THE UNITED KINGDOM AND THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Today we will talk about the hypothetical withdrawal of Britain from the European Court of Human Right (ECHR).
Indeed, in a "strategy paper" entitled Protecting human rights in the UK, published on 2 October 2014, the Conservative Party said that, if they win a majority in next May's General Election, they will ensure that: "The European Court of Human Rights is no longer binding over the UK Supreme Court” and that "The European Court of Human Rights is no longer able to order a change in UK law and becomes an advisory body only."
In his speech to the Conservative Party conference that took place on October 1st 2014, David Cameron said: "Of course, it's not just the European Union that needs sorting out - it's the European Court of Human Rights”.
The Conservative Party would like the UK to have a veto over decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the body responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights. It seems to be asking that the UK alone be accorded a veto over Court judgments: other Convention signatories, for example, Russia, would still be required to abide by all Court judgments.
The strategy paper added: "in the event that we are unable to reach that agreement [with the Council of Europe], the UK would be left with no alternative but to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights”.
On the face of it, the Conservative Party is now committed to the UK's withdrawal from the Convention since amending the Convention to accord the UK a veto over the European Court's judgments seems impossible.
In order to study what would happen if the UK withdrew from the European court of Human Rights, we will first see the ECHR and its relationship with the UK. Then we will study the major cases that acted as a turning point to the decision of the Conservatives and finally we will observe what would be the consequences of such a withdrawal.
I- Britain and The European convention on human rights
The European convention of human rights is an international treaty aiming to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. It was drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe, a newly created institution. But this text entered into force in 1953. The ratification of the convention is a prerequisite for joining the organization.
At the beginning, at the aftermath of the Second World War, this text has been thought to avoid serious human rights violation as it had been the case during the war. That’s the reason why it is inspired from the Universal declaration of human rights and aimed to achieve greater international unity by claiming granted equal rights for men and women. Moreover, it enforces traditions of civil liberties. The convention protects the right to life, freedom and security, respect for private and family life, freedom of expression, or thought, conscience and religion, vote in and stand for election, a fair trial in civil and criminal matters, property and peaceful enjoyment of possessions. It prohibits the death penalty, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, slavery and forced labor, arbitrary and unlawful detention, discrimination in the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms secured by the convention, and deportation of a state’s own nationals or denying them entry and the collective deportation of foreigners.
This treaty also establishes the European court of human rights (ECHR). The ECHR was set up in 1959. It is composed of 47 judges elected for non-renewable term every nine years. The court provides the protection of fundamental civil and political rights. As an organ of the council of Europe, it is based in Strasbourg.
As a European citizen, you can file a claim in front of the European court of human rights. But several conditions have to be respected before applying to the court. In fact, the ECHR only hears cases about human rights violation, as defined in the text. It means that you can apply if you think one of your rights granted in the convention has been violated. But you cannot file a claim in front of the ECHR if you have not exhausted all local remedies. Then the court has to decide if your claim is admissible or not : was there an actual violation of your rights. If judges find there is no reason to apply, your case will be struck out.
Moreover, the court only hears the case if the defending state has accepted its jurisdiction.
As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the Human rights act 1998 made the European convention of human rights part of domestic law.
In fact, the United Kingdom was one of the first member of the Council of Europe to ratify the convention in 1951. This can be explained by the fact that the country, as part of the winners of WW2, took part to the redaction of the text, hoping to bring peace in Europe.
Despite this attitude, United Kingdom took time to grant “individual petition”, which is the right for its’ citizens to take a case to Strasbourg.
In 2013, the court had decided on 1652 cases concerning the UK but 1633 were declared inadmissible or struck out.
Nowadays, the British government shows a kind of reluctance in front of the convention. In fact, in an article from the Guardian, we could read that Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, “says conservative government would withdraw if parliament failed to secure right to veto Strasbourg court rulings”. Such a withdraw could jeopardize UK membership.
The major cases that acted as a turning point to the decision of the Conservatives
III- Consequences of the British withdrawal from the ECHR
If Britain withdrew from the ECHR, Labour’s 1998 Human Rights Act which is the domestic legislation which enshrines the international principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and obliges all British public institutions to abide by the ECHR would be scrapped to be replaced by a “British bill of rights and responsibilities” that would set out the application of human rights law in a more flexible way. The Tories’ strategy would seek to prevent the use of ECHR Article 8, which stipulates the right to a ‘family life’, by illegal immigrants in order to avoid their deportation. The new Bill will limit some individual rights in certain circumstances. For example, a foreign national who takes the life of another person will not be able to use a defense based on Article 8 to prevent the state deporting them after they have served their sentence.
The text of the original convention would be written into UK law and the European court's rulings would no longer be binding over the Supreme Court. ECHR would become an advisory body and its decisions would no longer be enforced without the consent of British Parliament. Actually, Parliament would be asked to vote every time the Strasbourg court judged that UK law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and the judgment would be binding only if MPs agreed it should be enacted.
Britain should remain signed up to the European convention on human rights, the principles that guide the court. By doing so they avoid an immediate diplomatic crisis, but there is a clear threat of withdrawal if no agreement is reached with the Council of Europe. Britain would “be left with no alternative but to withdraw from” the convention, giving the six months’ notice required by article 58. The Head of the Council of Europe told the Financial times that “Ministers calling for Britain to abandon the European human rights framework are encouraging Russia in its illegal action in Crimea”.
Membership of the Council of Europe is a requirement for EU member states so a withdrawal from the convention could jeopardize Britain’s membership of the EU. Indeed, Some lawyers say all EU member states will be automatically covered by the provisions of the Council of Europe once the EU has become a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights under the terms of the Lisbon treaty so no longer being a signatory of the European convention on human rights would force the UK’s premature exit from the European Union. The Prime Minister has said he will seek to reform Britain's place in the EU, including on issues such as freedom of movement of migrants, before holding an in–out referendum in 2017.
Senior Conservatives believe that the threat to pull out of the human rights convention will be seen as further proof that Britain is prepared to leave the EU if Brussels is not prepared to offer major concessions over issues including immigration and welfare.
A withdrawal from the convention could also place Britain in breach of its international obligations in the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland. The agreement, which was approved by referendums on both sides of the Irish border and lodged at the UN, said the two communities in Northern Ireland would be protected by safeguards that include “the European convention on human rights”.
This decision is seen as a move to reach out to UKIP voters. UK Conservative Party fears the prospect of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) jeopardizing their chances of getting re-elected in 2015. This threat has become even more realistic as the UKIP have managed to win its first seat in the UK House of Commons. The Liberal Democrat Junior justice minister, Simon Hughes, declared that “the Conservatives don’t care about the rights of British citizens – they care about losing to UKIP. These plans make no sense: you can’t protect the human rights of Brits and pull out of the system that protects them” and their leader, Nick Clegg, has claimed “Trashing human rights basically… to cater for, or to go after, UKIP votes is a legally illiterate thing to do and is not in keeping with fine British tradition”.
To conclude, the withdrawal of ECHR by Britain would have terrible impact internationally speaking.
The purpose of human rights protection is clearly to constrain states from mistreating individuals. In particular, the ECHR guarantees a fair trial, protects against torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment, prevents arbitrary detention and ensures freedom of speech and privacy. While a Eurosceptic Member of European Parliament called Daniel Hannan suggests that the UK could solve all those problems by itself, the fact is that it didn’t. Every individual who has won a case against the UK in the ECHR had to try first to obtain a remedy in the UK courts, but failed.
And although it is true that the UK does not breach the Convention as often as some other States, its continued participation in the system is valuable not only as regards protection of British citizens and residents, but as a contribution to supporting human rights protection across the rest of Europe and worldwide. The withdrawal of a large EU Member State from this sophisticated system for the protection of human rights would be bound to deal a significant blow to that system.
According to The President of the ECHR, Judge Dean Spielmann, it would even be a “political disaster”, the ECHR would lose international credibility and it would set a dangerous precedent which could lead to the collapse of unified human rights accords.
Caroline Rivoire, Alexandra Lecomte, Margot Leclavier.