67 years ago the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was signed by the United Kingdom and ten other countries.
The ECHR is an international treaty which the United Kingdom signed up to after World War II. It contains a list of human rights and fundamental freedoms necessary to live a dignified life.
The ECHR and its protocols protect a variety of human rights, including the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to liberty, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom from discrimination, the right to education and the right to take part in free and fair elections.
Why not watch a 2-minute video wishing the ECHR a happy birthday?
How does this fit together with the Human Rights Act?
The Human Rights Act 1998 is an Act of the UK Parliament which gives the ECHR legal effect in the UK. By making the Convention part of UK law, Parliament allows people to bring claims that their human rights have been breached to the UK courts. This is quicker, simpler and cheaper than going to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, (which people had to do prior to the Human Rights Act in order to enforce their rights).
The Human Rights Act requires UK legislation, so far as possible, to be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the ECHR rights. Where a court decides that legislation is not compatible with a Convention right, it can make a declaration of incompatibility. In either case, the laws in question remain valid and binding, but a signal is sent to Parliament that it may want to reconsider the legislation.
What does it mean to say that the ECHR is a ‘living instrument’?
In a case called Tyrer v UK, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) introduced the principle that the European Convention is a living instrument, which must be interpreted in light of present-day conditions (not just as things were in when it was drafted in 1950). This allows the meaning of the rights to change over time and reflect evolving values in society.
For example, the Tyrer case shows how attitudes towards corporal punishment of children changed over time. Anthony Tyrer was a fifteen-year-old, who was given corporal punishment as a sentence for assault. He was made to take down his trousers and underpants, bend over a table and was held down by two policemen while a third flogged him. The ECtHR said that Anthony had been subjected to degrading punishment which violated his human rights. This is a clear example of the ‘living instrument’ principle: in 1950 it was accepted that the police occasionally beat children; by 1978, it was clear that things had to change.
Similarly, the criminalisation of homosexuality was mainstream in 1950, but when Dudgeon v UK was decided in 1983, community attitudes had changed. The ECtHR found that criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults violated Jeffrey Dudgeon’s right to respect for his private and family life.
Why is it still important to protect these rights?
The UK Government plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights. Prime Minister Theresa May has also declared that she is “not a fan” of the Human Rights Convention, though she has also said she will not try to take the UK out of the Convention system, for now. As a result, human rights in the UK face an uncertain future.
But the UK Supreme Court gave nine judgments on human rights last year and in 2015 the ECtHR gave 13 concerning the UK, finding a violation in only four of those cases (concerning the right to liberty, the length of proceedings, the right to respect for private and family life, and the right to free elections). It is clear from these decisions that human rights still need protecting today.
The ECHR rose from the atrocities of dictatorial regimes of the 20th Century, as a means of protecting people against abuses by the state. Even today it secures, and should continue to protect, the rights of the most vulnerable in our society.
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