By Matthew Barrett
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David Cameron's speech to the Council of Europe today sought to make the case for reform of the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR, Mr Cameron said, has become too active in meddling with the affairs of national governments – behaviour which is now undermining not just the ECHR, but the cause of "human rights" in general.
Mr Cameron first put "human rights" in the context of British (and English) liberty:
"Human rights is a cause that runs deep in the British heart and long in British history. In the thirteenth century, the Magna Carta set down specific rights for citizens, including the right to freedom from unlawful detention. In the seventeenth century, the Petition of Right gave new authority to Parliament; and the Bill of Rights set limits on the power of the monarchy. … It was that same spirit… that drove the battle against tyranny in two World Wars and that inspired Winston Churchill to promise that the end of the "world struggle" would see the "enthronement of human rights"."
Mr Cameron also noted that modern British foreign policy (Libya, Iran sanctions, engagement in the UN, empowering women in Afghanistan, etc) has shown "if called to defend [a belief in human rights] with action, we act."
Mr Cameron moved on to frame the original intentions and motivation for the ECHR's foundation:
"Over sixty years ago the Convention was drafted with very clear intentions. It was born in a continent reeling from totalitarian rule shocked by the brutality of the holocaust sickened by man's inhumanity to man. Its purpose was clear: to spread respect for vital human rights across the continent – for life, liberty and the integrity of the person."
Mr Cameron stated that the ECHR should return to this role:
"As we sit here today, in Belarus, there are people being thrown into prison for their political beliefs. Dissidents' voices are being silenced and their rights are being crushed. What is happening less than a thousand miles from here underlines the continuing importance and relevance of the Council, the Convention and the Court. It reminds us that now, more than ever, we need a Court that is a beacon for the cause of human rights, ruthlessly focussed on defending human freedom and dignity, respected across the continent and the world."
Mr Cameron went on to explain how the Court's role as a "beacon" for human rights is under threat:
- "We have seen a massive inflation in the number of cases. In the first forty years of its existence, 45,000 cases were presented to the Court. In 2010 alone, 61,300 applications were presented. This has created a huge backlog – more than 160,000 cases at its peak."
- "The Court is properly safeguarding the right of individual petition – and it's a principle the UK is committed to. But with this, comes the risk of turning into a court of 'fourth instance', because there has already been a first hearing in a court, a second one in an appeal court, and a third in a supreme or constitutional court."
- "[T]he Court is, quite rightly, determined to make sure that consistent standards of rights are upheld across the 47 member states, but at times it has felt to us in national governments that the 'margin of appreciation' – which allows for different interpretations of the Convention – has shrunk and that not enough account is being taken of democratic decisions by national parliaments."
Mr Cameron put things in a British-specific context:
"You will know that in the UK there is a lively debate about the way human rights law works, and how our own national courts interact with Europe. Yes, some of this is misinterpretation – but some of it is credible democratic anxiety, as with the prisoner voting issue. I completely understand the Court's belief that a national decision must be properly made."
Perhaps the key passage, given the outrage at the recent non-deportation of Abu Qatada, was this:
"Protecting a country from terrorism is one of the most important tasks for any government. Again, no one should argue that you defend our systems of rights and freedom by suspending those freedoms. But we do have a real problem when it comes to foreign national who threaten our security. In Britain we have gone through all reasonable national processes including painstaking international agreements about how they should be treated and scrutiny by our own courts and yet we are still unable to deport them. It is therefore not surprising that some people start asking questions about whether the current arrangements are really sensible. Of course, no decent country should deport people if they are going to be tortured. But the problem today is that you can end up with someone who has no right to live in your country, who you are convinced – and have good reason to be convinced – means to do your country harm."
Mr Cameron said he would bring forward proposals to reform the ECHR by "pushing responsibility to the national system", in order to "free up the Court to concentrate on the worst, most flagrant human rights violations". Mr Cameron concluded:
"With this Chairmanship we have a clear opportunity to agree a practical programme of reform. Built on the noble intentions of the Convention. Forged through consensus. Driven by a belief in fundamental human rights and a passion to advance them. This is undoubtedly a challenge – but it is a challenge we can meet together."
The full speech can be read here.
> Amber Rudd MP, who attended the Council of Europe session this week, writes about David Cameron's speech on Comment.