated by Nelli Shevchenko of EHRAC.
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