DIPLOMATS have just struck an important deal at the Council of Europe conference on reforming human rights, but the implications have been overshadowed by the ongoing farce around attempts to deport the Islamist radical Abu Qatada.
A further appeal lodged by Qatada’s legal team at the 11th hour now looks set to delay his removal for several more months, while the Home Office and the Strasbourg court argue over process and deadlines.
When it comes to the Strasbourg court, nothing is quick, clear or simple. And despite the home secretary’s best efforts, the whole European human rights process continues to frustrate the government, which is acutely aware just how badly this all plays with the voters.
A recent Policy Exchange survey by YouGov revealed just how sceptical the public are about human rights – almost three quarters agreed that “human rights have become a charter for criminals and the undeserving”, including almost half of young people and most Liberal Democrat voters. This is now a scale of popular opposition that cannot be brushed aside.
Rulings like the Qatada case have led the public to think – as Lord Hoffmann has written – that human rights as defined in Strasbourg have “become a byword for foolish decisions by courts and administrators”.
Restoring public faith in rights depends upon a process of law that is respected by the public. For that to happen, the Strasbourg court itself needs fixing and that has been the agenda of the government during its Council of Europe chairmanship.
Other states, including allies the Dutch, Danes and Swiss, back the UK’s argument for a stronger role for national courts and for Strasbourg taking on fewer “rubbishy cases”. In several areas, what has emerged seems like a solid advance for the UK.
Firstly, there is agreement that only the most serious human rights claims should go to Strasbourg. Secondly, when they do, the European judges should not rush to accept these cases unless some big new legal principle is at stake and generally, more cases should be decided at national level.
These concepts are explicitly included in this week’s new declaration, which will please the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who has been a strong advocate of these changes.
The Convention system requires any change to be agreed by all parties, so getting any consensus on reform among all 47 countries is a diplomatic achievement. There has been some watering down, but the final declaration remains an important step.
More could have been achieved if the diplomacy had started earlier, and if a Conservative Prime Minister was not bound by the politics of a liberal coalition. But the Brighton conference is the culmination of an effort that goes far beyond anything attempted before.
The reforms should mean that Strasbourg sees fewer cases overall – and many fewer from the UK – and rules on only the most serious claims, while judging those cases more quickly. They should also mean the backlog of cases and the number of applications to the court fall.
Bringing the Brighton declaration into effect will now depend on the judges at Strasbourg actually changing how they behave. The UK will need to keep up the pressure in the Council of Ministers to see that they do. With the UK chairmanship not coming around again for another 23 years, what was agreed this week must be delivered on and not simply forgotten. By the next election, we will know if the Brighton declaration made a difference.
More must be done at home to combat abuse of human rights, especially around immigration cases and compensation. However, despite the progress in Brighton, one big puzzle remains: who really has the final say if the Strasbourg court rules against a member state, when that country’s own parliament objects or highest court has found otherwise? If the answer is always Strasbourg, then the fundamental cause of cases like Qatada will persist and more human rights crises are inevitable.
Addressing that constitutional issue is a long-term project. The coalition government could not and did not seek to answer that question at Brighton, but a future administration will need to.
Blair Gibbs is head of crime and justice at the think tank Policy Exchange.