The ECHR must be saved from itself
Just before Christmas Demos launched Open Dialogue – a collection of essays looking at counter-intuitive threats to our open society. My contribution, discussing human rights, made the claim that the ‘European Court of Human Rights [is] the single biggest threat to human rights’ here in the UK. Yesterday the ECHR was kind enough to reinforce the point.
The British Government is hoping to deport radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada and to return him to his home country of Jordan. He’s been here since 1993 and was only ever granted a temporary leave to remain – he’s not a British citizen and he has no legal or civil right to live here in the UK. Whilst in our country this man has busied himself consorting with terrorists – he acted as a spiritual adviser to Richard Reid (the shoe bomber) and to Abu Hamza – and has picked up a couple of convictions-in-absentia back home in Jordan for plotting terror attacks. As I say, on this basis and because Mr. Qatada has no pre-existing right to be here, the British Government took the decision that we’d be better off shipping him back to Jordan to serve out the lengthy prison sentences he’s acquired in his home country. But we won’t be doing that. The ECHR says we can’t.
The Jordanian Government, it seems, might use evidence from people it has tortured to prosecute Mr. Qatada and others for further crimes. Never mind that we have signed a memorandum of understanding in which the Jordanian Government commit to not laying a finger upon Qatada’s head, never mind that he has no right of abode here or that justice demands he serve his sentences for the crimes he has committed abroad, this suspicion of something that might happen outweighs all other considerations in the eyes of the ECHR. Case closed, game over.
And one step closer, I fear, to game over for the ECHR (at least as far as Britain is concerned). The strength of human rights, the thing that has delivered them over a relatively short period of time into the mainstream of public consciousness across the Western world, has always been their proximity to our natural sense of the just. Protecting human life and human dignity are part and parcel of the fabric of our morality – this code of conduct and behaviour was so easily assimilated because it seemed so self-evidently right. The more that the ECHR deviates from natural, straightforward and common-sense visions of justice the more of a threat to human rights as the overarching frame of our politics it becomes.
The British public’s commitment to human rights is being eroded by decisions such as the Abu Qatada judgment – they undermine our capacity to believe that human rights have space for the rights of communities, potential victims and civility. More and more it appears that human rights have become a good in and of themselves, with almost biblical weight attached to their letter and little regard to their spirit. More and more we shy away from embracing them and instead regard them as silly, vain and irrelevant. This decision is merely the latest in a long line of poor decisions that confirm the ECHR’s itself is the single biggest threat to human rights here in the UK. It will either have to change, and change dramatically, or it will die.