Justice Secretary opening remarks to Brighton conferenceThursday, 19 April 2012
Kenneth Clarke's opening remarks to the Brighton conference on the European Court of Human Rights, including contribution from Lord William Wallace, FCO minister.
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Minister, Your Excellencies, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers and the Government of the United Kingdom, I’d like to offer you a very warm welcome to the UK, and to the city of Brighton and Hove.
As one of the founder members of the Council of Europe, and as the first State to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK is delighted to be holding the Chairmanship and hosting this conference. It is a huge honour, and a responsibility that we take very seriously.
Before I say more about the subject of this conference, I would like to introduce my colleague Lord William Wallace, a minister in our Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to offer some words of welcome.
Thank you, Ken.
It is my great pleasure to represent the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office at this important conference. The Foreign Secretary has asked me personally to pass on his sincere apologies that he cannot be here today, due to unavoidable diary commitments.
The Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers is literally a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We have been proud to lead the work of this remarkable organisation for these six months – not just in the field of human rights, but also in its wider activities, including on democracy and the rule of law.
Winston Churchill was of course one of the strongest proponents in the 1940s for creating this organisation. In 1949, the treaty that created the Council of Europe was signed in London. In some ways, this is almost a homecoming for the Council of Europe. And we are delighted to have on display here in Brighton the original Treaty of London.
Our over-arching Chairmanship priority has been the protection and promotion of human rights. This has not just been about the reform of the Strasbourg Court.
We are also proud to have supported the ground-breaking Council of Europe Recommendation on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights, and we have contributed to the new Council of Europe Unit set up to promote this.
In addition, we are supporting the implementation of the rule of law across the Council of Europe with the development of practical guidelines for legislators on “the principles of good law-making”.
And we have promoted freedom of expression on the Internet, along with internet governance, by supporting the adoption of the Council of Europe’s strategy on this subject.
But it is Court reform that is our subject today. The document that Ken will introduce continues the work of the previous conference in Interlaken and Izmir, hosted respectively by our colleagues from Switzerland and Turkey. I am sure they will appreciate the challenge we have faced in preparing the draft Declaration, now on the table before us today. The views of each and every member State of the Council of Europe are equally important, and equally valid. They are also richly diverse.
But this is a challenge we have thoroughly enjoyed. This is due in large part to the constructive and supportive approach you and your officials have taken in working closely with us at all levels, in Strasbourg, in London and in your own capitals.
The Declaration draws strength from the energy that we have all put into finding the right way forward. We are very grateful for the support you have shown, and we look forward to working with you to finish the job at this Conference.
Thank you, William.
Alongside the Treaty of London, there is a copy of another document on display here in Brighton. It is a rather older one, but no less significant: the Magna Carta of 1215. From almost eight centuries ago, this Great Charter is testament to this country’s long-standing commitment to human rights.
It is one of the great achievements of modern Europe that more than 800 million people share a common framework of decent basic standards: from the furthest coasts of Iceland to the borders of Iraq, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
These standards are not just an expression of our shared belief in freedom and justice. But they also reflect our shared national interests – because it is only by advancing human rights that we secure our ability to live, travel, and trade in a more open, stable, prosperous world.
But to survive and remain relevant, all institutions of a certain age need to adapt to the modern world – take it from one who knows.
Building on the excellent work done at the Interlaken and Izmir Conferences, the UK as Chair has sought to maintain the momentum of reform to ensure that the very real challenges the Convention system faces are met head-on.
We are all in no doubt of the urgent need to reform the Strasbourg Court, and the Convention system. This reform is designed not to weaken human rights, or undermine the profoundly important shared values in the Convention – but to strengthen them, and advance justice, democracy and freedom.
As the Prime Minister said when he went to Strasbourg in January, the ability of the system to operate effectively is under threat. The key problem is that the Court is being asked to do too much, which endangers its ability to focus on what matters.
The backlog of 150,000 cases facing long delays in Strasbourg is not a new issue. And the Court, working with Member States, has made very good progress in tackling the huge number of inadmissible cases. We pay tribute to their work.
However, in making inroads on this veritable tidal wave of litigation, it has revealed a far tougher problem: each year, the Court receives far more admissible cases than it can properly consider.
This will inevitably lead to a change in the nature of the backlog: it will move from being made up mainly of inadmissible cases to being made up mainly of admissible cases. But the fact that there will still be a queue really matters. The cases stuck waiting will include serious ones – individuals who have been subject to torture, or who have had an unfair trial, or who have been denied free speech. Reform is urgently needed to ensure these cases are heard.
The backlog, though, is in part a symptom of a deeper challenge: that national governments, the States Parties, haven’t always been pulling their weight.
As a matter of principle and practicality, primary responsibility for enforcing the rights in the Convention must lie with States. States must stop breaches in the first place. And where breaches do occur, states must offer proper legal remedies in national courts.
The Court is there as the ultimate arbiter and guarantor. It may sometimes need to overrule national courts – where they have clearly failed to apply the Convention obligations, or where there are significant points of interpretation that need resolution. But as the Court itself recognises, these cases should be exceptional: it cannot act as just another layer of appeal. It has to focus on the most serious human rights violations which so urgently require its attention.
It is solutions to these problems that we have been collectively seeking through this reform process. We have all worked together, as 47 States Parties, to produce a package that helps sort out the delays and improve human rights on the ground. The draft Declaration we have before us will help ensure more cases are resolved nationally, freeing the Strasbourg Court to focus its attention on the most serious ones.
Our shared priority is to show that it is possible to bring sensible and meaningful reform to the Court without weakening human rights, giving up on the Convention, or undermining decent standards across Europe.
The draft Declaration
I am therefore pleased to commend this draft Declaration to you:
- it makes clear the responsibility of national governments to implement the Convention effectively, and the judgments of the Court;
- it helps clarify the relationship between the Court and national authorities, based on the key principle of subsidiarity;
- it gives the Court tools to manage its workload back to sensible proportions;
- it helps ensure that the Court and its judgments of the highest possible quality;
- and it emphasises that we have to be constantly aware of our responsibility to ensure that the Convention system is operating effectively.
With luck and a following wind, it is my hope that that is what we will achieve in the coming days.
If we get this right, the prize is a great one.
Not just a substantial package of measures, with common sense running through it like the letters through a stick of Brighton rock.
But real progress in tackling the Court’s backlog, while preserving the right of individual petition.
A clear signal to our citizens that the ultimate goal is not for the Court to process ever more cases and deliver ever more judgments, but for the Convention rights to be protected and respected.
And – importantly – an agreement that makes clear that the protection of human rights goes hand-in-hand with democracy and the role of national parliaments.
If we can agree them, the reforms will ensure that institutions which we have established to guard against over-bearing governments and abuse of human rights are modern, effective and focus on the most serious cases. I hope that together we can find consensus. The consequence will be stronger rights, more easily enforced, more widely respected.
I look forward to hearing your views, and to working with you during the conference.