David Davis: In defence of the European Court of Human Rights

Posted On: 
5th October 2015

While human rights laws often receive criticism in this country, where such liberties are taken for granted, in other countries they are a final recourse against far less accountable regimes. 

Human rights in this country have been subjected to growing criticism in recent years, emboldening the government to look at replacing the Human Rights Act. This approach is a hangover from the Conservatives’ days in opposition, when we raised reasonable concerns over the application of human rights.

Undoubtedly there were issues with human rights legislation, and especially with the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) interpretation and implementation of those laws. Prisoner voting, whole of life orders, Abu Qatada’s extradition – all contributed to an understandable perception in the UK of human rights as protections for criminals, rather than protections for everyone.

But there has been significant reform in recent years. Following the heated public debate over prisoner votes, the UK government pushed for reform. The resulting ‘Brighton declaration’ in 2012 was a major step in the right direction, refocusing the Court onto serious violations and major points of interpretation. Since then the ECtHR has shown far more restraint in its judgments, and they are far better for it.

It should be remembered that for every disagreeable decision by the ECtHR, there have been many more that are admirable. The limits placed on stop and search powers, on DNA retention, the restrictions on detention without charge, the curbing of surveillance powers – all are due to the protection granted by human rights legislation. 

It should also be noted that the UK has remarkably few cases brought, and found, against it. Over 22,000 cases have been brought against the UK since we signed up in 1959. In only around 300 of those cases were human rights violations found.

Only around 3% of all cases since 1960 have been brought against the UK. And of those cases, the UK has one of the highest win rates. We are, if anything, an exemplary signatory to the Convention.

Many of the cases that went against us had nothing to do with impeding the extradition of criminals; they were about rights at work, freedom of speech, privacy, inequality or the right to a fair trial. Our approach to human rights is eminently reasonable, and beneficial for everyone in the UK.

While human rights often receive criticism in this country, where such liberties are taken for granted, in other countries they are a final recourse against less accountable, and far less moderate, governments than our own.

With the inclusion of many ex-Soviet nations in the European Convention on Human Rights, over 800 million people now rely on these protections.

If we seek to disapply the jurisdiction of the ECtHR, what is to stop less trustworthy regimes from doing likewise? Would we risk such protections just to make it easier to deport a few hundred criminals? As Roosevelt once said, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them.”

The proposed British Bill of Rights would do nothing to improve the liberty or security of British citizens; indeed it may do much to weaken them. At the same time it would do much to weaken the protections of many people across the world who are far more reliant on such protections.  

David Davies is MP for Haltemprice and Howden and a former shadow home secretary