Sadaf Etemadi, interning with BIHR as part of our Queen Mary University London Law School summer placement scheme, shares her highlights from BIHR’s ECHR 60th Anniversary Conference, held with the Law Society on 3 September 2013
The 3 of September marked the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights. The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) marked this milestone by holding a spectacular conference, with the Law Society, exploring the impact of the ECHR and its future in the UK.
The event began with a powerful speech from Sir Nicholas Bratza, BIHR’s president, and former president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Sir Nicolas reminded us of the UK’s enthusiasm in embracing the Human Rights in 1998, which brought the ECHR rights into our law. Yet fifteen years on the Act has become the source of sensationalist media headlines, misrepresented news stories and negative and misinformed political discourse, rather than celebrating the extraordinary changes it has brought to the lives of 820 million people across Europe. The inspiring address was met with extended applause, the delegates refusing to let Sir Nicolas take his seat too soon!
This was followed by an insightful panel of distinguished academics and lawyers exploring how the convention has impacted legal systems outside the UK. Professor Phillip Leach began by highlighting how invaluable the ECtHR is in ending deliberate state evasion of justice and providing much-needed accountability. He spoke about how the ECHR system provides a vital forum for many disenfranchised people to have a voice, shine a spotlight on abuses and seek justice. For example, the ECHR meant the practice of forced disappearances came under the scrutiny of the court, compelling states to dispense with the practice and challenging impunity in countries such as Turkey and Russia.
Professor Fiona de Loundras’ provided a comparative analysis of the UK and Ireland’s attitude and traditions towards guaranteeing and interpreting human rights. This was directly relevant to current discussions calling for a UK Bill of Rights and the concerns over judicial power under the Human Rights Act. Loundras noted, the rights guaranteed by the Irish Constitution mirror the rights outlined by the ECHR, they are understood as legal constitutional rights as opposed to political rights. The constitutional importance of these rights allows for the judiciary to strike down incompatible laws, a practice which is not disputed, criticised or undermined. This raises interesting questions for the UK and the view that any new Bill of Rights in the UK would have to guarantee the rights set out in the HRA as a bare minimum and may actually require conferring the judiciary new powers, because no strike down power exits under the HRA (for primary law).
This should make interesting reading for those who advocate for minimalist approach to human rights protection. Professor de Loundres also made the interesting observation that if Ireland could accept criticism and recommendations for change to the availability of abortion services without condemning and disparaging the ECHR, then its seems illogical that the UK are resorting to such measures over individual cases in the absence resounding public consensus. Almut Wittling-Vogel expressed similar concerns as Germany has also in recent years had unpopular judgements but to use the language of withdrawal and non-compliance would be simply unthinkable.
Professor Aileen McColgan provided a chilling reminder of the recent troubles in Northern Ireland and how only the ECtHR had acknowledged that the state’s interrogation practices amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. In the absence of such a court and ECHR protection, interrogation practices of throwing detainees out of helicopters, depriving them of food and sleep and subjecting them to white noise and beatings would continue to have been characterised as ‘unintentional hardship’.
A unifying theme throughout these accounts was not to be fooled into thinking that these horrors are distant memories. Within the ECHR countries people are still captured and kidnapped by extraordinary rendition, communities such as the Roma population are segregated and discriminated against and post 9/11 counter terrorism strategies are reminiscent of the human rights abuses that occurred in NI. It was a sobering reminder of the potential abuses than can occur when human rights mechanisms are not enforced and the vital role they play in preventing a rogue practice from becoming the norm.
This was followed by an exciting and heated “Question Time” debate between Sadiq Khan MP, Julian Huppert MP and Mark Reckless MP. This provided a great opportunity for the politicians to outline their views and put forward their parties’ commitments to human rights and at times to have their human rights knowledge tested. Despite being posed a question on the UK’s attitude towards the rule of law and international obligations all three politicians failed to acknowledge the basic fact that actually a modern conception of the rule of law includes adhering to international obligations and the respect of fundamental rights and human rights which would include the ECHR and HRA.
The conference closed with a bold speech from our Director Stephen Bowen. He reminded the audience that regardless of the political debates and media distortions of human rights, human rights are still of interest and importance for “real people” that are so often side lined in the domestic debates. He said the focus must be diverted from media attack to public education, ending with a call for action to stop political bullying, to show leadership and ensure we secure our human rights legacy for future generations.