European judges telling Britain what to do

The oddity of Britain's human rights debate

Feb 10th 2012, 12:19 by Bagehot
ONE of the more depressing episodes of my week came on Tuesday, when I watched the House of Commons debate the case of Abu Qatada, a nasty Islamic radical who has been locked up for a total nine years without charge in this country, and who has just been granted bail by a British immigration judge. The British government would like to deport Mr Qatada to his native Jordan, but is currently being prevented from doing so by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which cites fears that evidence obtained by the use of torture might be used in a Jordanian court against him.
This makes many Conservative MPs, most newspapers and probably most voters very angry indeed. When the Home Secretary, Theresa May, stood up in the chamber to blame European judges for tying her hands, she was greeted with a chorus of "disgrace" and a cry of "sack the lot of them", There were several calls from MPs on her own side to defy the Strasbourg judges and deport Mr Qatada anyway. The Sun agreed, offering to pay for Mr Qatada's one-way ticket, and so did a columnist in the Times (though Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph strongly backed the Strasbourg court). Lots of other countries flout rulings of the Strasbourg court, such as Italy, they thundered.
Why is this depressing? Well, I find it a bit gloomy to discover that lots of British Conservatives have developed a contempt for the rule of law. Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which underlies the powers of the Strasbourg court. Indeed, British lawyers wrote the convention, shortly after the second world war. That is an international treaty obligation.
I have just about grown used to the idea that lots of Tories want to leave the European Union and turn Britain into Switzerland with nuclear weapons. Now, it turns out, they also fancy being Sicily with nukes, casually breaking international treaty obligations when it suits.
If they are really this angry, then at least let them call for a full-scale departure from the convention. I would argue against them, but it would be a more respectable position.
To be fair, some are making the case for a full-scale renegotiation of Britain's ties with Strasbourg. In this week's Spectator, James Forsyth predicts that David Cameron cannot avoid a major bust-up with his own party, if he does not sort out Britain's relationship with the European Court of Human Rights (the judicial arm of the 47-member Council of Europe, and wholly separate from the 27-member European Union, which has its own highest court in Luxembourg).
The Qatada problem may be fixed by a deal with Jordan, involving guarantees about torture-evidence, he writes, but that does not fix a separate looming disaster, involving orders from the Strasbourg court to ease Britain's blanket ban on giving prisoners the vote. An unnamed Conservative close to Mr Cameron is cited in the Spectator suggesting that the only solution is to deport Dominic Grieve, the liberal-minded Conservative attorney-general, a key defender of the European Convention on Human Rights, along with the justice secretary Ken Clarke and Liberal Democrat members of the coalition. A growing number of Tories will only be happy when Britain is free from the Strasbourg court's jurisdiction. "By contrast," Mr Forsyth writes, "the court's supporters view Britain's membership of it as an international badge of honour. If we ever did leave, the letters page of the Times and the Guardian would be full of the liberals declaring that Britain was now worse than Belarus."
Silly old liberals, eh? Always over-reacting and taking the most extreme line on things. Well Bagehot, a liberal when it comes to human rights (with just the faintest dash of neo-con, blame it on four years spent working in China), reckons it is the conservatives who need to stop hyper-ventilating. I don't regard it as an international "badge of honour" for Britain to be a signatory of a human rights treaty that 46 other European countries feel able to live with. I just think it would send a terrible international signal if we stopped being a signatory.
I don't even think that the Strasbourg court is a very impressive body. Its judges are of variable quality and have a dangerously activist taste for using the convention to declare that Europeans enjoy all manner of nebulous social rights that the original framers never intended. Indeed, I wrote a while ago about a very sensible plan led by the British government for reforming the court, starting with plans to tackle its appallingly long backlog of cases. I wish those reform plans luck, though without great optimism.
Nor do I think that if we withdrew from the convention it would make us worse than Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe.Continued

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