The Convention 3: The Convention rights

In the first two posts we saw that the European Convention on Human Rights is a legal antidote to abusive governments such as that of Hitler’s far right regime in Germany. Interestingly the original thinking behind the convention was also heavily influenced by concerns about the far left policies and abuses under the soviet regime in the East.

From exploitation and slavery to discrimination and false imprisonment the European Convention on Human Rights protects all European citizens from extremist ideology and heavy handed government. It doesn’t matter whether the regime is on the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ of the political spectrum – it’s basic freedoms that matter, not political ideology.

Convention rights come in three categories. This reflects the need to balance individual liberties with the freedoms of other people and of society as a whole. The three categories are:

Absolute rights – EG the right to life. Absolute rights cannot be removed under any circumstances. This is why there is no death penalty in UK.

Qualified rights – EG the right to freedom of religious expression. These rights are upheld so long as they do not cause harm to others. That’s why it’s lawful for a Jehovah’s Witness to refuse blood, even if it kills them, but not to prevent their child from receiving it. In the eyes of the law the child has not chosen their faith and so cannot be bound by it. This is a truly fascinating area of law and we will pick up on it again later in this series.

Limited rights – EG the right to liberty. This means that there are limits on the state’s powers to deprive people of their liberty. It doesn’t mean that people can’t be arrested, imprisoned or even detained for their own protection but it does mean that there must be good reason for doing so. Recent UK legislation such as the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (2007) shows how this works in practice.

It is the responsibility of each member state to uphold the Convention. That’s why we have a Human Rights Act in UK. It makes it easier for citizens to have their grievances heard without having to go to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. If the country’s own courts can’t resolve the issue then cases can ‘go to Europe’ where the charge will be against the state, not against the individual. This is because the country has (allegedly) failed to uphold a person’s convention rights.

If this seems complicated at first don’t worry. It will all become clearer as we progress. For now though let’s just list the rights themselves.

The right to:

Freedom from torture;
Freedom from servitude;
Fair hearing;
Freedom from retrospective criminalisation;
Freedom of conscience and religious expression;
Freedom of speech;
Freedom of association;
Effective remedy;
Freedom from discrimination.

The Convention’s first protocol also protects rights to property, education and free election.

As this series progresses we will examine each of these and how they shape our society. We’ll consider cases where rights have been disputed and where conflicts have arisen both domestically and internationally.
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:

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