Consultation on European Human Rights System

Submitted by sglenister on Wed, 08/01/2014 - 10:57

08 January 2014

By Dan Blackburn, Director of the International Center for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR) and Editor of International Union Rights journal.

The Council of Europe has launched a consultation on the future of the European human rights system. No-one should be under any illusions as to where this is coming from.

It is an initiative rolled out in response to constant pressure from the UK's right-wing, anti-union Conservative Party, which is driven by an isolationist and xenophobic current essentially hostile to the international human rights supervisory system. It is unclear whether they actually see a British exit from the international human rights system as a serious objective or, perhaps more likely, are just relishing the attention that the media gives the issue, while seeking to stamp on some of the more progressive positions taken by the Court in recent years. Although the human rights system broadly construed includes various important actors, such as the European Committee on Social Rights (which supervises the Social Charter) there is no doubt as to the main focus of debate. It is the bête noir of the Daily Mail: the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights was not always regarded as a bastion of the labour movement. Indeed, for many years its position on freedom of association was grounded in a one-sided 'civil and political rights' approach to human rights that didn’t always chime with trade union thinking. But in line with the now firmly entrenched position that human rights are indivisible the Court has more recently recognised a clear obligation to promote integration, protection and respect for social, economic and cultural rights alongside civil and political rights. In the landmark case of Demir and Baykara the Court (by the unanimous decision of the Grand Chamber) explicitly referred to the importance of this dynamic harmony now understood to exist between all international human rights instruments. Building on this position the Court’s recent jurisprudence now affirms the fundamental position of core trade union rights in European human rights law, including around the right to form and join unions, collective bargaining, and the right to strike. This is surely correct: the ideal of protection for civil liberties and freedoms can only be meaningful if conditions are created whereby the fundamental social and economic rights of all are protected.

Among the areas most likely to be highlighted by a hostile right-wing is the very substantial backlog of cases that the Court built up over the years. That a vast backlog existed is undisputed. Yet over the past two years tremendous progress has been made, successfully reducing this by an astonishing 50,000 cases. Caution must be sounded, however, against a simplistic rush to further restrict cases on technical grounds (which is doubtless the position for which some will argue). In large part it was an administrative reform, the introduction of the system of a single judge deciding on admissibility, and not a more restrictive approach to applications, that was responsible for this progress. Continued progress on this issue may best be guaranteed not by increasingly restrictive rules on admissibility but by improving the capacity of the Court and its administrative support. This requires that more resources be made available (in terms of increasing the Courts’ budget and of increasing staffing levels) and bringing in additional judges. Consideration must also be given to the need for more effective communication of the Court’s judgements by ensuring the rapid publication of all judgements and for improved availability of translations. Such steps could greatly contribute to improved awareness by the widest possible range of actors throughout the Members States of the standards and principles protected.

Trade unionists ought to be encouraged to see this consultation as an opportunity to take forward a progressive agenda and to pursue improvements to the European human rights system. But more importantly at the present time the system must be defended against arguments that seek to weaken the Court, to reduce human rights application, and to downgrade the social and economic rights that are fundamental to maintaining a dignified human existence and a humane social sphere. It is therefore vital that the labour movement and its allies from around Europe take time to respond to this consultation. Anyone wishing to do so may send contributions on any aspect of the human rights system, to arrive by 12 noon CET Monday 27 January at the latest. Submissions must be returned via the Council of Europe website, using this pagethis page

IER are in the process of producing a report highlighting the importance of various Convention rights to UK law.

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