This Human Rights Day the British Institute of Human Rights and the Human Rights Consortium at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, co-hosted a discussion on human rights protections in the UK, Europe and beyond.  A number of distinguished speakers contributed their reflections on how universal human rights are protected across Europe, from Armenia to Ireland, by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR was written in 1953 to bring the promise of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) to life here in Europe. 47 countries have signed up, meaning that over 800 million of us are protected by the ECHR, and can go to the European Court of Human Rights if we feel that our human rights have been put at risk or violated.

Sanchita Hosali, Deputy Director of the British Institute of Human Rights, opened the session with an exploration of the current situation in the UK, and the challenges we may face in complying with the ECHR if the government presses ahead with a ‘British Bill of Rights’.  Fiona de Londras, Chair of Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham, looked at the effectiveness of the ECHR’s incorporation into Irish law, and the extent to which this has worked within the context of constitutional rights in Ireland.  Philip Leach, Professor of Human Rights Law at Middlesex University, reflected on the case law of the European Court of Human Rights with reference to Russia, Ukraine and South Caucasus States, and the impact of the ECHR in those countries. The event was closed by Andrew Cutting from the Council of Europe, providing an overview of how the Council operates the ECHR systems across Europe.

The impact of the ECHR was thoughtfully considered, particularly when exploring how different countries have reacted and responded to the obligations it imposes. Fiona de Londras explored the differences between Ireland’s European Convention of Human Rights Act and our Human Rights Act here at home in the UK, reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of both. She also considered Ireland’s compliance with the terms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which requires equal human rights protections for all across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

Philip Leach spoke powerfully about the ECHR’s vital role in bringing accountability and justice to conflict situations in Europe, providing protection to displaced families and human rights defenders who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn. He also took time to reflect on criticism by some in the UK of the ECHR and our own Human Rights Act, and the dismay felt by those who have turned to the ECHR in times of need in light of those criticisms.

He quoted the mother of one of the victims of the Beslan School Massacre in 2004 in which 385 hostages, 176 of whom were children, died after Russian security forces stormed the building with tanks and other heavy weapons.  She said:

‘The European Convention on Human Rights is a benchmark of justice; it is a body that should be seen as an example to everybody … once they have adopted the European Convention on Human Rights, states should follow it, otherwise chaos will ensue.’

Andrew Cutting discussed the UK’s role in creating, implementing, and strengthening the systems in place to ensure respect for the ECHR, including the European Court of Human Rights.  This contrasts with the potentially damaging impact of the UK’s current rhetoric regarding domestic human rights protections, and the bewilderment felt by many of the other countries within the Council about this.

Within the UK it can easily be forgotten that our relationship with the ECHR, its associated bodies, and other European countries, is not an isolated one.  However, this event was striking in emphasising both our historic role in championing and strengthening the protection the Convention system provides, but also the impact of our domestic actions and dialogue on those outside the UK.

On Human Rights Day the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, wrote in the Independent about the UK government’s work promoting human rights around the world.  He stated that "we must be conscious of how our messages are interpreted, and pitch them for the impact we want."  We must now hold the government to this standard, not only in its work overseas, but also in its activities here at home.