By Barney Potts
A “British Bill of Rights” replacing the European Convention on Human Rights has been discussed for a long time. Theresa May, as the Home Secretary, put forward the idea in 2013. In this article, I am going to outline what the European Convention on Human Rights is, and why I do not want to see the United Kingdom leave it.
The European Convention on Human Rights is an international treaty between 47 European countries to uphold human rights. These rights are upheld by the European Court of Human Rights, which is based in Strasbourg, France. An important distinction to make is that between the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Union. The EU and ECHR have no major linking factors and are products of entirely different negotiations. However, the European Commission uses a country’s membership of the ECHR to demonstrate that they have the adequate level of respect for human rights required to join the EU. Most of the human rights protected in the European Convention on Human Rights have been implemented into British law through the Human Rights Act of 2000. This means that many disputes can be settled in British courts, and do not have to go to the European Court of Human Rights.
A final important detail to know about the European Convention on Human Rights is that Britain had a large hand in developing and implementing it. A characterisation of the convention I have often found when researching this article is the Britain was forced by its European ‘allies’ to sign a convention which dramatically curtailed its sovereignty. In fact, the convention was the brain child of Winston Churchill and many other European leaders at the end of WW2. They were shocked and horrified by the Holocaust, and the removal of basic human rights from many in Germany, and wanted to uphold them in the future. Furthermore, one of the main writers of the convention was British Conservative MP and lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe. His contribution to its drafting was so great, he has been termed “the doctor who brought the child to birth.” The UK was also the first signatory to the convention, signed in Rome on the 4th of November 1950.
Personally, I think that the best thing about the European Convention on Human Rights is the landmark cases it has ruled on. In 1981, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that criminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland was illegal and in breach of the ECHR. This set a legal precedent for the Council of Europe to demand that all EU states must legalise male and female homosexuality. Furthermore, the ECHR also prevented the British army using torture on IRA members in the 1970s. The Army used five techniques of torture on the members, including forcing the members into stress positions for hours at a time, hooding, and subjecting them to noise, food, and sleep deprivation. This was found to be inhuman and degrading treatment, and in 1978 the practice officially ended in the army.
However, it is very easy to pick the rulings that the majority of people will agree with. The ECHR has made some decisions which have been hugely unpopular in the UK. A key case study brought up, especially by the Prime Minister, is that of the deportation of Abu Qatada.
Abu Qatada is a Jordanian national and a Salafi cleric. In 1993, he fled Jordan after a thwarted terror plot and claimed asylum in the UK under a forged passport. He was one of many middle-eastern Islamists who sought asylum in the UK in the 1980s and 90s. In 1999, he was convicted in absentia of planning terror acts during Jordan’s millennium eve and was sentenced to death in Jordan, which was immediately downgraded to a lifetime sentence with hard labour. He had many extremist teachings and was classed as a hate preacher by the UK government. Some of his teachings included books promoting suicide bombings. In 1995, one of his teachings concluded it was lawful in Islam to kill the wives and children of apostates, to stop oppression in Algeria. This ruling was used by the militants in Algeria to justify bloody attacks on civilian targets. Both the Security Service and the Police classed him as a threat to the UK.
There were moves to deport Abu Qatada in October 2002, when he was arrested indefinably under Part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. There were many legal battles and appeals for and against his conviction until January 2012, when the ECHR ruled that he could not be deported as it would be a violation of his right to a fair trial, as there was evidence that evidence in his trial was obtained using torture. On July the 7th 2013, Abu Qatada was finally deported, after Jordan ratified a treaty with the UK that no evidence received under torture would be used against him or any other prisoner.
The ruling that evidence received under torture prevented him from being deported has been strongly criticised for endangering the UK. However, I feel that it is an essential step in showing that the UK respects the human rights of all people. In the world, there are countries that flagrantly breach human rights. If the UK does not uphold human rights in all situations, favourable to our national interest or not, it undermines our position when we criticise other countries’ poor records. If we do not back international human rights legislation, in the form of the ECHR, we cannot demand other countries implement similar treaties, and we lose the moral high ground when it comes to human rights.
My final reason for supporting the ECHR over a British Bill of Rights is the independence of the ECHR. The independence of the judiciary is a vital part of a functioning democracy and ensures all people are treated equally under the law. If our only defence of our human rights is a national law, it can very easily be changed and manipulated to the government’s advantage. In the direct aftermath of the Manchester and London Bridge terrorist attacks, Theresa May said that “…if our human rights laws get in the way of doing it [restricting freedom and movements of terror suspects], we will change the law so we can do it.”
Thankfully, the UK has little to no power to change the ECHR, and thus no power to change the human rights we all enjoy. However, the day we agree that those under investigation should have restrictions on human rights, such as the right not to be tortured, the right to a family, the right to a fair trial, etc., we are giving a precedent for politicians to change our human rights to suit their agenda. And while you may have full trust in all politicians at the moment, will you have full trust in all politicians in twenty years’ time? Let us not forget that Hitler used the rise in communist terrorism, specifically a terrorist attack on the German parliament building, to justify revoking the right to freedom of expression and assembly. This precedent allowed the Nazis to begin to remove all human rights, which led us to the situation where we needed a European Convention on Human Rights…
If I have not convinced you to support the ECHR with my arguments, or you are interested in reading more, the ECHR is very readable from a non-legal background. It is one of the very few documents like this that I have been able to read and understand fully, without having to Google and read another five international conventions and decode from legal jargon. I would highly advise everyone to read it and I leave a link to it here.