In a month’s time the governments of the 47 members of the Council of Europe will try to agree reforms that are meant to strengthen the protection of human rights of the 800 million people living in those 47 member states.
The Council of Europe and its key institutions and tools – the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights – have defended human rights and fundamental freedoms for over 60 years. They have helped to promote the rule of law in Europe, and transform the lives of many Europeans. But the work is far from completed.
The UK was one of the original architects of the European Convention of Human Rights and is currently the Chair of the Council of Europe. We strongly believe in the role and values of the Council but do not think the institutions of the Council are strong enough to carry out their important responsibility.
The key challenge is the huge backlog of cases in the Court in Strasbourg. This now stands at over 150,000 with an average delay of 5 years. This means that significant, urgent cases – for example, those involving individuals subject to unfair trial or denied free speech – will continue to be delayed. The Court itself has started to reduce the backlog, but even with the proposed reforms, the Court would still have too many cases to process. The best way to fix this problem is to ensure that the Member States pull their weight.
So we propose that governments do more to implement the Convention themselves, at home, through introducing national human rights institutions, domestic legislation enshrining the Convention, and better human rights training for civil servants and judges. This would reduce pressure on the Court, as more cases would be dealt with at the national level.
One of reforms the UK is therefore proposing is the ability for the Court to say no to cases which have already been fairly decided by national courts in accordance with the Convention.
This would not reduce the right of individuals to apply to have their case heard in Strasbourg. The Court would continue to decide these cases, and all Member States would continue to be held accountable. This would give the Court a vital extra tool with which to focus its caseload on the most serious abuses.
We believe there is now momentum for reform. Sweden is an important and valued partner in this work.
The Court has already begun this work and our proposals build on the reform programme agreed by all 47 members in recent years. Transforming the Court to a modern and effective institution will not be an easy job but is necessary and urgent to ensure Europe continues to be active and effective in seeking to prevent human rights abuse.