UK media blind with indignation at Strasbourg court

is international director, Centre for Freedom of the Media

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The Prime Minister says he feels physically sick about letting some prisoners vote in elections, as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) insists the UK should. And Parliament has forcefully expressed its opposition to prisoners' votes.

David Cameron is also "appalled" at a UK Supreme Court decision, taken in line with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to allow convicted sex offenders in Britain a chance to appeal against automatically staying on a sex offenders' register for life.

Our politicians have set a shrill tone and made some misleading attacks on the supposed mission creep of the Strasbourg court (above), the Convention (based on a treaty that took effect in 1953) and on human rights judges in "Europe" and at home.

Those cries of foul have been amplified in the media. The result is that a hot-and-bothered strand of UK popular opinion is encouraged to believe in a conspiracy of foreigners to force Britons, against their better judgment, to protect criminals over the interests of law-abiding citizens. The ECtHR is imperfect - as any court or judiciary may be - but the picture is wildly out of kilter with reality.

How has this hostile caricature of the Strasbourg court as a sort of predatory enemy of British interests emerged in the media? 

Missing from the picture is the salient fact that the Strasbourg court is the only international human rights court which gives legal force to a major part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the envy of people in large parts of the world where national courts, indeed all the powers of the state, are routinely used by oppressive regimes to suppress all forms of opposition.

Unlike the European Union, the ECtHR is concerned primarily with the basic human rights of individuals and minorities among all of Europe's 800 million people. The ECtHR court exists to protect them from violations of their basic rights by their own government.

The UK government was among the first to submit itself to that international authority, and in the 1990s, when many former communist states joined the system, the right of individual appeal became obligatory to all - again, with Britain's consent.

So, today the ECtHR is a lifeline for citizens in all 47 Council of Europe member states to seek redress for abuses of power by their government. Last year alone, over 60,000 individuals filed cases in Strasbourg claiming violations of their rights.

The great majority of cases are routinely found inadmissible. But ECtHR judgments significantly advance the cause of human rights and the rule of law by forcing offending countries to remedy chronic injustices - including torture and unlawful killings by security forces in Chechnya, lack of a fair trial in Romania and Poland, and legal shackles on freedom of expression in Turkey.

Last year, Russia was found in violation of the Convention in 204 cases. The UK was ruled in breach in 14 cases. 

Also missing from much of the UK media coverage has been the context necessary to understand complex and emotive legal issues. It is important, for example, to know that the UK was given ample notice by the court - more than five years - of the requirement to decide what steps to take to end the "blanket ban" on prisoners being allowed to vote. There was no pressure to give the vote to murderers, rapists etc. (See the Times Law Report of 24 November 2010.)  

There was no ambush. The protestations of British ministers ring hollow in Strasbourg where UK judges and lawyers are proud of the country's leading role in developing the jurisprudence of the ECtHR, and where British ministers chastise other states which flout the court's rulings.

As for the second issue - the Supreme Court's ruling in favour of a limited right of appeal for sex offenders - the UK is currently out of line with the norm in democratic states in having no provision at all for this. What the Supreme Court envisages is a strict vetting system aimed at giving the chance of appeal in a very limited number of cases.

So, was the talk of "human rights insanity" over the top? You be the judge.

As for the picture of the UK as the victim of a judicial putsch from Europe, here are two things that belie it:

Firstly, the record shows that mandatory rulings from the court have helped Britain to improve its patchy human rights record on issues where political or popular opinion had seemed implacably opposed to change.  

Examples are the judgements banning corporal punishment; and those requiring changes to the control order regime set up by the Blair government, as well as sweeping stop and search powers for the police.  

Journalists should be mindful that rulings of the ECtHR have strengthened their legal rights to investigate and disclose injustices - from the Sunday Times' thalidomide ruling in the 1970s to other landmark cases giving protection to journalists when reporting matters of public interest or resisting the demands of courts to reveal confidential sources.

Secondly, loose claims of a power grab by "Europe" arise from confusion - which politicians and media should really not be forgiven for after all this time - with the EU, whose quasi-governmental powers have indeed grown massively via a series of treaties since the original one in 1957.  

As a rule of thumb, EU ministers meet to agree among themselves on ways to regulate the lives of people in member states, while the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe meets mostly to supervise the execution of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights.  

All of this risks becoming a serious clash of powers. The Government now says it is exploring whether a new British Bill of Rights could "overrule" the ECHR. The centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange argues that, unless other ways are found, the UK might withdraw from the jurisdiction of the ECtHR to stop UK citizens from lodging appeals in Strasbourg.

The President of the ECtHR, Jean-Paul Costa, has pointed out that Britain could become the first country since Greece under the colonels more than 40 years ago to denounce the Convention - an uncomfortable position for a country which claims a leading role as a champion of democratic rights.

Lord Woolf, an authority on the British constitution, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme of his fear that "we are downgrading the rule of law".

But now the UK looks like going further on the offensive with the Government's public pledge to use its six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe from November to make the ECtHR conform better with the latest demands for minimum "interference" from Strasbourg.

That sounds suspiciously like a new version of the UK's confrontations with the EU over issues of national sovereignty some 20 years ago.

Others would like to see the UK use its energies to instead strengthen the authority of the Council of Europe and the Human Rights Court, and counter signs that member states' commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law are slipping, 22 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At such a time, the media needs to understand the value of the Convention and the work of the Court of Human Rights in upholding universal rights.

Here's what I wrote about the European Court of Human Rights for BBC News in 2009.

William Horsley is a former BBC foreign correspondent. As UK Chair of the Association of European Journalists and International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield, he publicly defends freedom of expression in the media.

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