It has not been an easy week for the government (and indeed UK politics as a whole) when it comes to sovereignty, rights and responsibilities.

A non-binding motion in the House of Commons yesterday was passed 234-22 in favour of maintaining a blanket ban on prisoners voting, putting the UK political debate further at odds with the 2005 European Court of Human Rights ruling Hirst v United Kingdom (No 2) that judged that the blanket ban on British prisoners exercising the right to vote is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. This vote is set against the backdrop of Policy Exchange’s paper “Bringing Rights Back Home” that mooted the idea of the UK pushing for reform of the European Court of Human Rights, and if that fails, to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the Court.

At the same time, the Duma in Russia was yesterday passing a motion 234 votes to 22 to ensure the blanket ban on gay and lesbian people organising marches and protests in Russian cities was maintained, despite the European Court judgment in Alekseyev v. Russia. In response, speaker of the Duma Boris Gryzlov stated that it was offensive to Russia’s sovereignty for a foreign court to be able to decide how Russia could discriminate against its citizens, and he proposed withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the court.

Of course the second paragraph is a counter-factual, although the cited European Court case is real.

But this gets to the heart of this issue.

Any international commitment entered into by a government implies a ceding of sovereignty, and as a result any country – the UK, Russia, all the other signatories to the ECHR – is not completely free to do as it wishes in the areas in which sovereignty is pooled. Yet of course very few British politicians are saying that – the focus is only on whether prisoners should have the right to vote in the UK or not. The debate is not set in the international context, the context of mutual responsibilities.

So when Policy Exchange cites a YouGov poll that of course finds that UK citizens would prefer the final court of appeal for human rights matters to be in the UK, they miss the other side – human rights for all kinds of groups across Europe have been improved thanks to the work of the European Court of Human Rights. The question would better be “Do you want human rights cases to be judged only in the UK, knowing this would endanger the human rights of other Europeans – including gay rights, the rights of women, the rights of minorities – if all other countries did the same?”

Add into the mix a completely incoherent approach to sovereignty and international treaties fostered by this government (why no referendum on the new sovereignty-ceding Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty with France for example, but a proposed referendum lock on any ceding of power to the European Union?) and a Prime Minister ill at ease on these matters thanks to those on his back benches phobic of anything with Europe in its title, and you have a very messy and unpleasant situation indeed.

[UPDATE] David Rennie of The Economist has more in Bagehot’s Notebook, as ever demonstrating he’s a top class journalist.

Photo: tuxophil “European Court of Human Rights”
July 4, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution


  1. Martin Keegan

    (the first line should read “moral responsibility”, as opposed to legal responsibility)

  2. Martin Keegan

    The UK doesn’t have any responsibility to the citizens of other countries. The people who think otherwise tend to be called neocons.

    There is obviously the responsibility not to breach treaty agreements, but you seem to be talking about some sort of negotiated withdrawal from some or all of the ECHR machinery. ECHR protects human rights interests in some instances, and damages them in others (and it’s perfectly possible for an ECHR ruling to have contrary effects in the different legal system of the adhering states). So it’s perfectly possible that UK withdrawal would lead to a net lowering of human rights standards in, say, Russia.

    The problem with the more accurate phrasing of the opinion poll question you offer,

    “Do you want human rights cases to be judged only in the UK, knowing this would endanger the human rights of other Europeans – including gay rights, the rights of women, the rights of minorities – if all other countries did the same?”

    is that it implies that the human rights of UK citizens are being compromised in order to protect human rights of citizens in hostile countries whose regimes, with popular support, have carryied out assassinations on UK soil. You might get a bigger yes if you asked it that way.

    There are huge theoretical and practical problems with human rights and the ECHR system. I’ve never seen a satisfactory response to the positions of commentators such as Francis Bennion, Jeremy Waldron or Tom Campbell. Perhaps there *isn’t* one. The standard of debate on this issue is even lower than that on the EU.

  3. I thought it proper to mention that I had quoted from this blog on my own:

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