UK proposals to weaken European Court of Human Rights

19.04.12 @ 06:46

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - A UK-led initiative to weaken the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) could violate the rights of European citizens, Diogo Pinto, the secretary-general of the Brussels-based NGO, the European Movement International has said.

  • Putin (c) visits victims of the Dubrovka theatre tragedy (Photo: kremlin.ru)

"A number of UK draft proposals could in practice give the power to the national courts to decide which cases are to be reviewed by the European court, and to the national governments to have greater leeway in applying its judgments. We are worried that this would violate the rights of the individuals across Europe to apply to the court," he told this website on Wednesday (18 April).

Among the UK draft proposals is a change to the court's "margin of appreciation" - a concept that enables it to apply its founding document, the European Convention on Human Rights, differently to each member state, broadening national powers over the court and making it into more of an advisory body. The UK is also keen to tweak the admissibility criterion, making it harder for individuals to bring cases to the court.

Ministers and senior representatives from the Council of Europe (CoE), the Strasbourg-based body which governs the court, will discuss the new ideas at a congress in Brighton, in the UK, on Thursday.

A so-alled Brighton Declaration will on Friday enshrine any new political agreement. But a formal decision on reforms will wait until mid-May, when CoE ministers are to meet again.

The UK, currently chairing the CoE, has claimed that the ECHR is undermining national efforts to change immigration policy, deport terrorists and set rules for prisoners.

Meanwhile, popular newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, have backed the government line, with a series of articles depicting the CoE as an obscure continental club trying to usurp national sovereignty.

The ECHR is the last recourse for victims of human rights abuses who can file complaints only after losing all their appeals at member-state-level.

Abu Qatada re-arrested

In a high profile case involving Islamist cleric Abu Qatada in January, the ECHR ruled against his deportation to Jordan by the UK saying he risks torture if he is sent home.

The UK re-arrested Qatada on Tuesday morning and plans to send him packing, saying it has received assurances from Jordan that he will not be mistreated.

A draft version of the Brighton Declaration dated 12 April reaffirms the rights of individual applicants to the ECHR. But there are concerns some member states want to curb access to the court.

Not all CoE members - which include Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine - respect the rule of law. But on paper all are presumed to implement its convention in good faith.

"This is a weakness that is almost impossible to deal with when the assumption of the convention is that all member states are committed to liberal democracy," Jacob Mchangama, the director of legal affairs at the Danish think-tank Cepos told EUobserver.

"Russia is elephant in the room"

Russia is the target of 37,850 ECHR complaints - some 25 percent of all applications. In 2010 alone, there were 1,079 judgements against it. In 1,019 of the cases, the court found at least one violation of the convention.

These included inhuman and degrading conditions of detainees awaiting trial and negligence by security services, which used a narcotic gas that caused the deaths of over 120 hostages at the Dubrovka theatre in October 2002 in Moscow.

Having lost many prominent cases, Russia attempted to introduce a bill last year that would give the its Constitutional Court "a right to block" the enforcement of the court's judgments, Ireneusz Kaminski, an expert at the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, noted in his blog.

"Russia is the elephant in the room and ... the British chairmanship is doing the work for them," the European Movement International's Pinto said.

His view is backed by Kaminski, who told this website that the position of the UK and the Russian Federation on the ECHR are similar. "The two countries are not happy with the number of cases launched against them," Kaminski explained, describing the UK proposals to limit the court's power as "dangerous."