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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

That bogeyman again

Suddenly there is a lot of activity from Conservative Ministers regarding the European Convention on Human Rights, not least this latest vow by the Justice Secretary to 'kickstart reform' of the ECHR and the European Court on Human Rights when Britain takes up a key role in Europe later this year. Anybody would think that they were trying to appease Tory right wingers.

The Prime Minister has announced a commission to examine the creation of a British Bill of Rights and the country’s relationship with the European court. What he seems to have missed is that we already have a Bill of Rights. It is the Act of Parliament that enshrined the Convention into British law.

Much as Cameron may want to pick and choose which rights he is in favour of, he is likely to find that moral principles do not easily adapt to political expediency. He is walking into a legal minefield and so far he appears to have forgotten to check in advance where the mines are situated.

As Lord Woolf, who was the country’s most senior judge between 2000 and 2005, makes clear, the Convention on Human Rights is a treaty obligation that would require the agreement of all 47 signatories to amend. A new, more limited Bill of Rights would cause conflict between the two:

“We have got a stark option: either we accept the European Convention, or we don't accept it and decide to leave the Council of Europe.

"It's very difficult to do what Mr Clarke indicated he would like to do when he's chairman of the relative body, because there are 47 signatories in Europe which are signatories to the European Convention as well as ourselves.

“To try and amend that is a virtually impossible task."

He added that any possible Bill of Rights would also fail to solve the problem and would place judges in a difficult position trying to balance opposing rights.

He said: “If you have a further convention – a British Convention – there's going to be a complication in the position, because you're going to have two conventions to which the courts are going to have a regard.”

Mr Clarke has stressed there is no chance of the UK pulling out of the ECHR and Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat peer, said membership of the Convention was a pillar to the Lib Dems involvement in the Coalition Government.

Like the Prime Minister I do not agree with every ruling that comes out of the European Courts, but we have to accept that they are the ultimate authority on this issue. Even good laws can produce the occasional perverse outcome but that does not undermine the principles on which they are based.

No country, least of all Britain can cut itself adrift from its international obligations. We live in an interdependent world and we have to accept that there is a downside as well as an upside to that. If we want to enjoy the protection of the human rights convention then we have to accept it all, warts and all.

Personally, I believe it is a good thing that the Convention is there. It was drawn up by Britain and it provides a moral code by which civilised countries can judge their behaviour. As Shami Chakrabarti says: "It protects all of us from the whims of politicians and when the current frenzy of misinformation has died down, voters will worry about MPs who seek to put themselves above the law."

Turning the European Convention on Human Rights into some sort of political bogeyman is helping nobody. At a time when tyrants are being overthrown by popular uprisings in Africa, we should not appear to be on the wrong side of the rule of law or of the clear human values offered by the Convention.
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