The Conservatives in the Coalition Government have been making a lot of noise about sovereignty lately – especially regarding issues such as voting rights for prisoners. They want to make fundamental changes to human rights in the UK that have already been heavily attacked – and rightly so – but do they have a point?
According to Second Reading, the House of Commons Library blog, it’s hard to say – but at least this article tries to put the arguments in context.
It says Article 46.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that “The High Contracting Parties [for example, the UK] undertake to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties.”
So when the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill recently considered the UK’s obligations under Article 46, the witnesses they heard, including a former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC and former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, were of the view that it would be a violation of the rule of law for the UK to fail to comply with its obligations under international law.
The Committee agreed with Lord Mackay that “the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is not an argument against giving effect to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights”, concluding that “Parliament remains sovereign, but that sovereignty resides in Parliament’s power to withdraw from the Convention system; while we are part of that system we incur obligations that cannot be the subject of cherry picking. A refusal to implement the Court’s judgment would not only undermine the international standing of the UK; it would also give succour to those states in the Council of Europe who have a poor record of protecting human rights and who may draw on such an action as setting a precedent that they may wish to follow.”
Second Reading does not suggest this, but it should be clear to readers of Vox Political that a Conservative UK government would not pay any attention to this argument at all. The current Parliamentary Conservative Party loves cherry-picking and would not care one jot what other states decide to do on the back of a UK-based precedent.
Former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, disagrees with the argument, and has said that Parliament should not create measures to end violations found with the European Court if it does not agree that they are necessary. The Conservative Party has said that a Tory government would ensure that rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are no longer binding over the UK Supreme Court (even though UK courts are only required to “take into account” ECHR rulings at the moment. It would become advisory-only.
Second Reading acknowledges that “Many lawyers and representatives of human rights NGOs, such as Liberty and JUSTICE, have been very critical of these proposed reforms.”
It should also be noted that the ECHR spends a tiny amount of its time dealing with UK cases. In 2013 the Court delivered 13 judgments on UK cases (concerning 19 applications), only eight of which found at least one violation of the European Convention.
Second Reading does not pass judgement on whether UK sovereignty is threatened by the ECHR – it is a political football at the moment and the House of Commons Library is impartial in political matters.
It is able to discuss the consequences of withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, as it is possible to work out what these would be:
The UK would be removed from the Council of Europe and the European Union.
This would serve Tory purposes well, as it means withdrawal from the EU without the necessity of a referendum that might split the Conservative Party (remember, many Tories support EU membership; they’re just not as vocal as those who are against it).
British citizens would be left living in a country with little influence on the rest of Europe and therefore even less on the rest of the world, with absolutely no guarantee of their own human rights beyond whatever the Tories would be prepared to throw to them.
For us, it would be the worst of all possible results.
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