This week is a big week for the UK in Strasbourg. We are 11 weeks into our 6 month Chairmanship of the Council of Europe. We are pressing ahead with our wide-ranging Chairmanship priorities, in particular our ambitious package of reforms for the European Court of Human Rights (the Court).
The Council of Europe was set up after the Second World War to promote reconciliation and to hold every country in Europe to basic standards of human rights. These standards were embodied in a European Convention of Human Rights. Each country that joined the Council of Europe accepted a duty to protect those rights for its citizens, and a European Court of Human Rights was established to hold governments to account for their record.
Within living memory, most countries in Europe have suffered from fascist or communist rule. As new, fragile democracies emerged, the Convention and the Court helped protect and entrench rights that we so often take for granted: freedom of religious and political expression; the right to a fair trial; the principle that government, police and prisons are under the law; freedom from unfair discrimination.
Today we salute the Court’s past achievements. But we also recognise that, like any institution, it needs reform.
That’s why I will be in Strasbourg on 24 January to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – PACE as it is often called. And David Cameron will be in Strasbourg later in the week to set out for PACE our vision for a Court which works better for the benefit of the citizens of each European state. This activity culminates in the Ministerial Conference of Council of Europe Member States in the UK in April. There we will aim to get agreement amongst all 47 Member States of the Council of Europe on reforms to the Court.
Why do the reforms matter?
As William Hague said in announcing the priorities for our Chairmanship, promotion and protection of human rights is the overarching theme. Reform of the Court is central to this.
But the debate on reforming the Court all too quickly becomes swamped in terms like ‘subsidiarity’, ‘admissibility’ and ‘national sovereignty’. Put simply, the UK believes it is for national governments to protect human rights, backed by a strong and rigorous European Court.
Yes, in some instances, Member States need to be better at protecting the rights of their citizens. We want the reforms to include concrete measures to help states improve how they do this.
But all Member States are agreed: where Member States are fulfilling their role, the Court should do less. If we can secure agreement to the reforms we are proposing, we will achieve a Court which works better, in support of national governments who are delivering on their human rights obligations.
So this week in Strasbourg matters to all of us who take an interest in human rights and the protections they afford.