Posts Tagged ‘European Court of Human Rights’


Talk organised by the Romsey group

Dr Claire Lugarre. Picture, Salisbury Amnesty

On Monday March 19 the Romsey group of Amnesty hosted a most interesting talk by Dr Claire Lugarre who is a lecturer in Human Rights Law at the Southampton Law School, part of Southampton University.

An element of the desire of those who wish for the UK to come out of Europe is a wish to regain our (i.e. the UK’s) sovereignty.  There is also a desire, expressed most strongly by some members of the Conservative Party, to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  This has been promised in the party’s manifestos and has been talked about for about a decade but details of what the BBoR will look like and how it will differ from the existing HRA is still largely opaque.  It seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

The Conservatives are not alone in wanting us to come out of the European Convention along with Brexit: most of the media have kept up a barrage of criticism and denigration of the Court and all its doings.  As the example on the right of the Daily Mail shows, there is talk of a ‘triumphant week for British values,’ the ‘crazy decision’ making by European Court judges – usually referred as ‘unelected’ judges and the ‘human rights farce’.

The talk

Claire Lugarre explained some of the background issues surrounding the issue of the European Court and what it might mean for the country if we left.

Her first point is that the notion of human rights is not just a western construct and similar ideas are seen throughout history even if they were actually called that at the time.  She also emphasised that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) had a utilitarian purpose not just a moral one.  There was an urgent desire after the carnage of WWII to construct a legal basis of good behaviour between states.

States have to comply with European Court judgements.  The Human Rights Act – often referred to by critics as ‘Labour’s’ Human Rights Act which it isn’t as it received all party support – incorporates the ECHR into British law thus removing the need for litigants to go to Strasbourg to get justice.

One matter is the vexed question of prisoner voting she said.  The European Court rejected the Government’s case which banned all prisoner voting and said that to ‘prescribe general, indefinite and automatic deprivation of a right to vote’ infringed a prisoner’s article 3 rights.  Thus far the government has ignored the ruling.  The issue was one of proportionality.

She spent some time on the often confusing difference between the Council of Europe and the European Union the latter being what we wish to leave (it was announced yesterday that the Article 50 notice to depart will be served on 29th of this month).  The Council of Europe consists of 47 states and within which the European Court sits.  This deals with human rights issues.  The European Union consists – at present – of 28 states and is a political and economic union.  There seem to be many who think that Article 50 means we will no longer be subject to ‘crazy decisions’ of the European Court.  To do that we have to leave the European ConventionThere have been reports that the prime minister Theresa May wishes to do that as well.

All legislation and legal judgements have to be in accordance with the HRA she said.  Indeed, the number of judgements already made by the courts represent a considerable body of precedent based on the HRA and the European Court.  Even if we come out of the European Convention the effects will be present for a considerable period.  It is also forgotten that the European Court is not the only thing which binds us, we are also signatories to a host of other treaties which will still be in existence.

BBoR

One of the arguments frequently heard is that it is not just about rights but also about responsibilities.  It was this principle which led to the desire to have a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.  This is a difficult argument to fathom.  Sometimes, people talk about responsibilities in terms of the government’s responsibilities to its citizens to uphold the Act.  Others argue that the citizen has responsibilities not just rights.  There are other arguments about the need to fight terrorism because the act has undermined this ability, it is claimed, and this requires responsibilities in some ill-defined way.   Claire was unclear what the BBoR would contain.

The relationship between rights and responsibilities needs to be understood.  Most rights are qualified in any event and, in practical terms, depend on the responsibility of everyone in society to respect one another’s freedoms (so that one party’s right to free expression, for example, does not impinge too far on another’s right to a private and family life).  These rights cannot be subjected to any all-encompassing limitation, such as that they are legally contingent on performance of set of duties and responsibilities. Their application regardless of such considerations is precisely the point of their existence.

It is often claimed by critics that the European Court was ‘imposed’ on the UK.  It wasn’t and the UK was a key participant in its formation after the war with many British lawyers involved.  It is also argued that the HRA should only be used for the most serious of cases but what this would mean in practice is not clear.  Who would decide on seriousness?

If, as is threatened, we do come out of the European Convention the effects could be traumatic.  At present countries like Russia and Turkey are part of it.  Russia’s human rights record is already poor and Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of judges, lawyers, academics and police.  If the UK pulls out of the Convention, of which it was a founder member, the effects could be even more serious in those countries.

The HRA has had a steady and beneficial effect on many people’s lives in this country.  In countless day to day decisions by authorities of various kinds, its provisions have to be adhered to and lawyers regularly use it to defend their client’s interests.  Perhaps its chief problem is that it shifts some power down to the individual, a fact which those who were in control find uncomfortable.

This was a most interesting evening about a subject which is bound to be in the news for some time to come.


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Dark day for democracy and free speech.  Government gets ‘the most extreme powers ever’

The Investigatory Powers Bill became law this week and it is a dark day for democracy, not just in the UK, but the signal it gives to the rest of the world.  That one of the oldest democracies in the world should want to garner for itself, a whole set of powers to pry into peoples communications and to find out journalists’ sources is a matter of shame.  It will provide increased encouragement to regimes around the world to clamp down further on their citizens.

The wonder of it is that so many people are so relaxed about it.  Although over 130,000 people protested, the government took little notice.

Picture: 5pillarsuk.com

The state needs to have a security apparatus. When the nation is under threat either in the time of war or by terror groups, it must have the means to investigate.  This is likely to mean eavesdropping in some form or other.

There is also the issue of secrecy and confidentiality.  People in government should have the means to discuss ideas and float policy ideas without it being published in the media – to start with at least.

Technology has provided a means now to invade individual’s private space with ease.  Technology has surpassed the law in this regard.  Nearly all the key technologies are operated out of Silicon Valley in the USA over which we have no control.  Is it not interesting that Britain voted to come out of the European Union and one of the key reasons was sovereignty.  Yet in this regard, sovereignty is in California.

The Guardian reports:

The new surveillance law requires web and phone companies to store everyone’s web browsing histories for 12 months and give the police, security services and official agencies unprecedented access to the data.

It also provides the security services and police with new powers to hack into computers and phones and to collect communications data in bulk. The law requires judges to sign off police requests to view journalists’ call and web records, but the measure has been described as “a death sentence for investigative journalism” in the UK.  (29 November 2016)

The increasing ability to intercept communications has and is having an effect on free speech.  It is described as having a ‘chilling effect’.  Journalists working on these topics have to go to extraordinary lengths to cover their tracks.  Material has to be hidden abroad for protection from the security services.  Some other issues are more open to debate.

In case of war and terrorist attacks, the media quickly falls into line and the normal business of tackling government ministers is forgotten.  It quickly becomes a matter of supporting ‘our boys’ and even questions of the quality of kit for example do not get asked.

The crucial issue is one of power and control.  The very business of being able to pry into anyone’s private affairs gives the state enormous powers.  As citizens we should expect that these powers are used when necessary; are subject to control wherever possible (like the controls on searches); are subject to close scrutiny, and are in accord with properly laid down laws.  Controls on operational matters should not be in the hands of politicians who cannot on the whole be trusted with secrets of this nature.  The level of intrusion should be matched by the degree of scrutiny.

As usual, supporters of snoopery will trot out the old adage that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.  This is, in its most fundamental way, true.  But the trouble is that as with all these moves what we are seeing is only the thin end of a very long and dangerous wedge.  Most law-abiding people have no reason to worry about other people knowing what websites they have visited.  But once you give the authorities the ability to do this history tells us that this ability will, inevitably, end up being abused.  (Daily Mail)

In the 3 or so years that the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ has been debated, it is often stated by members of the public that they are not concerned and if the security services want to listen in to their conversations with their auntie they are free to do so – ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ is the frequent refrain.  Yet if police and security services arrived at their front door and searched their house and computer without a warrant or reason to do so, they would be outraged.  Is the difference just that one is visible and the other isn’t?

Likewise, if you asked these same members of the public ‘do you trust our politicians?’ they would think you were a little mad. Yet they are happy to allow them or their agents to intrude into their affairs.  The current Home Secretary is Amber Rudd and readers of Private Eye and the Daily Mirror will have read several revelations about her less than honest business affairs involving dodgy companies and diamond mines.  Questions have also been asked about her tax affairs.   To her, the nation entrusts its secrets.

To come of course is the promised withdrawal from the European Court and the threatened repeal of the Human Rights Act.

We have not lived in a state such as existed in East Germany, Romania or the Soviet Union where the degree of control was extreme. Thus people in the UK are not aware of the harmful effects of giving too much power to those in power.

Finally, is it even sensible in its own terms?  Someone once said that hunting for terrorists was like ‘hunting for a needle in a haystack’.  Is it wise then to increase the size of the haystack?

Chilling.


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rightsinfo-logoRights Info has only been going four months but has already begun to establish itself in the human rights world.  It is dedicated to providing accurate information on the subject of human rights. This is extremely important now because the present government would like to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with their own Human Rights and Responsibilities act (or whatever it may be called).  This has been promised for several years and we await details in due course.

The government is egged on by a media which regularly produces inaccurate or exaggerated stories of the workings of the act, often tying it into the European Convention on Human Rights, presenting it as an unwarranted intrusion into our legal processes.  The fact that it was British and French lawyers who prepared the ECHR – at Churchill’s behest – based on basic principles of justice established over many years, seems to have been forgotten.  As we have noted before, the act is of great benefit to ordinary citizens in the UK who use it to secure justice from authorities.

Rights Info has been providing a source of information to counter the tide of misinformation from newspapers and some politicians. They have just launched a similar exercise to provide information about the European Court which also gets a bad press.  It is called The European Court of Human Rights Uncovered.  One of the examples it gives concerns the total number of applications and judgements.  There have been 22,781 applications against the UK.  Number of judgements is just 513 of which the court found at least one violation to be 301.  301 over 22,781 is 1.32%.  The Sun newspaper reports this as ‘UK loses 60% of cases’.

Terrorism cases get a lot of publicity with the impression given that they are winning cases all over the place.  In 40 years (1975 – 2015) out of 297 cases, just 14 were terrorists.  203 were ‘other people’ that is ordinary citizens in their fights against authorities of one kind or another.

Over the coming months we are likely to see an increase in bad news stories about the HRA and the European Court as the government seeks to soften up the public ahead of its plans to abolish it.  It is useful to know that there is a source of accurate information to go to.