Contrary to the promise David Cameron made when he first rose to power, he has repeatedly chosen to “bang on about Europe”. Whilst the referendum on EU membership draws more headlines, his lower profile quest to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) could prove equally damaging. It risks destroying the Council of Europe, the Winston Churchill-inspired parent body of the Court that implements the ECHR.
Rather than being driven by a vision to improve the lot of general public, this policy is intended to appease the “Little Englander” wing of Mr Cameron’s Conservative Party. Their petty nationalism is a dangerous denial of Britain’s often glorious history as an outward looking nation and puts some of our greatest achievements at risk. The government’s attempt to wreck the ECHR is a classic example of such xenophobic self-sabotage.
As much as anything, it is the symbolic siting of the Council of Europe’s institutions in the centrally-located, much fought-over city of Strasbourg that irks the Europhobes. In addition to anti-Europeanism, the government has been stirred into abolishing the Human Rights Act by a single, untypical case; the delay in being allowed to deport the terrorist suspect, Abu Qatada. This hold-up was actually caused as much by the British government’s mishandling of the legal process as the European Court of Human Rights insistence on applying the law. In contrast to what some of the British media would have you believe, our fellow Europeans are not keen on murderous extremists either and the Court does not seek to bend over backwards to protect them.
The Court has, in fact, tackled many issues of importance to the lives of Britons such as preventing the physical abuse of children, stopping elderly couples from being separated into different care homes, curbing modern slavery, saving rape victims from being cross-examined by their alleged attackers, limiting government surveillance, ensuring equal rights for homosexuals and stopping the police from storing the DNA of non-criminals.
The safeguards the Court gives the average citizen cut little ice with the government. It claims that the Human Rights Act that enshrines the ECHR into British law would be replaced with a UK-only Bill of Rights. But the absolute maximum any such Bill could offer us is the same human rights protections we have now minus a higher, independent Court to go to in cases involving misconduct by the British authorities.
The Council of Europe does more than protect our human rights too. In addition to the Court, its other main bodies are the Council of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly. They provide venues for governments and parliamentarians to uphold common democratic standards for the nations of Europe. Unlike the EU, to which it has no connection, all bar one of Europe’s forty-eight countries are members of the Council. The brutal dictatorship of Belarus is the only exception.
The vastly improved record of peace, prosperity and freedom in Europe compared with the centuries that preceded its creation in 1949 has proved the Council’s worth. As well as establishing individual human rights protection in the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust, the Council has more recently helped to shepherd the countries blighted by totalitarian communism back into the European fold of free and democratic nations.
The Council’s structure is, though, a delicate one that depends on the voluntarily adherence by all member states to its common standards. The ECHR is a central pillar of these standards. The withdrawal of a major member state such as the UK would encourage other, unscrupulous governments to follow suit in order to avoid the obligations the Council imposes upon them. By destroying the consensus on which it is based, such withdrawals would undermine the whole structure of the Council and jeopardise the peace and freedom it has helped to create in Europe.
This risk does not appear to worry Britain’s Europhobes, who imply that the Council and the human rights protection it provides is a plot imposed on us by fiendish continentals. In fact, the UK was instrumental in creating the ECHR as a way to defend ourselves and our neighbours from totalitarianism of all types. The Council of Europe is a triumph of “Best of British” ideas on human rights, freedom and democracy and the visionary who inspired its creation was none other than Winston Churchill. He believed it would “recreate the European fabric (after World War II) and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom”.
Churchill has been proved right. The Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights has helped to end the centuries of war that have plagued our continent and is good for all of the people of Europe. We should not let his less visionary Conservative party heirs destroy his legacy.