Europe's top judge: Cameron is wrong about human rights

 

Europe's most senior judge launches an attack on David Cameron today, accusing the British Government of pandering to the tabloid press in its criticism of the European Court of Human Rights.

Writing in The Independent on the eve of the Prime Minister's visit to Strasbourg, where the court is based, its president, Sir Nicolas Bratza, says "senior British politicians" have betrayed their ignorance of the institution's history and legal position by joining the clamour for its reform.

Sir Nicolas's highly unusual intervention comes as the Prime Minister prepares to deliver a speech calling for sweeping changes to the court's operation. Mr Cameron will call for a "filtering system" to prevent cases properly resolved in national courts from being referred to Strasbourg and for an overhaul of how judges are appointed.

Ministers are angry that the court – which was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War – last week blocked the deportation of the radical preacher Abu Qatada to Jordon, where he is wanted on terrorist charges. The Government – backed by opposition parties – is also wrangling with the court over whether prisoners should be given the right to vote. Mr Cameron is under pressure from Tory backbenchers to withdraw completely from the court.

But Sir Nicolas, Britain's nominee to the court, insists the institution's influence on human rights in Britain has been "overwhelmingly positive". Writing in The Independent today, he defends the court's record, citing "landmark rulings" that lifted the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces, allowed the media to challenge restrictions in reporting the Thalidomide case and ensured child criminals were not tried in adult courts.

He directly addresses Mr Cameron's charge that the court has allowed too large a backlog of cases to build up, saying the numbers of states signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights has led to a "massive increase in its caseload".

Sir Nicolas also hits back at the Government's accusation that the court interferes too often in domestic cases, saying: "The criticism relating to interference is simply not borne out by the facts."

The Strasbourg court has been "particularly respectful of decisions" in Britain since the Human Rights Act, which enshrined the Convention in British law, because of the "very high quality of those decisions", he says. Sir Nicolas says the court has streamlined its procedures to help it deal with "repetitive cases".

He says: "Against this background, it is disappointing to hear senior British politicians lending their voices to criticisms more frequently heard in the popular press, often based on a misunderstanding of the court's role and history, and of the legal issues at stake.

"It is particularly unfortunate that a single judgment of the court on a case relating to UK prisoners' voting rights, which was delivered in 2005 and has still not been implemented, has been used as the springboard for a sustained attack on the court and has led to repeated calls for the granting of powers of Parliament to override judgments of the court against the UK, and even for the withdrawal of the UK from the Convention."

His comments reflect growing frustration in Strasbourg at the rhetoric directed at the court from Britain. Earlier this month, Tory MPs claimed that the UK loses three out of four cases it fights in the court.

But the real figure is 61 per cent, one of the lowest "violation rates" of any European country. France, Germany, Italy and Norway all lose a significantly larger proportion of cases. Britain's real violation rate is actually closer to 2 per cent because 97 per cent of British cases that come before the court are thrown out altogether.

* Europe's top judge: Cameron is wrong about human rights
* Nicolas Bratza: Britain should be defending European justice, not attacking it
* Leading article: Mr Cameron must act the statesman in Strasbourg

Case study

Chris Morris, a 32-year-old lifestyle coach, was just 16 when he and other teenagers went to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Britain's age-of-consent rules. They won, resulting in legislation that eventually equalised the age of consent for both gay and straight people.

"In my specific case, the European Court of Human Rights was vital. There was such public confusion over the age of consent. Politicians didn't want to take sides. But as soon as it became clear that the court was going to make a decision anyway, the politicians suddenly aligned themselves behind what was going to happen. It's unbelievable to think how recent the campaign was. Sometimes I look at young gay people now and think, wow, it really is a different world for them. What the court did was make it a much higher-profile cause and a clear human-rights issue. It sent out the message that this is what a civilised country should be doing. I could no longer be put in prison for what my straight friends were doing."

Case histories: what the Court of Human Rights has done for us

1972 Tyrer vs UK

Anthony Tyrer was 15 years old when he was legally flogged by police officers on the Isle of Man for assaulting a fellow schoolboy. The case went to Strasbourg where judges ruled that such punishment was "inhuman or degrading". At the time the decision was met with outrage yet one would be hard pressed to find European law enforcement agencies that still advocate judicially sanctioned beatings for criminals.

1979 The Sunday Times vs UK

Were it not for the European Court of Human Rights the true extent of the thalidomide scandal might never have been uncovered. Marketed as a cure for morning sickness, thalidomide caused thousands of children to be born with shortened limbs – the drug had never been tested properly.

The Sunday Times newspaper wanted to publish an investigative expose of the scandal but was halted by an injunction from the House of Lords because the makers of thalidomide were still being sued by its victims at the time. The ECHR later ruled that the injunction was a breach of Article 10 – the right to freedom of expression – because it was disproportionate and unnecessary. The decision directly led to a radical reworking of Britain's contempt of court laws.

2009 FT and others vs UK

Protection of sources is a cornerstone of journalism. But governments and businesses often go to extreme lengths to try and force reporters to reveal the identities of whistleblowers. In 2001 The Financial Times and four other media organisations – including The Independent – were taken to court by the Belgian company Interbrew and ordered to hand over documents concerning a confidential takeover bid. The British courts repeatedly sided with Interbrew. The case eventually wound its way to Strasbourg where – eight years later – judges ruled that giving up a source would breach the right to freedom of expression.

1996 Sutherland and Morris vs UK

In 1996 the ECHR ruled that it was discriminatory to have a different age of consent for gay men and women. Previous attempts to challenge such discrimination had failed until gay activists Euan Sutherland and

Chris Morris challenged Britain's laws which insisted homosexuals wait until 18 before they could legally have sex compared to 16 for straight men and women.

2011 Abu Qatada vs UK

Last week a ruling that radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada could not be deported to Jordan was met with howls of derision by the popular press and politicians. Yet Qatada's deportation was not halted because judges feared he would be mistreated by the Jordanians – the judges, in fact, accepted that Britain had obtained diplomatic assurances that he would be unharmed. What they could not allow was the deportation of a man who would be tried by the Jordanians using evidence that had undoubtedly been obtained through torture. Given Britain's commitment to neither practising nor encouraging torture, the court ruled that any deportation of Qatada would result in a trial that would be "not only immoral and illegal, but also entirely unreliable in its outcome".

2011 Bamber & others vs UK

On the same day the court ruled on Abu Qatada, Strasbourg published an equally significant verdict in which judges insisted that Britain was able to impose life tariffs that meant life. Three convicted murderers – Jeremy Bamber, Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore – tried to argue that life sentences with no hope of release constituted inhumane or degrading treatment. The judges disagreed saying that as long as the convictions were safe and the crimes grave enough, there was no reason why some prisoners should not be held behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Jerome Taylor

* Europe's top judge: Cameron is wrong about human rights
* Nicolas Bratza: Britain should be defending European justice, not attacking it
* Leading article: Mr Cameron must act the statesman in Strasbourg

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick