Argument, agreement, judgement and disappointment left their marks on the Council of Europe this week, as the organisation prepared to elect a 14th Secretary General, tasked with the responsibility of renewing the region’s commitments to human rights.
A new human rights supremo for Europe
Regular readers of these pages will be aware of the organisation’s omerta these past six months regarding the leadership race between the incumbent Thorbjørn Jagland (Norway) and Sabine Leutheusser Schnarrenberger (Germany). By next Tuesday evening, subject to a decisive vote by the Parliamentary Assembly, the silence will be over and the winner anointed as Europe’s human rights supremo for the next five years.
The feeling persists that the victory party of the new Secretary General will not last long into the night. If ever Europe needed an inspired and charismatic leader, able to make an immediate and persuasive argument for a 21st century Europe rooted in human rights, democracy and the rule of law, it is now.
Human rights – a force for good or a threat to democracy?
Conversations about human rights and more significantly, who should enjoy them, have become something of a favourite intellectual chew-toy for the chattering elites of the United Kingdom. This week, Lord Phillips, a former Supreme Court President, became the latest senior law man to add his views to the wider discussion, with a speech at Kings College examining whether human rights are a force for good or a threat to democracy.
His introductory remarks immediately grabbed the attention.
“Since 1969 no convicted prisoner in the United Kingdom has been allowed to vote,” he began. “This prohibition was imposed, without debate, by the Representation of the People Act 1969.
“For two years before that there was no statutory bar to prisoners voting by post, albeit that there were, in many cases, administrative restrictions that prevented them from doing so.”
Lord Phillips then treated his audience to a short history lesson on the meaning of Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, the ‘wasp at the picnic’ that is the row over votes for prisoners and the subsequent sustained attack on the court by sections of the British media and political establishment.
Yet, Lord Philipps’ speech was no love-letter to Strasbourg. He rebuked the court for the “insufficient margin of appreciation,” it sometimes affords concerned member states. He encouraged it to “pay regard to the emphasis on subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation that has been inserted in the Preamble to the Convention” and worried aloud not about “the scope of the convention” but “the ambit of its application.”
Lord Philipps cited the complaints Abu Qatada v UK and the Soering and Chahal cases which also involved the United Kingdom, as “examples of the Strasbourg Court extending the meaning of jurisdiction beyond the territorial concept that it had for those who signed the convention. He underlined his point by encouraging the court to be “more sensitive to the requirements of subsidiarity and of the margin of appreciation, as identified in the Brighton Declaration” and wary of extending “its jurisdiction in ways that may be open to question.”
Having framed the debate with elegance, Lord Philipps ended his address as an eloquent champion of European jurisprudence.
“When the countries of the Council of Europe are looked at as a whole, the influence of the Strasbourg Court has been beneficial. I have given examples where Strasbourg has rightly found this Country wanting. I could give many more in relation to other members of the Council of Europe.
“Europe needs the Convention and Europe needs the Court. I have no hesitation in expressing my conclusion that Strasbourg is a powerful force for good.”
Care for Christians
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph reported on the Annual Human Rights Lecture for the Law Society of Ireland, given by Lady Hale, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court Deputy President, on ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief.’
After some important complaints which raised the hackles of Christians, notably Eweida and Others v United Kingdom, Lady Hale offered the view that consideration could be given to a ‘conscience clause,’ which might protect the faithful and others “whose beliefs on issues such as homosexuality clash with their jobs.” According to the Telegraph, Lady Hale believes this could help to “resolve disputes over religious freedom.”
Britain’s top female judge said that a series of prominent cases involving wearing crosses and sexuality issues, had left her unconvinced that “the law has yet found a way to strike a reasonable balance.”
The Telegraph noted that Lady Hale caressed court detractors by observing that two European judges declared last year that “British Christians are being denied the right to follow their conscience because of obsessive political correctness.”
Last week, anti-abortion activists in Sweden warned that they intended to bring the country before the Council of Europe’s Economic and Social Rights Committee, to test whether its failure to ‘protect’ medical professionals, who for reasons of conscience objected to pregnancy terminations, contravened national Social Charter commitments.
It was further evidence of a hardening of positions in Europe around abortion, or, depending on your point of view, the latest move in a wider assault on women’s right to choose.
So, it came as no real surprise that Patricia Martinez (@Patrici88850162) retweeted into the public domain an article written more than one year ago by Gregor Puppinck (@ECLJ_Official) for the European Journal of International Law blog. It reviewed key judgements in the evolving Strasbourg case law on abortion and concluded that “so far, the court has gone as far as it could to tolerate abortion without nullifying the human beings before their birth.”
Puppinck added: “Currently, abortion advocates are repeatedly demanding the court to jump this gap and to throw the unborn out, in the name of human rights.
“It is still time for the court to hold its mission to protect every human being, especially the weakest. It is true that people, at least in western countries, do not really care for the life of the child before birth; maybe simply because we are out of danger: we do not face anymore the risk of being aborted. We care much more for the human rights that we may be deprived of.
“However, abortion on demand is nothing else than the domination of the born over the not-yet-born. One can say that it has its own legitimacy, but this legitimacy is only one of violence, even if we call this violence freedom; it should not be covered up with the legitimacy of human rights.”
Robben and Van Persie are not the only Dutch successes
Three cheers for the Netherlands. With something approaching the enthusiasm of World Cup fans’ celebrating Robin Van Persie’s marvellous leaping header against Spain, the Council of Europe’s anti-trafficking unit rose to applaud the country’s efforts to fight human slavery.
The organisation’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings confirmed in its first report on the country that national authorities have developed a “legal and institutional framework for action against human trafficking, with the adoption of anti-trafficking legislation and comprehensive national action plans, as well as the setting up of a task force to co-ordinate public action against trafficking.
“The Netherlands was the first country to set up a National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children who, as an independent figure, reports on a regular basis to the Dutch Government on the nature and scale of human trafficking and recommends improvements regarding the anti-trafficking legislative and policy framework.”
Media v. state
There was more good news for the Dutch authorities when they won the agreement of the European Court on their insistence that the protection of journalistic sources does not extend to perpetrator of bomb attacks.
Elsewhere, media professionals in Turkey were happier with the outcome of a series of judgements which recognised that legal actions by the authorities had undermined their free-expression.
And so to next week
The right to be true to yourself will be a cornerstone of a two day conference, entitled ‘United in Dignity,’ which starts on 24 June at the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg and focusses on “Roma young people affected by multiple discrimination.” The event has been given added poignance by the attack earlier this week on a Roma youth in Paris, described as “shameful and inexcusable” by Secretary General Jagland.
The summer session of the Parliamentary Assembly, featuring the June 24 election of the new Secretary General and speeches by Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan and Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko, will of course, command headlines. And so will next Tuesday’s European court ruling on a complaint from a Latvian mum, who claims that her human rights were violated by a negligent gynaecologist.
Please click here for more information on the Council of Europe’s activities over the next seven days.
Something for the weekend (36)