So, in plain English, what is the European Convention on Human Rights?
It’s an international treaty which the United Kingdom signed up to in 1951. It contains a list of human rights and basic freedoms, fundamental to living a dignified life. It ensures that societies remain fair, just and equal.
By signing up to it, the government of a country agrees to what the treaty says about how it must (and must not) treat people within its borders and (in limited situations) outside too. If someone thinks a country has breached their rights, they can bring a claim before the European Court of Human Rights. And if the European Court rules against a state, the government of that state has promised to abide by the ruling.
That’s pretty cool. How did it come about?
It was a turning point in history. Hitler and Stalin, amongst other dictators, arrested, tortured and murdered so many innocent citizens in the 1930s and 40s that people woke up to the need to have concrete protection against such terrible abuse of power happening again.
12 countries, including the UK, established the Council of Europe and signed up to the Convention in 1951. Since then, the number of countries who are members of the Council of Europe has grown to a total of 47.
Ah, Europeans. So the Europeans imposed their laws on us freedom-loving Brits?
Actually, the UK was central to the Council of Europe. It was a British Conservative politician and future Lord High Chancellor called Sir David Maxwell Fyfe who wrote most of the Convention. He made sure it was partly based on the legal rights which have existed for centuries in English law. “Greatest Briton” Winston Churchill was a key player in the movement which produced the Convention.
And many other states have signed up since. The Convention binds every single state who has signed up to it, which is now 47 countries in total, covering over 800 million people.
So, the Convention is protecting all the citizens of those countries: hundreds of millions of people including Russia, and the post-Communist states. And most of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are not against the United Kingdom, but against states like Russia and Turkey. We’ll be looking at this in more detail in our new infographic on Thursday.
Wow, that European Union has done wonders
No, no. Wait. Wait! This has nothing to do with the European Union, despite the newspapers regularly mixing it up with the Council of Europe. It’s completely separate. The Council of Europe exists to protect human rights in Europe, and supervises the European Convention ( it finances the court, makes sure judgments are complied with…)
The European Union was set up by a different international agreement, it has its own court and parliament. So, if we opt out of the European Union in the referendum coming up, we will still be signed up to the Convention.
Ok, the flags look similar. But let’s get it sorted.
Oh, wow. Who knew? So what rights are in the ECHR?
Sitting comfortably? Here goes. The right to life, the right not to be tortured or enslaved, the right to liberty, the right to a fair trial, the right only to be punished in accordance with existing law. Still with us ? The right to respect for private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, the right to vote and to stand for election, the right to peaceful protest and, finally, the right to the peaceful enjoyment of possessions.
If you want to see the text and plain-English explanations of the rights, look no further than our explainer page.
Those sound great. But what do they mean for me?
Human rights aren’t just meant to be nice words. The whole point is that if they are being breached, you can do something about it. If you think any of your rights have been breached, you can make a claim to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
BUT – and here’s the thing – you must bring your claim in the UK first. Luckily, the Human Rights Act (read our explainer) includes all of the main rights contained in the Convention, so the Convention is, in effect, in force in UK law. Can you see why most people would not need to go further than a court in this country? But, if you don’t succeed in this country and you want to take your case further, you can then make a claim to the European Court of Human Rights. The process is clearly explained here
So what’s not to love?
The European Convention is over 60 years old, covers over 800 million people, and the European Court has considered over 800,000 cases. It’s not perfect. It would be a bit surprising if it was.
There are some important debates about the Court. Some people say it’s judges aren’t up to scratch, or that it has expanded its own remit beyond what Convention’s founders wanted.
It’s true that since 1951, the Court has travelled beyond the intentions of at least some of its founders. As Strasbourg judges are fond of saying, the ECHR is a “living instrument” – no longer just a defence system against extreme regimes but also a burgeoning European Bill of Rights. But that trend has been apparent since at least the mid-1970s; recent complaints from the UK have been based more on problems with complying with a few judgments (like prisoner votes and Abu Qatada) than a careful analysis of the court’s decisions over time (like this one).
And there are a lot of myths flying around about the European Convention of Human Rights. Like the European Court being intent on undermining our laws and the UK losing most cases. In fact, as we will look at in more detail on Thursday, the UK was found to have breached human rights in less than 1% of cases brought before the European Court in 2014.
What about the myth that the Convention does nothing for ordinary people? Have a look at these cases to see how it helps everyone.
And what about those unelected judges?
Not true again. Every judge is elected – from a list of three candidates proposed by each country who has signed up to the Convention. So, there are 47 judges – one judge from every country.
This is awesome. How do I find out more?
Why not check out our European Court of Human Rights Uncovered infographic?