Britain in the dock for human rights failures after more than 100 'guilty' judgements filed
More than 100 findings have been lodged against Britain to which the Government has not adequately responded, five years after Tony Blair said he had fulfilled his promise to "bring rights home" by implementing the Human Rights Act.
These range findings from violations of the rights of mental health patients to the failure to protect children from unlawful corporal punishment in the home.
Of the 47 signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, Britain has 107 guilty judgments - the sixth highest number - issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Most of these are expected to be resolved by Britain, but many of the most serious violations date to the first few years of the Labour government.
Because these cases require urgent remedial action, they have been sent to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the body that funds and oversees the court.
A declassified report from the council's committee on legal affairs and human rights, seen by The Independent, shows that Britain is one of 13 countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, where further action is necessary.
The committee is particularly concerned about 15 judgements against Britain that have not been properly addressed by the Government and are more than five years old.
It has recommended that its rapporteur, Erik Jurgens, investigate the worst offending countries with a view to taking further action, "including the proposal to commence specific monitoring procedures in the most serious cases of non compliance".
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "The Human Rights Act is under attack as it has never been before. Not only do we have various Conservative pledges to do away with the legislation, but its own parent, the Labour party, is making veiled threats of derogations and abolition. This is a far cry from the words of Tony Blair, who once said that Labour's greatest achievements would be its commitment to an ethical foreign policy and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights."
In a separate, detailed report, recently declassified by the committee, the Council of Europe highlighted six British breaches of the convention that are of most concern.
Investigations into the death of Patrick Finucane, a republican lawyer, and five other killings of prominent Catholics, were found to be in breach of the human rights of the men's families, who were allegedly denied a fair inquiry because the security forces had colluded with the killers.
The Government has now agreed to set up independent inquiries into some of the deaths and says new legislation will address any further concerns about the independence of such investigations.
But the committee says it has received statements from members of the British judiciary who have sat on previous enquiries that "cast doubt on the capacity of an inquiry set under the 2005 Act to fulfill the procedural requirements of Article 2."
In another violation of the convention, from a judgment in 1998, a man who beat his stepson was acquitted of assault by a British court by relying on his right in UK law to use "reasonable chastisement".
The Government told the committee that the introduction of Britain's own Human Rights Act and a Court of Appeal case from 2001 had changed the law so that trial courts were now bound by article 3 of the convention. The committee disagrees with the Government's interpretation of the law. Some members of the committee remain unconvinced that the Children Act 2004, which stipulates that "battery" of a child can no longer be tolerated under the justification of reasonable punishment, meets the requirements of the European court's judgment and the Council's own interim resolution adopted in 2004.
The report says: "the defence of reasonable punishment remains available in England and Wales, but is restricted to cases where the charge is one of common assault."
How Labour has tried to get around its obligations to civil liberties
Opting out of human rights
Labour first sought to sidestep its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights after the 11 September terror attacks. Anti-terror legislation rushed through Parliament gave the Home Secretary the power to indefinitely detain foreign terror suspects by derogating from the ECHR. That was ruled unlawful by the House of Lords in December last year. Control orders quickly followed which, lawyers argued, amounted to house arrest, another form of indefinite detention. These measures have now been dropped in favour of deportation orders, this time requiring Britain to derogate from international prohibitions on torture. Since the London bombing in July, Tony Blair has talked about how the rules of the game have changed while his ministers have made veiled threats about opting out of human rights conventions.
Freedom of expression
Part of the Government's crack down on terrorism is a new offence of glorifying terrorism. Civil rights groups argue that it is so broadly drafted that it will restrict legitimate debate within Islamic communities. Such debate is vital because it can help persuade young Islam extremists that it is better to follow paths of peaceful protest than a course of violent action.
Right to a fair trial
The Government's assault on jury trial can be traced back to 2000 when Jack Straw proposed an end to the right to trial by jury for thousands of defendants accused of crimes such as shoplifitng, burglary and criminal damage. The Government was forced to withdraw the measure after fierce opposition from its backbenchers. But it has succeeded in "tipping the scales" in favour of the prosecution through the introduction of judge-only trials for serious and complex fraud cases as well as cases where jury nobbling is a risk. Further measures, including allowing juries to know of a defendant's criminal record and the abolition of the double jeopardy rule, have also been interpreted as an attack on the citizen's right to a fair trial.
Proposals before Parliament would allow police officers to keep terror suspects in detention for up to three months without charge. This is the equivalent of a six month jail sentence and strikes at the heart of habeas corpus, the right of a citizen to be charged or freed. Critics say that the measure would turn Britain into a police state with some suspects "disappearing" for long periods.
Right to privacy
The new ID cards are being resisted by civil rights groups which believe they will give the state unrestricted access to confidential information that is currently protected by privacy and data legislation. Further concerns centre on the way the police will use the new laws to target groups of citizens who do not have ID cards or individuals who cannot provide ID. The Information Commissioner has expressed concern about the fraudulent use of ID cards and the potential for ID theft.
Right not to be tortured
The Government is negotiating with several Muslim countries, most notably Algeria, to obtain written guarantees that ministers hope will permit them to deport foreign terror suspects. But lawyers says these "memoranda of understanding" have no legal standing and will not protect suspects from torture if they are sent home. Next month, the Government will defend its right to use evidence that may have been gained through torture carried out by another state or its security services. Ministers hope the House of Lords will uphold an earlier Court of Appeal ruling which said that, with certain safeguards, torture evidence obtained by a third party could be admissible in a UK court.
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