UK human rights convention exit 'would be disastrous'

Judge Dean Spielmann
Image caption Judge Dean Spielmann was appointed to the European Court of Human Rights in 2004

It would be a "political disaster" if the UK pulled out of the European human rights convention, the president of the European Court of Human Rights says.

Judge Dean Spielmann said it would also mean leaving the 47-member Council of Europe and possibly the EU.

He warned this could undermine the UK's credibility in promoting human rights around the world.

Home Secretary Theresa May has said the UK should consider its relationship with the human rights convention.

She said, as the next election approached, the Conservatives would need a plan for dealing with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and that "all options, including leaving the convention altogether, should be on the table".

But Judge Spielmann, who is from Luxembourg, said this would also mean leaving the Council of Europe, which administers the convention.

And leaving the council would probably also mean leaving the European Union because no state had ever been a member of the EU without first joining the council.

'Principle of democracy'

He said: "That would plainly be a political disaster.

"Any member state who would leave the Council of Europe, who would denounce the convention, would lose its credibility when it comes to promoting human rights also in different parts of the world."

Asked about Mrs May's complaint that his court had moved the goalposts to prevent the deportation of "dangerous" men such as the radical Palestinian-Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada, he said: "I have a problem with such criticism, because it goes to the heart of the rule of law.

"Courts are there to decide and to control action taken by the executive. This is the basic principle of any democracy."

Conservative MP Dominic Raab is among the critics of the court which, he says, lacks democratic accountability. He said a body that created new law needed to be accountable.

"The fundamental problem is a constitutional one. The common law has always been creative, but it's always been subject to being overridden by a statute and of other legislation. There is no democratic oversight or accountability that creates that check with the Strasbourg court," he said.

But Judge Spielmann said Council of Europe member states had agreed to set up a supra-national mechanism with judges from different backgrounds.

He was also critical of the British government's failure to amend the law on voting by prisoners after the ECHR ruled in 2005 that a blanket ban was a breach of their human rights.

'Bad example'

"A decision of a court must be executed. If a decision is not executed this is a violation of the rule of law which is a basic principle of any democracy," he said.

There was a risk, he said, that such an attitude would set a bad example to other member states.

"They might say 'Well if the UK doesn't comply with our judgments, why should we comply?'" he said.

"Such an attitude causes real damage to the UK's international reputation, because it undermines the whole system and it causes great damage to the credibility of the UK when it comes to promoting human rights in other parts of the world," he added.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We are clear in the view that prisoner voting is a matter for national parliaments to decide.

"The government remains committed to the European Convention on Human Rights and to ensuring these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law."

Law In Action is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 16:00 on 4 June and repeated at 20:00 on 6 June.

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