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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why Theresa May is wrong to want to quit the European Court on Human Rights

Theresa May's intervention in the European referendum debate yesterday was not just astonishing but deeply damaging for her reputation as Home Secretary. For somebody in that position to argue, as she did that we could trade an international court that guarantees our rights for membership of a free trade organisation such as the EU betrays ignorance of both.

The Independent sets out five important reasons why we should remain within part of the European Court of Human Rights which was set up by Winston Churchill and other Britains. The ECHR, opened in 1959 and upholds the European Convention on Human Rights among individuals against the 47 European countries, not just the 28 member countries of the EU. It is not directly an EU institution. The EU has its own court, the European Court of Justice, but the ECHR's rulings often become case law for countries.

The paper outlines some of the most significant laws the ECHR has brought to Britain. It is worth reproducing them in full:

1. Freedom of the press

In 1979 the ECHR backed the Sunday Times and its right to publish details of the thalidomide scandal, in which more than 300 people were thought to be victims of birth deformities because of the poorly tested drug.

The paper, under editor Harold Evans, fought an injunction against publishing all the way up to the ECHR after national courts did not back its attempts to bring the case to light. The ECHR overruled the courts and backed the freedom of the press to publish in the national interest.

2. Child protection

After a UK court found that a stepfather had used "reasonable chastisement" when beating his stepson with a wooden cane, the ECHR overruled them and said it amounted to "inhuman or degreading treatment".

The UK government announced later that it would legislate to give children better protection.

3. Homophobia

The criminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland was ruled as illegal by the ECHR in 1981.

This ruling set the legal precedent for the Council of Europe ultimately requiring that no EU state could criminalise male or female homosexual acts - a major protection measure for the LGBT community.

A claim of religious discrimination by two Christians who did not want to deal with same-sex couples was also thrown out by the Strasbourg court in 2013, who backed the employers that had disciplined them.

4. Torture

During the 1970s the British army used five "techniques" on IRA members including being forced into stress positions for hours, hooding, being subjected to noise and food and sleep deprivation.

The ECHR ruled this as inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of human rights in 1978 and had the practice within the army officially ended.

5. Deportation

Two cases have particularly inflamed the debate in some of the media and the Conservative Party around the European Convention of Human Rights.

First, the case of Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, a Kurdish asylum seeker who killed a 12-year-old girl in a driving accident and was able to plea a right to family life to remain in Britain seeking asylum.

The second was terror suspect Abu Qatada - Ms May's particular case study in the failings of the ECHR - whom Strasbourg blocked from being returned to Jordan because of evidence he had been tortured there.

Once Jordan promised not to use evidence obtained under torture, he was removed from the UK and stood trial in that country in 2013.

The ECHR also backed the deportation of five other terror suspects to the US after finding there would be no violation of human rights once they were in a "supermax" prison there.

There is a strong case for remaining part of an institution with such a track record. I am astonished that the Home Secretary cannot see that.
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