Outrage in Britain: Cameron Pushes to Weaken Human Rights Court

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The British government has been pounding "meddling" from Europe in the wake of a scandal over the extradition of an Islamist radical that was delayed by a Strasbourg ruling. Now London is demanding radical reform of the European Court of Human Rights, a move opposed by Berlin.

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to reform the European Court of Human Rights. Zoom
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British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to reform the European Court of Human Rights.

His freedom didn't last long. Less than three months after his release from a British high-security prison, the radical Islamist Abu Qatada was arrested by London police on Tuesday and now awaits deportation. He is expected to be sent as quickly as possible to his home country of Jordan, where he faces trial on terrorism charges.

Many in Britain have waited a long time for this news. Indeed, Qatada's case has sparked a wave of protest in the country. In January, the European Court of Human Rights, the supra-national court established by the European Convention on Human Rights, decided that he could only be extradited if the government in Jordan guaranteed a fair trial. Then the British government could release the Jordanian.

Widespread outrage ensued. The tabloid newspapers ranted about how it was once again clear how the judges in Strasbourg, France defy national executive and judicial branches. London was reportedly being forced, against its national interests, to keep dangerous foreigners in the country. Enraged politicians demanded that Qatada be simply put on a plane headed for Amman, regardless of Strasbourg's deportation ban. But now the conditions have been met, Home Secretary Theresa May announced on Tuesday, and the British will soon be rid of Abu Qatada.

It is not the first time that UK media and politicians have complained about the meddlers in Strasbourg. The guideline set down by the European judges that all inmates in British prisons should be allowed the right to vote was also considered an improper interference in the country's domestic affairs. So, too, was the long delayed extradition of a second radical preacher, Abu Hamza al-Masri, to the US. The list of complaints is long.

In particular, the court is a thorn in the side of the British Conservative Party. Last year, Prime Minister David Cameron set up a group to work on a national Bill of Rights. The message was sent that if nothing changed in Strasbourg, one could scrap the European Convention on Human Rights.

The British criticism is focused on two points:

  • Inefficiency: The Strasbourg court faces about 150,000 unprocessed cases. Procedures last on average five years, which tests the patience of many member states.

  • Democratic deficit: The judges meddle, in the opinion of the British government, too often in national decision-making processes. A report by a human rights committee of the House of Commons found that the Strasbourg court should take judgments from national courts and the parliaments of the respective countries more seriously.

Representatives from the 47 nations belonging to the Council of Europe, the human rights institution that operates the court, are scheduled to gather for a two-day meeting in the southern English city of Brighton starting Thursday to deliberate over wide-reaching reform of the European Court. The British government, which currently holds the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Council, has pushed the issue to the top of the agenda. The British concept for a final declaration intends to make it easier for the court to immediately dismiss cases, especially when a previous judgment has been made by the court on a similar case. London estimates the move would suddenly decrease the mountain of related complaints by about 10,000.

The British proposal would also give member nations greater room for interpretation when they make use of principles from the European Convention on Human Rights. The goal would be to shift the balance of power from Strasbourg back to the national capitals.

A 'Charter for Criminals'

In this way Cameron hopes to make the court more powerful. The judges shouldn't be dealing with small cases and repeat lawsuits, but should concentrate on the "most serious violations of human rights," he has argued. Furthermore, Cameron has said that Strasbourg judges shouldn't dispute legally binding decisions made by national courts.

The British Prime Minister presents these ideas as overdue reforms needed for an outmoded system. But naturally he has his national public in mind. In the British media the court reform is reliably portrayed as a fight between "us and Europe." The Tory paper The Daily Telegraph writes peppery editorials every few days against the overly-powerful Strasbourg judges, and there are tirades from the tabloids too.

In the country that played a significant role in founding the European Court of Human Rights after the Second World War, "human rights" have become dirty words. Conservative lower house parliamentarian Dominic Raab rants about the "arbitrary diktats" from Strasbourg, while The Daily Telegraph criticizes its "perverse judgments." Meanwhile three-quarters of participants in a poll by the conservative British think tank Policy Exchange answered that yes, they felt that human rights laws were a "charter for criminals."

Berlin Resists Britain's Radical Course

The German government isn't always happy with the European Court of Human Rights' verdicts, and the country's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, has made it clear in the past that they are loath to hand over the highest level of jurisdiction to their Strasbourg colleagues.

Nevertheless, the British approach goes too far for Berlin. Already ahead of the Brighton meeting Merkel's government have tried to defuse the proposal. German strategists fear it could erode the individual right of action before the court. Any of the 800 million residents living in countries belonging to the Council of Europe can take a human rights case to the court. Russians, who file some 26 percent of all suits, constitute by far the largest group of plaintiffs, followed by Turks.

If the hurdles to filing a case were raised, the situation for citizens in a number of countries would worsen dramatically, the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warn. In countries without functioning judicial systems, Strasbourg is often the only place people can turn for justice.

Additionally, a report commissioned by the European Council concluded that there was no evidence the British reform effort would improve the court's efficiency. Meanwhile Nicolas Bratza, a British citizen and the president of the European Court of Human Rights, has rejected Cameron's criticism. The accusation of interference wouldn't stand up to examination, he has said.

The British government's proposal will probably be further watered down at the negotiations in Brighton. The debate will continue domestically, but it's unlikely that the country will actually do away with the human rights convention. In the 60-year history of the court only one government has dared to do this -- the Greek military junta of 1967-1974.

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