Leading article: Britain should stick to the human rights gold standard

The European Court of Human Rights is not some dastardly foreign imposition. Britain helped to make it

Wednesday 09 March 2011 01:00

The Conservative side of the Coalition is, once again, talking up the idea of a British Bill of Rights. Last month the Prime Minister said action in this area was "imminent". And as we report today, a Coalition commission on the subject is likely to be announced soon.

The resurrection of the concept of a British rights bill is a response to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that Britain must end its blanket ban on prisoners from voting and the more recent ruling from the Supreme Court that paedophiles should have an opportunity to appeal against their inclusion on the sex offenders register.

The angry popular reaction to these rulings has been depressing; the collective failure of our political class (with a few honourable exceptions) to support them doubly so. Both judgements are examples of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protecting unpopular minorities – precisely what it was established to do.

Some argue that these sorts of rulings by the courts are an encroachment on Parliamentary sovereignty. This is grossly misleading. It was Parliament that passed the 1998 Human Rights Act giving British judges the ability to implement the ECHR in UK courts. Moreover, the ECHR was written in the wake of the Second World War with the help of British jurists. And when cases reach Strasbourg, rulings are made by a bench that includes a British judge. The ECHR is not some dastardly foreign imposition. Britain helped to make it.

And it has protected the rights of all Britons. The populist press shout about the protections afforded by the ECHR to prisoners and paedophiles. They never mention, for instance, that, thanks to the ECHR, children with special needs have a right to be educated in mainstream schools, or that breast cancer sufferers have a right to drugs such as Herceptin.

There is a glaring practical problem, too, with Mr Cameron's proposed British Bill of Rights. As the former Law Lord, Lord Woolf, argued last month, unless Britain tears up the ECHR, this new document would be meaningless since the ECHR would still have legal precedence. If the British bill stated that prisoners should not have the vote, but Strasbourg ruled that they should, Strasbourg would have to prevail. Of course, the real agenda of some Conservatives – and many on the right – is indeed to repudiate the Convention, and to quit the Council of Europe which supervises it.

We should be very clear about what that would mean. Our membership of the Council makes us an example to the world on human rights and gives us the moral authority to criticise other states, particularly those on Europe's borders, when they abuse their own citizens. Russia is a member of the Council. And the European Court is dealing with thousands of cases of human rights abuses there. It is true that the Kremlin has failed to curb its repressive behaviour in response to this legal pressure. But if Britain were to pull out of the ECHR, there would be even less reason for Moscow to take the opinion of Europe seriously.

And a British withdrawal from this gold standard of human rights would weaken the ability of the EU to push for respect for freedom in countries on Europe's periphery. This newspaper has been reporting this week on the escalation of assaults on human rights in Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship. Belarus is a nation that never signed the ECHR. Does Mr Cameron really want to set Britain on a road that could see us join the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in the illiberal darkness?

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