Speech: the state of human rights in Europe

Short speech by Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC MP to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Dominic Grieve KC

“Mr President, members of the Assembly. It is a great pleasure for me to be able to address you. It is, at least, 35 years ago that I first visited this assembly, when my father was a member of it and for a time the Chairman of the Legal and Human Rights Committee. It was he who first interested me in this issue and it is a privilege for me to follow in his footsteps today. Now coming before you as a lawyer, I have learnt that one should never tell an audience - nor a client - what you think they want to hear. I hope you will therefore trust my sincerity when I say this: national parliaments should be central to the implementation and protection of human rights if human rights are to flourish.

“This is of course not to diminish the role of the executive or the judiciary. By virtue of my position as Attorney General, I see the importance of all 3: I advise the government, and appear for it in court, but I am also a proud parliamentarian. And it is through a balance of the functions of all 3 pillars of the state that we fulfil our primary obligation to implement the Human Rights Convention at a national level.

“Since the 1990s, our national Parliament has been an increasingly important partner in the protection of human rights. It is not true - despite what some may say - that with our Human Rights Act it just passed all responsibility for human rights to the courts. Indeed, that would be to overlook section 19 of the Act which, although short, has greatly increased Parliament’s focus on human rights.

“Under section 19, the minister presenting any Bill - a draft law - to Parliament is obliged to tell Parliament 1 of 2 things: either that, in his or her view, the Bill is compatible with the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Convention, or - explicitly - that they cannot make such a statement but wish to proceed with the Bill anyway. On its own, this simple statement is not much. But ministers have increasingly been expected to explain their reasoning to Parliament, and Parliament has increasingly scrutinised this reasoning in its debates.

“This is in great part due to the efforts of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the 2 Houses of our Parliament. They consider every government Bill, and report on many of them. Those reports draw attention to relevant human rights considerations - not just ways in which a Bill may interfere with the Convention rights, but also opportunities that could be taken to further the implementation and enjoyment of those rights. Their reports are well-respected and influential - and again, I would say that even if members of the Committee were not here in Strasbourg today.

“So to my mind, it is this wider perspective that is the most valuable aspect of Parliament’s role on human rights. Courts can provide a remedy where an individual’s rights have been infringed, but Parliaments can take a broader and more positive view: how to ensure the best possible enjoyment of rights when considered across the population as a whole. Indeed, it must be that a democratic and representative parliament is best placed to know the steps that need to be taken.

“A good illustration of this is the Joint Committee’s annual report on the government’s record of responding to judgments against the UK. In this report, the Joint Committee keeps a watchful eye over the UK’s system for responding to Court judgments, as well as the implementation of individual judgments. By doing so, it not only holds the government to account on its compliance with Court’s judgments, it also helps to avoid future violations of the Convention where they might perhaps be foreseeable.

“Mr President, I noted with great interest the proceedings of the conference on the future of the Court held earlier this year in Izmir in Turkey. Much was said in the context of that conference about the respective responsibilities of the Court and of national authorities.

“My colleague the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke spoke on behalf of the United Kingdom at that conference, and I would like to pick up on a particularly perceptive remark that he made on this subject:

If the Strasbourg Court is too ready to substitute its own judgment for that of national parliaments and courts that have through their own processes complied with the Convention, it risks turning the tide of public opinion against the concept of international standards of human rights, and risks turning public opinion against the Convention itself.

“Kenneth Clarke placed this in the context of a particular judgment against the United Kingdom, but with all respect to him I think this is a far wider point. When I look to the mission of the Council of Europe, I find not just human rights, but also democracy and the rule of law - and so far as possible, these 3 vital elements should exist in harmony.

“While the Convention is a creation of governments, we must always remember that it was not created for our benefit, but for the benefit of the people of Europe. And when we hear the public voice speaking, we cannot refuse to listen.

“The strange thing is that, if one shifts the context to North Africa or the Middle East, the value and importance of human rights becomes obvious and well-accepted. People there are rising up and protesting precisely to defend their human rights. How can the public attitude be so different in a mature democracy?

“I simply suggest that: people need to feel that they ‘own’ their rights. It is not enough simply to hand down from on high, telling people that “this is a human right”, or “that is not”. It is not even enough for us politicians to talk about human rights amongst ourselves: the man and woman on the street must be part of this debate. And this is the key role for representative democracy, and the key challenge as well: how to make human rights relevant to everyone.

“The response must be a partnership: each of the 3 pillars of the state must play its own role in the implementation of the Convention, and each must respect the role of the others. And again, when one comes here to Strasbourg, we must work in partnership again: individual States must fulfil our responsibility to implement the Convention, and the Court must be careful to respect that primary role.”

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Published 23 June 2011