Why I’m celebrating the Other Jubilee: 60 years of the European Convention on Human Rights

On the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights Paul Langton, winner of the BIHR ECHR Blog competition, reflects on the significance of the Convention.

“Human rights are inscribed in the hearts of people; they were there long before lawmakers drafted their first proclamation.”

Mary Robinson, Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

A couple of years ago I attended an exhibition that featured a 1963 front page from my local newspaper. The leading story was the hanging of Russell Pascoe, 23 and convicted of murder, in Bristol’s Horfield prison. I remember feeling a sense of despair that such a story was part of our recent history and decided then, that no matter what the crime, I never wanted to read in a British newspaper that the sentence would be capital punishment carried out on British soil.

The formation of the Council of Europe in 1949, and the establishment of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953, is a turning point in modern history. It symbolised a determination to leave behind the horrors endured in the Second World War and laid the foundations for a new Europe based on a passion to preserve universal values that are recognisable to people of every race, colour and creed. By codifying the relationship between individual and state the Convention

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is the protector of those values that can be so easily ignored, forgotten or eroded, and as a living instrument it adapts to every new generation it serves. Moreover, the right of individual petition to the European Court ensures that every citizen of a signatory country has access to a tribunal of fundamental rights and freedoms.

As I write this on eve of the 60th anniversary of the Convention I am disappointed to hear that David Cameron is considering scrapping the Human Rights Act which incorporated the Convention into British law. The implication is that the Convention does not serve the UK well and that the solution is the oft-repeated mantra “British laws for British People”.

The UK and its people are indebted to the European Convention. The European Court case files are full of examples of individual citizens reclaiming their human rights from the arms of the state. Independent military courts, protection of trade unions, the curbing of stop and search powers, safeguards for adults in care, regulation of state surveillance, limits on retention of biometric data and protection of religious freedoms are all examples of the Convention in action. It is sobering to realise that the UK, considered by many a paragon of human rights, is need of the safeguards of the Convention just as much as countries regarded as “young democracies”. The activities of the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the time of the Irish troubles, the CIA extraordinary rendition flights, alleged complicity of the UK in torture and the stories of the treatment of prisoners in the Iraqi conflict serve as reminders that hard won freedoms and values are fragile and can be easily forgotten in difficult times. It is in those times that the Convention should be prized. Not as trophy that we are seeking to protect, but as a memorandum as to how we should treat those we perceive as a threat to it.

“Human rights are not worthy of the name if they do not protect the people we don’t like as well as those we do.”

Trevor Phillips, Former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

When I read about Russell Pascoe I knew that the death penalty for murder was abolished in the UK in 1969. What I didn’t know was that it was not completely stricken from the statue book until the introduction of the 1998 Human Rights Act. And if by this I wasn’t convinced that we are sometimes novices in upholding human rights in this country, then I am by the knowledge that enforced slavery, and servitude, was not made a criminal offence in England until three years ago.

September 3rd 2013 should be welcomed as cause for celebration. It is incredible that today the European Convention has expanded to serve 47 countries and 800 million citizens. It is a people’s charter that enshrines in law the freedoms and rights to be enjoyed by everybody. It is this Convention that acknowledges Europe’s dark history and binds together its member states in a unity that could not be duplicated by trade agreements or diplomats. Critics call for “British laws for British people”. But the Convention is more than a set of laws. It is part of a British legacy and a collective conscience that encompasses the highest values of humanity. It is a tremendous achievement that we should not so readily turn our backs on.

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