12 July

Britain and the European Convention on Human Rights

In discussing the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) it is essential, given current wrangling over matters European, to emphasise that membership of the Council of Europe which drafted the ECHR, and assent to the treaty, are matters quite distinct from that of membership of the European Union.

While David Cameron may want to present for his much abused bedrock supporters the image of one ‘tough on Europe’ it is vital that important national debates on the merits and demerits of the ECHR and of the European Union be distinguished and not conflated simply because the word ‘European’ is common to them. We are all in fact Europeans, whether we like it or not.

We are also all human, whether we like it or not, and as such possess a unique kind of value that has been recognised in various legal documents including the British Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ECHR. By such means our governments are (in some measure at least) prevented from legislating and from enforcing laws in violation of the inherent dignity of us, the people.

In principle that is all to the good. Human rights prevent governments from trampling on weak individuals. They have, however, also forced the British Government to consider extending the franchise to convicts, to cease sentencing serious criminals to prison for life without parole, and to put up with a ten-year bureaucratic headache for the Home Office which has only just now been able to deport Abu Qatada, the Islamic extremist who thinks Britain is horrible but who still wants to live here because he faces criminal charges in his native Jordan.

While the last-mentioned seems fairly straightforward, a ‘right to vote’ for convicts and a ‘right to parole’ are both surely matters for national legislatures rather than for universally applicable rights. Otherwise we risk diminishing the value of the right to vote for normal citizens while simultaneously extending it to those who have worked to undermine society. In the other case we force governments to embrace forms of punishment that may not in fact benefit a given State, society or individual, especially when, unlike in the case of capital punishment, incarceration never rules out a possibility of reform.

The idea that withdrawal from the ECHR is somehow inevitable is, quite frankly, bananas, but criticism and discussion of the Convention, in the light of recent events, is surely both justified and entirely sane. If, however, we are to consider the Convention rationally we shall have to enter also into discussion of morality, society and the nature of human individuals. ‘Comprehensive doctrines’ will be raised and employed, by some at least among participants in the debates. We must agree among ourselves that discussion be conducted in a well informed and thoroughly reasonable way. The question is whether the laissez-faire attitudes of politicians and press towards morality and human nature suggest they are up to the task of weighing the rights of man and of the State with any pretence of rational deliberation.

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