UK plans for human rights court changes criticised
by Daniel Mason
The British government's plans to reform the European Court of Human Rights have been sharply criticised by opposition politicians and campaign groups as ministers meet in Brighton for a high-level conference on the future of the Council of Europe.
Representatives from the 47 member states of the council are gathering in the British seaside resort for tomorrow's opening of a two-day summit to discuss the changes proposed by the United Kingdom, which holds the organisation's rotating chairmanship until May 23.
The UK's Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government has said it wants to make changes so that the court in Strasbourg operates more effectively and clears an extensive backlog of about 160,000 cases. It wants to give countries greater freedom in interpreting the principles contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, and reduce the number of repeat cases heard.
Britain has clashed with the court over a number of recent high profile cases, including its judgement that radical cleric Abu Qatada should not be deported to Jordan because he might not face a fair trial. He was rearrested yesterday after home secretary Theresa May said she said had received fresh assurances from Jordan, although she admitted that the appeal process meant it could still be months before he leaves the country. Meanwhile Prime Minister David Cameron said the court's ruling that British law should be changed to give some prisoners the right to vote – a change rejected by members of the UK parliament – made him feel "physically sick"
But Labour MEP Michael Cashman said the British government was "stripping each one of us of our basic human rights" by pushing for the changes. "We should never forget that without the judgements of the court, homosexuality might still be criminalised in part of the EU," he said.
While accepting that reforms to the court's procedures were necessary, he said the proposals sought to "restrict the access of individuals to the ECHR". Cashman also described the UK's objection to the European Union acceding to the European Convention on Human Rights as "unacceptable and deeply questionable".
Likewise Green MEP Barbara Lochbihler, who chairs the European Parliament's sub-committee on human rights, said it was "high time" the EU joined the convention – a move it committed to in the Lisbon Treaty. She also criticised the UK's proposals for reform. "The UK has again underlined its intention to weaken the ECHR. The Strasbourg court plays a vital role in defending human rights across Europe and ministers must reject this attempt to scale back the competences of the court.
"The proposals to allow national courts greater room to 'interpret' the human rights convention risk undermining the jurisprudence of the European court, enabling a kaleidoscope of human rights law to emerge across the 47 member states. The planned reforms would also limit the possibilities of individuals to bring cases before the Strasbourg court," she said.
Human Rights Watch deputy Europe and central Asia director Benjamin Ward said the plans could create a "two-tier system barring some of those who need the European court's protection most". Describing the proposals as "risky", he said they should be shelved because they put at risk the "safeguard" the court provides for victims of human rights abuses. This week's conference is expected to lead to the so-called Brighton Declaration, an agreement on a package of measures on the council's future.