|The Independent reported yesterday, “A commission will be set up within days to consider whether the Government should bring in a ‘British Bill of Rights’ following mounting controversy over rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.” |
“The move will delight Conservative MPs, many of whom want Britain to curb the power of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) after it ordered the Government to grant prisoners the vote at general elections.
“The Liberal Democrats will back the creation of the commission but do not want to dilute the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the ECHR into British law. The commission will try to find a compromise acceptable to the Coalition partners but ministers in both parties admit the divide between them may be too wide to be bridged.”
“‘It is a red-line area for the Lib Dems,’ one Tory minister admitted yesterday. ‘There is no guarantee the commission will find a way forward and the two parties may have to agree to disagree.’ A Liberal Democrat minister agreed: ‘We may end up going our own ways.’”
Writing in the Evening Standard on 24th February, Shadow Justice Minister, Sadiq Khan, accused the Conservatives of “cynically” using recent rulings by the ECHR “as a proxy to express their dissent over Europe.”
“The ECHR is not the problem. Churchill played a key role in establishing it after the Second World War: it was designed to safeguard basic human rights and freedoms. The UK ratified the treaty in 1950, accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
“Before the Human Rights Act came into effect, the rights which it protects could ultimately only be enforced in Strasbourg, not by UK courts. Now, British citizens can bring cases to British courts, in front of British judges, saving them the expense and time of going to Europe.
“The Act, passed in 1998, has, for example, stopped victims of rape from being cross-examined in person by their alleged rapists. It has entitled a mother to include the name of her deceased husband on their child's birth certificate. Yet we hear little about such common-sense decisions.
“The Act was designed deliberately to preserve the long-held doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty: Parliament alone can decide whether to repeal or amend legislation.
“This is not the same as the US Bill of Rights, for example, which gives the US Supreme Court the final say. When the Tories talk about a new Bill of Rights, is this sort of judicial control what they have in mind?”
A leading article in the Independent yesterday also challenged the claims that rulings by the ECHR encroach on Parliamentary sovereignty; highlighted Britain’s fundamental role in the creation of the ECHR, as well as the populist press’ double standards in their reporting on its rulings; and how the ECHR contributes to Britain’s moral authority on human rights. It stated:
“The resurrection of the concept of a British rights bill is a response to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that Britain must end its blanket ban on prisoners from voting and the more recent ruling from the Supreme Court that paedophiles should have an opportunity to appeal against their inclusion on the sex offenders register.”
“Both judgements are examples of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protecting unpopular minorities – precisely what it was established to do.
“Some argue that these sorts of rulings by the courts are an encroachment on Parliamentary sovereignty. This is grossly misleading. It was Parliament that passed the 1998 Human Rights Act giving British judges the ability to implement the ECHR in UK courts. Moreover, the ECHR was written in the wake of the Second World War with the help of British jurists. And when cases reach Strasbourg, rulings are made by a bench that includes a British judge. The ECHR is not some dastardly foreign imposition. Britain helped to make it.”
“And it has protected the rights of all Britons. The populist press shout about the protections afforded by the ECHR to prisoners and paedophiles. They never mention, for instance, that, thanks to the ECHR, children with special needs have a right to be educated in mainstream schools, or that breast cancer sufferers have a right to drugs such as Herceptin.”
“There is a glaring practical problem, too, with Mr Cameron's proposed British Bill of Rights. As the former Law Lord, Lord Woolf, argued last month, unless Britain tears up the ECHR, this new document would be meaningless since the ECHR would still have legal precedence. If the British bill stated that prisoners should not have the vote, but Strasbourg ruled that they should, Strasbourg would have to prevail. Of course, the real agenda of some Conservatives – and many on the right – is indeed to repudiate the Convention, and to quit the Council of Europe which supervises it.
“We should be very clear about what that would mean. Our membership of the Council makes us an example to the world on human rights and gives us the moral authority to criticise other states, particularly those on Europe's borders, when they abuse their own citizens. Russia is a member of the Council. And the European Court is dealing with thousands of cases of human rights abuses there. It is true that the Kremlin has failed to curb its repressive behaviour in response to this legal pressure. But if Britain were to pull out of the ECHR, there would be even less reason for Moscow to take the opinion of Europe seriously.”
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