This week, two events, just hours apart, showed the level of confusion and derision some senior British ministers have sunk to in their approach to human rights. On Tuesday morning, the European Court of Human Rights published a carefully worded and moderate ruling on 'whole-life' sentences. By 16 votes (including the British judge) to one, it said all prisoners should have a review of their detention after a certain period, such as 25 years. The court was at pains to stress it was not saying there should be a right to release, only to review, and that it was perfectly legitimate for states to continue to detain certain criminals if they are considered to be a continuing danger to the public. Its carefully worded judgement set out that it came to this conclusion only after examining principles and practice on life sentences around the world. One of the examples it cited was the International Criminal Court, set up with strong British support, to try those responsible for the world's worst crimes. But even the ICC requires a review of the detention of those serving life sentences after 25 years.
Later in the day in New York, the UK government presented its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council. Its 16-page manifesto begins with the words “We are committed to a strong, effective international human rights system.” It sets out in some detail the importance the UK places on human rights internationally, and what it does to promote rights worldwide. In it, William Hague writes that “We continue to work tirelessly for the promotion and protection of human rights, both domestically and abroad.”
You might have thought a government so committed to the international human rights system, when faced with a difficult but limited ruling by a key human rights court, would be moderate in its response. Far from it. The two most senior justice ministers in the government, Theresa May and Chris Grayling, were being quoted within minutes of the ruling attacking the Court as they have done so many times before. Disappointingly the Prime Minister joined in. Their reactions gave the impression that the Court had ordered the immediate release of every convicted murderer in the country. If they did actually read the judgement, they were severely misleading in the spin they then put on it.
Both May and Grayling seem determined to tear up the UK's own Human Rights Act, or even make the UK the only state to pull out of the Court since the Greek military dictatorship of the 1960s. Their attacks on human rights have reached the level where Grayling wrote in the Daily Mail of the 'tentacles' of the human rights court 'creeping' into areas he thinks should be left to MPs. It’s hard to think of any other democracy in the world where the concept of human rights is subject to such relentless and emotional attack from the most senior members of government. And yet this is the same government that stresses the importance of a strong, effective international human rights system. The message seems clear – the government believes in one rule for the rest of the world, and one for the UK, where human rights should not be allowed to interfere with the decisions of politicians. A message that would have a devastating effect on the UN protection of human rights that Hague claims to so strongly support.
Grayling's favourite mantra in attacking the Court is to claim that its rulings today were not intended by its authors in 1950, or, to use his lurid term, that they’d be 'turning in their graves'. It’s not clear what he means by this – perhaps that human rights should always reflect the values of 1950. A bizarre idea from a senior member of a government that’s about to pass a law recognising same-sex marriage.
Grayling acknowledges that one of the authors of the ECHR was Winston Churchill, but seems to think human rights were only about defeating the Nazis. He might want to reflect on what Churchill said in the Commons a century ago, as Home Secretary. “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the State, and of convicted criminals against the State … these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation'. One can only imagine what Churchill would have made of the cynical opportunism around the issue today.
Clive Baldwin is a senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch.