Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cameron’s Dangerous Game Could Have Dire Consequences in the East

The ‘continuous delay’ of a European Court of Human Rights ruling will not go unnoticed by Eastern Europe’s authoritarian governments

On the face of it, David Cameron’s stance on the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling which would have allowed prisoners in the UK to vote seems the right one. He has upheld the will of the democratically-elected House of Commons against the whim of an intrusive ‘foreign court’.

It is not just that the UK is opting out of ECHR decisions, but it is how it is doing it. First London pursued the avenue of trying to make the court’s rulings ‘advisory’ to those of national courts, but failed to make the inroads it would have liked to have done in the Brighton Declaration. Now the UK is taking a different tack. The ECHR has given the UK 6 months to fall into line, but UK ministers have suggested they will just indefinitely put off the court’s ruling and leave it hanging in the air. They would simply submit annual 'progress reports',so kicking its implementation into the long grass for the foreseeable future. Such ingenuity is the kind the Kremlin would be proud of.

Now, on the specific issue in question many would sympathise with the UK government’s position. One could reasonably argue, in a moral sense, that the individual who has taken the rights of others should lose rights of their own, and many clearly think so, including the Shadow Chancellor. I happen to think that excluding these people further from society probably does little to help rehabilitate them, but if people who’ve done nasty things can’t vote I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it.

What bothers me, from a Europe wide perspective, is how this mechanism might be used elsewhere. Certain members of the Council of Europe already drag their feet when it comes to Strasbourg’s rulings, and consistently fail to bring their national standards into line with those of the Council of Europe. But at the moment, at least we can say with some justification that these countries are failing to achieve European standards, and to satisfy the conditions that they entered into when they joined the Council of Europe. Now however, they might just ‘indefinitely postpone’ judgements against them, arguing quite reasonably that there should not be one rule for them and different rules for others.

The UK on the other hand needs to look carefully at the path it has taken. It seems reasonable to lobby about what cases and issues might be excluded from Strasbourg’s reach. The backlog of cases at the ECHR is well documented, and perhaps, as some have suggested, there are issues of conscience which might reasonably be put firmly in the remit of national governments. What I would take issue with is the Prime Minister’s emotive language about the ECHR being a ‘foreign court’.

Nobody forces the UK to be a member of the Council of Europe. Belarus after all shows how you can manage without such foreign meddling. The metro bombers who were sentenced to death, and their families informed the following day, didn’t have to hang around for Strasbourg’s dithering. I’m not suggesting the UK wants to follow Belarus, but listening to some people you have to wonder. On the back of various cases, such as the infamous ‘pet cat’ case, human rights has become a dirty word in Britain. Sections of the press have become remarkably successful in pinning the blame for these things on these so-called ‘foreign’ organisations. However, I am reminded of Radek Sikorski’s succinct take on UK-EU relations in his famous speech of last November: “...please start explaining to your people that European decisions are not Brussels's diktats but results of agreements in which you freely participate.” Perhaps the UK needs to rethink that participation, if it’s such an issue for them. With UKIP still noisy, and even calls to pull Britain out of the Eurovision Song Contest, perhaps this is a discussion Britons urgently need to be having.

However, staying within but undermining an institution such as the ECHR, the last chance saloon for many in Europe’s east, seems irresponsible. The consequences of bending the rules will be seen far beyond Britain’s prisons.

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