Ken McDonald’s opinion piece in the Times today is quite simply wrong. Far from measures being needed to reduce the reduce the scope of its jurisdiction, the ECHR is one of Europe’s success stories.
McDonald’s main argument as to why the court is “no longer fit for purpose” is that is now has a backlog of 150,000 cases growing at 20,000 per year. While this is not perhaps an indication of an organisation fully in charge of its workload, it does show just how popular the court is with the people of Europe. Surely it is obvious that the solution to an oversubscribed service is to expand the service rather than curtail it? Surely that would be more beneficial than restricting people’s access to justice because the violations of their human rights weren’t really “serious enough”?
Politicians and journalists frequently complain about the democratic deficit of the EU and how the structures of governance are not accountable to the people. The ECHR however, is actually a body that is reachable by all citizens of the EU and its role is to respond to their most fundamental of needs, the upholding of their human rights.
This leads me to McDonald’s next argument, that the court is now overstretching itself in terms of the breadth of cases it is willing to hear. What he forgets, however, is that much as the rights to not be killed, tortured or imprisoned without trial are extremely important human rights they are not the only ones. The European Declaration of Human Rights is far more expansive than that. In order to properly uphold the law of the EU, the Court is actually obliged to consider all cases brought to it in which the claimant believes their rights to have been violated according to that law.
Finally, the author also argues that the ECHR is in the impossible position of trying to apply the same law to former Soviet dictatorships as to the ‘nice, friendly’ countries of the West. This is a gross misrepresentation of the state of affairs within Europe. While the UK certainly has better human rights standards than other parts of the continent it is by no means exemplary. Consider for instance the deporting of victims of trafficking, the discrimination against same-sex couples and the slow erosion of civil liberties in recent years. The number of cases brought against the UK government in the ECHR (443 judgments since its creation) shows that the UK is also in need of an impartial overseer in matters of human rights protection.
Human Rights are dictated by moral reasoning – on this point Europe has reached legal agreement. It is right that all of Europe should be judged by the same standards of justice. That is the purpose of the ECHR and one for which it is fit.