Speaking today during a Scottish Parliament debate on Human Rights, Scottish Liberal Democrat Justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes MSP said:
Together the convention, European Court and Human Rights Act amount to a criminals charter. A terrorists treaty. At least that what some politicians and media would have you believe.
In preparing for this debate, I yesterday took the time to read some of the recent cases considered by the European Court, relating to the United Kingdom, that were upheld.
In one case, the court identified safeguards were insufficient in enabling an applicant with Down’s Syndrome to contest their compulsory emergency detention, given they lacked legal capacity. This violated articles four and five of the convention.
In another, the court judged a local authority had failed to provide a disabled elderly person with a care plan that met her assessed and eligible needs, in breach of article eight of the convention - respect for private life.
Given the explosion in the use of non-statutory stop and search, I was also interested to read about a police stop and search that again constituted a violation of article eight.
The court has considered situations involving people being taken into care, protected the anonymity of journalists’ sources and curbed the storing of DNA digital profiles of those who were arrested but never charged or convicted.
Such cases show the relevance of these institutions to us all, but in particular to the most vulnerable in our society. Not just here, but across Europe.
It has required Russia to improve its treatment of prisoners. Forced Bulgaria to strengthen its care for disabled people. Compelled Turkey to end the impunity of those who engage in domestic violence.
Creating a common legal space to the benefit of 820 million citizens, across 47 states, is an astonishing achievement. But as one senior British court official reportedly mused: “Our name contains the words ‘European’ and ‘human rights’. Not exactly a winning combination”.
A tiny minority of cases, portrayed as meddling in our domestic affairs, have led to it being unfairly maligned. It is disappointing that the conservatives’ amendment today, which seeks to remove expression of support for the Human Rights Act 1998, echoes such attitudes.
Driven by fear of UKIP, their plans to selectively ignore the convention, limit its powers or withdraw entirely are ill-considered.
What message would this send to others – to those countries which account for tens of thousands of cases at the ECHR?
To put it in perspective, just 2,500 applications concerned the UK in 2013 - the majority of which I understand concern prisoner voting rights. And just eight cases led to judgements upholding violations. In this context, it seems absurd even contemplating withdrawal and undermining our moral authority.
I am proud that with Liberal Democrats in government there is no possibility of the UK renouncing our hard-won human rights framework. Alongside the scrapping of ID cards and the ending of child detention, it is part of our strong and consistent record on civil liberties.
In Scotland, Robert Brown was the Minister who guided through Parliament the Bill that established the Scottish Human Rights Commission. As a result, Scotland’s first National Action Plan now seeks to promote a “consistent understanding and respect for human rights” by making them more tangible.
For example, it identified the need to improve the quality of care for vulnerable and older people. To empower them to remain so far as is possible autonomous. To treat them with dignity and respect. To realise their rights.
The action plan reminds us that human rights define how each one of us is treated and determine our opportunities. It tackles the dangerous perception that they are abstract or immaterial and encourages us to embed them in everything that we do.
By supporting the Scottish Government’s motion, I by no means applaud its record on human rights. At times it has damaged our credentials. Internationally by pandering to China and Qatar. Domestically by failing to raise the age of criminal responsibility, its efforts to scrap corroboration, the isolation for long periods of female offenders with mental health problems, permitting the stop and search of very young children without their parents present or reasonable suspicion.
I have cause to worry given I was told on stop and search and the during the passage of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act ‘we needn’t worry about ECHR compliance because the Scottish Government and police cannot act in a manner that is incompatible’.
Such circular arguments demonstrate that we cannot afford to be complacent.
On this Remembrance Day, it is worth remembering the events that led to the creation of the convention. It is worth recalling the abuses of the early twentieth century that caused the United Kingdom to lead efforts to enshrine and instil respect for life, security, freedom of thought, expression and religion across the continent.
Our human rights framework and the rulings of the ECHR are not foreign impositions. These are British rights, drafted by British lawyers, designed to reflect our values of justice, tolerance and the rule of law.