The Convention 1: Why this, why now?

Welcome to ‘The Convention’, a series of blog articles. In this little collection of posts I intend to cover one of my favourite examples of international cooperation, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

ECHR in sessionThis much maligned and misunderstood convention is one of Europe’s most important safeguards with far-reaching implications that protect us all. For a rights and liberties geek like me the convention is not only fascinating, it’s indispensible.

I should be clear from the outset though. I’m not a lawyer and this series of posts is in no way intended to be a particularly thorough or expert exploration of the European Convention on Human Rights. Rather it is a short introduction to The Convention and the role it plays in our society. If you want advice or information about a specific case then my advice would be to take proper legal advice from a suitably qualified professional. I’m really just a bloke with an interest in rights and a passion for blogging.

Unfortunately the convention has come under attack in recent years. Sometimes these attacks come from those who seek to remove its general protections for their own advantage. More often though they come from people who simply don’t understand the convention’s purpose and history. That’s why I’ve decided to write this series – to help me to explain just what it is that so many people oppose so vehemently.

I’ve met many otherwise reasonable people who think that human rights should be removed, mainly in relation to people they don’t like, people they see as somehow ‘different’ and therefore ‘less deserving’ of legal protection. For example the far right English Defence League (EDL) recently called for the arrest and conviction of Muslim men who had already been acquitted of a murder that might not even have taken place. This anti Muslim group seemed to be more interested in the suspects’ faith than in the fact that there was no evidence against them and no case to answer.
Human rights opposers see the ECHR and the UK’s Human Rights Act as preventing them from ‘dealing with’ those who are different. For example they think that it gives citizens from other cultures, races and religions equality under the law – and they’re absolutely right, it does.

That’s one of the things that the convention was designed to do shortly after the end of the second world war. In fact, when exploring the purpose of the ECHR and the way that it affects us today it’s almost impossible to avoid considering the atrocities of the holocaust, the pressure of the jackboot on occupied Europe, the treatment of disabled people or those from ‘non Aryan’ races and the political violence of ‘National Socialism’.

It’s no coincidence that far right groups such as the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL) would like to see the UK pull out of the convention. It outlaws discrimination on the grounds of race or religion and so prevents them from ever achieving their goals. Similairly the UK ‘ConDem’ coalition government has found some of its more draconian policies thwarted by the convention which upholds the right of citizenship and fair treatment. The previous labour government also fell foul of the convention when it attempted to have citizens arrested and detained for long periods without charge, trial or conviction.
In terms of health and social care much of our domestic legislation such as the Human Rights Act and the Mental Capacity Act is based upon the ECHR and recent alleged care related offences at Castlebeck’s ‘Winterbourne View’ home near Bristol can be linked back to the convention as well.

And yet so many UK citizens oppose the ECHR without realising just what they are arguing against. Principles such as the right to life, the right to privacy and the freedom to follow one’s religion are all ECHR principles. The principle of ‘no punishment without law’ and the rights to liberty and to freedom of speech come from the convention too.

Sexual equality and disability rights in the workplace, as well as in care and other settings link directly back to the convention as do workers rights, freedom from slavery and even from torture. These are just some of the safeguards that we all enjoy because of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Additionally, perhaps most upsetting for neo Nazi groups such as the BNP, the convention guarantees freedom of marriage, respect for family life and the right to a fair trial. It also makes it impossible to prosecute someone for doing something that was not illegal at the time they did it. For example making immigration illegal would not criminalise current UK citizens, whatever their ethnic origin might be. Nor would it make it possible to ‘send them home’ (whatever that might mean).

In short the European Convention can be thought of as a kind of antidote. If intolerance and fascism are the disease then the ECHR is at least part of the cure. Heavy handed governments and unfair, discriminatory street movements, however loud they shout are powerless in the face of the ECHR. No wonder the UK’s neo Nazis want us to pull out of Europe.

If this description seems a little melodramatic read on. As this series develops we’ll consider how and why the ECHR was developed in the first place. The convention was and still is a direct response to Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’ and some of the worst atrocities ever committed on European soil.

Long live The Convention

About ‘The Convention’

This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s