Strasbourg question: time to quit human rights court?

Jan 25, 2012

Reforming the European Court of Human Rights is one thing – but threatening to leave it is alarming

DAVID CAMERON will use Britain's remaining time as chair of the Council of Europe to press for reform of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The move comes after last week's decision by the court to block the deportation of Islamist cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan, and in the light of an ongoing debate over the court's ruling that Britain should allow prisoners to vote. In a speech today, Cameron was due to warn the court that it risks undermining its reputation by unnecessarily overturning judgments reached in credible national courts. While some commentators question whether the PM has the power or the right to promote reform of the court, others ask whether the UK should withdraw from its jurisdiction altogether.
Britain should not attack justice

Britain should be defending European justice, not attacking it, writes Nicolas Bratza, president of the Strasbourg court, in The Independent. British parliamentarians and lawyers played a key role in the conception and drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights and "the influence of the Strasbourg court on the development of fundamental rights protection in the UK has been overwhelmingly positive".
The court does not unnecessarily interfere in the judgments of national courts, adds Bratza. Of the 955 applications filed against the UK in 2011, the court found a violation of the convention in just eight cases. So "it is disappointing to hear senior British politicians lending their voices to criticisms more frequently heard in the popular press".
Court has too much leeway

Few question the list of fundamental freedoms in the European Convention, says Dominic Raab, in The Daily Telegraph. The problem is that the Strasbourg court's judges, far from applying European Convention standards, have assumed the power to extend human rights into uncharted areas. "Courts should interpret the law, but leave elected lawmakers to create it."
Recent rulings such as the Abu Qatada decision not only undermine British security, and subvert our democracy, says Raab, they show that the court is "raising human rights standards, rather than simply applying them".
Reform the court or leave

An editorial in The Daily Telegraph says Cameron is right to tell the European Court of Human Rights to "give far greater scope for national courts to come to their own conclusions about how rights are to be interpreted and balanced".
David Cameron can use Britain's chairmanship of the Council of Europe to bring about a fundamental change in the court, adds the Telegraph. "But if that proves to be impossible, then Britain must consider leaving, not the European Convention on Human Rights, but the flawed jurisdiction of the Strasbourg court."
UK risks more isolation

There is no reason the Prime Minister should not set out proposals for reform of the ECHR, says an editorial in The Independent. "But the suggestion that he may withdraw Britain from the ECHR altogether if his demands are not met is alarming". The threat isn't going to help the reform process and "if carried out, would only add to Britain's growing isolation".
Leaving isn't that easy

The problem for Cameron is that the ECHR knows it's holding all the cards, says James Slack in the Daily Mail. The Prime Minister can "huff and puff" but the judges know he cannot do anything without the approval of his Lib Dem partners, "who would never sanction withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights".

Crunch time is coming

Even if Cameron can encourage reform, it will be a slow process, says James Landale on BBC News. And one day soon, the ECHR will rule again on the right of prisoners to vote. Then David Cameron will have to decide whether Britain's laws are made in Westminster or Strasbourg. Then "no amount of reforms to the ECHR will get him off that hook".

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