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High powered meeting to discuss ECHR ‘overreach’

Author: Admin
Date: 17th April 2012

A meeting of ministers from 47 states begins tomorrow which will discuss the role of the European Court of Human Rights. One of the big issues to be discussed is whether the court is exceeding its powers and has become too activist.

The conference will take place in Brighton in England and earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron that the ECHR must not "undermine its own reputation" by overruling national courts and becoming a "small claims court" rather than dealing with serious human rights violations.

When the European Court of Human Rights was founded after World War II, the intention was to prevent the gross human rights violations that happened in Europe during the war occurring again.

The ECHR rules on the European Convention on Human Rights and 47 European countries are signatories to the Convention, including Ireland.

The moves to curb the ECHR come after a series of defeats for the UK Government in rulings by the court, such as the demand that prisoners be given the vote and a ban on deporting the terror suspect Abu Qatada to Jordan.

And just last month, the ECHR ruled that the right to private life, found in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, obliges governments to protect individuals of ethnic groups from being unduly offended by “negative stereotypes”.

Writing in the London Times, international human rights expert Jacob Mchangama said the ruling made the court “both the guardian and censor of freedom of expression”.

It also showed, he said “that the court is unlikely to be willing to moderate its judicial activism”. 

However the latest draft of the planned reforms, seen by The Times, suggests that key British demands have been toned down before full negotiations even start. 

One important change in the latest draft suggests that Britain will no longer demand that ECHR judges offer non-binding "advisory opinions" in some cases, rather than full judgments.

Instead, the document merely notes that the “interaction between the court and national authorities could be strengthened” by the establishment of this power.

This proposal had already been dismissed by the ECHR's British president, Sir Nicolas Bratza, who told Parliament it would mean judges being "literally swamped" by requests.

Britain had also called for Strasbourg only to consider "those cases not covered by existing case law” in the longer term. But this demand has been replaced by a vague commitment to "more profound changes".

A spokesman for Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary who will open discussions on Thursday, told The Daily Telegraph: “Robust discussions are ongoing, but we are confident that the PM’s vision as set out in Strasbourg will be realised. These are mere drafting details which are bound to emerge in negotiations with 47 countries.”

But Dominic Raab, the Tory MP who has led criticism of the ECHR, said: “The negotiating text has predictably been subject to wrecking amendments to scupper meaningful reform. The Government will have to put in the diplomatic elbow grease to pave the way for an amendment to the convention that ensures the court pays greater respect to our democratic institutions."

Since the ECHR was established in 1959, 61 per cent of judgments have gone against the UK government.

In a speech to the Council of Europe in January, Mr Cameron said the court was preventing Britain from fulfilling its “duty to law-abiding citizens to protect them”.

Meanwhile, a new academic report published today has suggested that unelected judges do not take the views of politicians seriously enough in the increasingly “ferocious” debate about human rights.

Murray Hunt, legal adviser to Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights, warns that action must be taken to address a “debilitating democratic deficit”.

He says that although elected governments express their commitment to human rights, these rights are enforced by “profoundly undemocratic” unelected judges, leading to “genuine concerns” that “unaccountable” figures are “sidelining Parliament”.

“As a result, there is a genuine and profoundly felt impression that elected decision-makers and not taken sufficiently seriously by courts, and human rights discourse is everywhere bedevilled by a permanent crisis of democratic legitimacy.”

Prof Hunt, visiting professor of law at Oxford University, adds that the question of “who decides” and has the ultimate authority is an “obstacle” and an “unhelpful distraction” from the more important matter of making sure rights are protected.

Ministers have been left exasperated by rulings from the Strasbourg justices that have paved the way for prisoners to have the vote and prevented terrorists and convicted criminals from being deported.

Meanwhile attempts to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with a more limited Bill of Rights have been delayed while ministers have ignored calls from backbench Tories to ignore the ECHR’s rulings.


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