In his speech today (see Telegraph article below) to the Council of Europe which the UK currently chairs, Prime Minister David Cameron is taking up what appears in certain sections of the press to be a popular cause with the British people, in calling for reform of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). What should not be forgotten, however, is the current human rights case before the ECHR of the popular figure of 90-year-old Harry Shindler, a WWII veteran now living in Italy but who has been fighting for his UK national voting rights for many years.
Last week the ECHR was again criticised after it ruled that the radical Islamist Abu Qatada, cannot be extradited from the UK to Jordan as he would not receive a fair trial on terrorism charges.
Mr Cameron will claim the 47 members of the council have a “once-in-a-generation chance to improve the way we enhance the cause of human rights, freedom and dignity”. He will address his critics by saying that belief in human rights is part of the British character. “We are not and never will be a country that walks on by while human rights are trampled into the dust,” he will say.
However, he could face a difficult task convincing members to return more power on human rights decisions to national courts:
- The 150,000 backlog of human rights cases that has built up within the ECHR can be traced to the increase in members of the Council of Europe following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
- The UK has lost 3 out of 4 cases brought before the Court since its establishment after WWII and only 8 cases brought against Britain last year (less than 1% of the total) were defended successfully.
- In the case of Abu Qatada the underlying issue seems to be torture and the related inadmissability of evidence obtained through torture, the latter that might well have undermined the UK’s case for extradition. Kenneth Clark the Justice Minister has also suggested that the ECHR should concentrate on more major issues such as torture.
- The UK defends its record on human rights but e.g. was instrumental in ensuring that the right to universal suffrage was not included as part of the European electoral heritage after WWII, part of the UK government’s defence in the current voting rights case vs Harry Shindler in the ECHR.