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
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
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

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam