The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was agreed in 1950, and Britain signed it at that time. It commits the signatories to comply with the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Many of the participating countries (some of which are not members of the European Union) have had legislation referred to this court from time to time.
The ECHR was given legal status in the EU by the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) enforces adherence, because that is a condition of EU membership. British appeals on human rights now go first to the ECJ – although it is still possible to appeal at a higher level, to the ECtHR.
The ECHR was formally incorporated in British law as a set of legal principles, as described in the Guide to the Human Rights Act 1998 (section 3):
“So far as it is possible to do so, primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights”.
Before the Act was passed in the UK it had been necessary to refer all human rights cases directly to the ECtHR.
European Human Rights have always been contentious, at least in the UK, as chronicled by Lord Dyson for example in a speech at Hertfordshire University on 3 November 2011 entitled What is wrong with human rights? In June 2007, the John Reid, as the British Home Secretary, gave a speech on terrorism and security entitled Facing a Common Threat with International Partnership, in which he said:
“The driving desire behind the European Convention on Human Rights was the wish to protect the individual from the imposition of the awful, arbitrary, destructive power of the fascist state.
But today we face new phenomena – unimaginable to those pioneers who framed that worthy Convention. It is the need to protect the whole community, everyone in the civil state from the imposition of the awful, arbitrary, destructive power of fascist individuals, working in small groups or networks.”
Given that the UK government felt itself under pressure, John Reid had the right to make the challenge. No aspect of governance can be regarded as beyond challenge, and in this book human rights are regarded as negotiable (4.2.4).
Changing the Convention would be possible but would require wider agreement in Europe, including the support of those countries that did not feel themselves under such immediate pressure and were therefore able to take a more balanced view of the long-term requirements. John Reid appeared not to realise that the main reason for the European Convention on Human Rights is to prevent any State in Europe, including Britain, from turning into a police State with the kind of “awful, arbitrary, destructive power” that destroys the freedom of its own citizens and causes it to be a threat to its neighbours.