The great debate

Pros and cons of the European Court of Human Rights

Court protects freedoms but has been accused of eroding national sovereignty

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to block the UK from sending asylum seekers to Rwanda has reignited debate about whether Britain should remain a signatory.

Established in 1959 by the Council of Europe, the court is the international body that interprets the European Convention on Human Rights.

Supporters say the ECHR safeguards important freedoms, but amid anger over the Rwanda deportations ruling, critics accuse the court of eroding national sovereignty and hindering efforts to deal with foreign criminals.


Pro – protects freedom

Supporters say the ECHR plays a key role in protecting important freedoms and rights for people in all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, which was founded in 1949 to uphold democracy and the rule of law.

The court “guarantees specific rights and freedoms and prohibits unfair and harmful practices” as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, including freedom from torture and slavery, freedom of expression and more, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. These issues “go to the heart of our identity, and stir strong emotions”, said The Law Society Gazette.


Con – erodes sovereignty

Critics argue that the ECHR is an erosion of national sovereignty. Many point to the court’s ruling on prisoner voting and to the cases of Islamist clerics such as Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada, who were charged with terrorism offences abroad but avoided extradition from the UK for long periods due to legal battles with the ECHR.

With migration an increasingly intractable issue, some have argued that the ECHR only complicates matters. In 2016, then home secretary Theresa May argued that severing ties would give British courts greater powers to deport foreign criminals.


Pro – limits on powers

Supporters of the ECHR deny that its powers are as great as some critics claim. Various backers have said that British courts are not required to “blindly” follow the judgments of the European court, but rather need only “take account" of them.

“Even if a judge thinks that a law made by Parliament breaches our human rights he cannot overturn it,” said independent human rights group Liberty. “Our MPs still have the final say.”


Con – obstructs trade

Then foreign Secretary Dominic Raab claimed last year that adherence to the ECHR could lead to economic damage for Britain.

Raab argued that only trading with countries that meet European Convention on Human Rights standards would mean the UK missing out on trade with future “growth markets”. In a leaked video call heard by HuffPost, the minister told Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) staff that “I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world”.


Pro – potential dangers of leaving

Supporters of the ECHR say that withdrawing would be as unpredictable and risky as the decision to leave the EU. “It is a testament to how much of an outlier the UK would become if it withdrew from the court’s jurisdiction that we don’t really know what the legal and political effects would be,” said Adam Wagner, a barrister and the editor of UK Human Rights Blog.


Con – distant interpretations

Critics  believe that a lot of the Strasbourg-based court’s rulings come down to interpretation and argue that with the judges sitting so far from the UK, that poses problems.

In an article on CapX, Conservative peer Daniel Hannan, then an MEP, said that ECHR judges “frequently rule on the basis of what they think the law ought to say rather than what it says”. He added that “the more remote the interpretation of rights becomes, the harder it is to do anything about it when that interpretation loses contact with the plain meaning of the words”.


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