• Alex Dingwall

European Convention on Human Rights Turns 60

As we mark the 60th Anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights coming in to force, CRER believes it is time to stand up and remind people of the facts behind the Convention, how we all benefit from the rights that it protects and why we should oppose any attempts to undermine the Convention. The European Convention on Human Rights was the first Council of Europe’s convention aiming at protecting human rights. Its ratification is a prerequisite for joining the Council of Europe. It was adopted in 4 November 1950 and entered into force on September 3rd 1953. The United Kingdom was among the first states to ratify the ECHR and played a pivotal role in its creation. The UK accepted the right of individuals to take a case to Strasbourg and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in 1966.

The Convention guarantees a range of political rights and freedoms of the individual against interference by the State. Before the incorporation of the Convention, individuals in the United Kingdom could only complain of unlawful interference with their Convention rights by lodging a petition with the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That all changed on 2 October 2000 when the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA)came into force, allowing UK citizens to sue public bodies for breaches of their Convention rights in domestic courts.

The Convention protects the right to:

  • life, freedom and security.

  • respect for private and family life.

  • freedom of expression.

  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

  • vote in and stand for election.

  • a fair trial in civil and criminal matters.

  • property and peaceful enjoyment of possessions.

The Convention prohibits:

  • the death penalty.

  • tortureor inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

  • slavery and forced labour.

  • arbitrary and unlawful detention.

  • discrimination in the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms secured by the Convention.

  • deportation of a state’s own nationals or denying them entry and the collective deportation of foreigners.

This anniversary comes at a time when the unpopularity of the Human Rights Act has been widely asserted by some politicians and commentators, but as the Equality and Human Rights Commission has stated ‘the evidence should not be misconstrued and has sometimes been overstated. Polls indicate overwhelming public support for the rights guaranteed in the Human Rights Act and for the existence of legislation to protect human rights, even though there has sometimes been disquiet about the way that the Human Rights Act is applied (or is perceived to have been applied). One of the biggest charges against the Convention and the European Court of Human Rights is that the UK courts are being regularly overturned in favour of European judges dictating to the UK.

In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission looked at the facts about UK cases in Strasbourg:

(Equality and Human Rights Commission, Research report 83,The UK and the European Court of Human Rights)

The UK has a very low ‘rate of defeat’ at Strasbourg. Of the nearly 12,000 applications brought against the UK between 1999 and 2010, the vast majority fell at the first hurdle. Only three per cent (390 applications) were declared admissible. An even smaller proportion of applications - 1.8 per cent (215) - eventually resulted in a judgment finding a violation. In other words, the UK ‘lost’ only one in fifty cases brought against it in Strasbourg. If adjustment is made for repetitive cases (i.e. cases where the violation has the same root cause and therefore multiple judgments are counted as a single judgment), the rate of defeat falls to 1.4 per cent (161). The latest figures for 2011 show a rate of defeat of just 0.5 per cent, or one in 200. Of all applications lodged against the UK which (having been found admissible) result in a judgment, around 66 per cent found at least one violation and 16 per cent found no violation. These figures are not surprising given the high threshold for admissibility, which means that only cases of substantial merit make it over the initial hurdle. Compared to a selected sample of Council of Europe states, the UK has among the lowest number of applications per year brought against it. The UK also has a lower percentage of these applications declared admissible and loses proportionately fewer of the cases brought against it.

The impact of Strasbourg judgments on the UK

Many European Court of Human Rights judgments have had a far-reaching impact on the rights and freedoms of individuals in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Notable among these are cases relating to torture and inhuman or degrading treatment and those concerned with protection of life and procedural obligations for the investigation of deaths.

Other important impacts include legal reform to prevent the indiscriminate retention of the DNA profiles of innocent people and to protect people in the UK from unnecessary intrusion into their privacy through the use of secret surveillance. It is also due to a Strasbourg judgment that police can no longer stop and search people without needing any grounds for suspicion.

Legislation outlawing forced labour and servitude has its origins in a Strasbourg ruling, thereby protecting some of the most vulnerable individuals in the UK from extreme exploitation.

Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights have been significant milestones in the movement for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

They have also been instrumental in bringing about the banning of corporal punishment in UK schools and restricting the physical punishment of children in the family.

There have also been significant European Court of Human Rights judgments protecting the freedom of the UK media, including the protection of journalists' sources and the importance of investigative journalism, as in the exposure by the Sunday Times of the thalidomide case.

The British Institute of Human Rights have provided resources by the Council of Europe and others on the ECHR and the Court. These include:

  • Simplified version of the European Convention on Human Rights

  • Video by the Council of Europe on the rights in the ECHR

  • An illustrated version of the ECHR

  • Factsheet on the 'European Court of Human Rights in 50 Questions'

  • 'Rights and Freedoms in Practice: teaching resources' including lots of examples of the impact of the ECHR and Court

  • Information for applicants produced by the Council of Europe

  • A series of factsheets on countries and issues produced by the Council of Europe

  • Briefing on cases at the Court by the Human Rights Futures Project at the LSE

  • Report on 'The UK and the European Court of Human Rights' by London Metropolitan University

  • 'Churchill's Legacy: The Conservative Case for the Human Rights Act' by Jesse Norman and Peter Oborne with Liberty

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