European Human Rights

European Human Rights were agreed as a framework for Europe’s implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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), which is based in Strasbourg.  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.  Appeals on human rights by members of the EU 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, but were defended by Lord Dyson for example in a speech entitled What is wrong with human rights?  He noted that several ECtHR rulings had been strongly criticised by the press and by senior politicians.  He quoted one judgement where its judges refused to allow a convicted terrorist to be returned to a country where he faced a real risk of torture:

“states are not allowed to combat international terrorism at all costs. They must not resort to methods which undermine the very values they seek to protect.”

The European Convention on Human Rights prevents any State in Europe (including Britain) from turning into a police State that destroys the freedom of its own citizens and causes it to be a threat to its neighbours.  Changing it would be possible, but that would rightly require broad agreement in Europe.  Lord Dyson acknowledged that the Strasbourg court (like all courts) may have made some mistakes, and perhaps it could have taken more account of national sensitivities, but he concluded that: “There is also no doubt that the ECtHR has had a beneficial effect on human rights in some member states which do not enjoy the democratic traditions which we so much take for granted”.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/5354a.htm.