Thursday 26 January 2012

Once in a Generation?

Yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom - which is currently chairing the UK - addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The main part of the speech concerned the European Court of Human Rights. Cameron packed his by now well-known cricitisms about the Court in praise, calling it "a beacon for the cause of human rights, ruthlessly focussed on defending human freedom and dignity, respected across the continent and the world." The Court should, in his view, not turn into a court of fourth instance nor be an immigration tribunal nor meddle to much with national affairs. In a telling paradox, Cameron said:

And we are hoping to get consensus on strengthening subsidiarity – the principle that where possible, final decisions should be made nationally. It is of course correct that the Court should hold governments to account when they fail to protect human rights. In these instances it is right for the Court to intervene.
The whole speech comes across as a mixture of praise and warnings, the latter ones all too familiar to anyone who has been following the debates in the United Kingdom on the Court. Concrete proposals for new reforms will follow in the course of the UK Chairmanship.

A day ahead of the speech, the Court's President, Sir Nicholas Bratza, already 'pre-acted' to Cameron's statements through an article in the Independent newspaper, entitled 'Britain should be defending European justice, not attacking it'. Bratza argues that many of the UK criticisms are based on misunderstandings on the role of the Court. On the Court's alleged encroaching upon sovereignty, Bratza puts matters into perspective:

The criticism relating to interference is simply not borne out by the facts. The Strasbourg Court has been particularly respectful of decisions emanating from courts in the UK since the coming into effect of the Human Rights Act, and this because of the very high quality of those judgments. To take 2011 as the most recent example: of the 955 applications against the UK decided, the Court found a violation of the Convention in just eight cases.

For more press coverage, see here (BBC) and here (The Guardian). These also refer to opposition and NGO reactions to Cameron's speech.

Cameron talked about "the once-in-a-generation chance we have, together, to improve the way we enhance the cause of human rights, freedom and dignity." His remarks and criticisms do not come as a surprise and it certainly is not the first time in a generation we have heard him say it nor probably the last time ...