The axis of incredulity

Despite the litany of threats and ‘warnings’ of the dangers of self-governance, the reality is that we are governed by reckless ideologues. Cameron threatens to ‘temporarily withdraw’ from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to expedite radical cleric’s deportation.  Alyn Smith explores the ‘axis of incredulity’.

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Published by Bella Caledonia on May 2nd 2013

Human rights “protect ourselves against any risk of being overrun, crushed by whatever form of totalitarian tyranny” by our own state. Not my words but those of Winston Churchill at the emergent Council of Europe in 1949. He argued that “there is no reason why we should not succeed in achieving our aims and establishing the structure of this united Europe whose moral concepts will be able to win the respect and recognition of mankind.”

That the UK Government should say, as it said last week, that it was considering a temporary withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights should terrify us all. It didn’t seem to appreciate what it was suggesting. Firstly, it’s not something you just step out of for a few moments; it’s an important international treaty recognised by the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. Founded in the aftermath of the Second World War to help promote peace and the rule of law, the Council has a record of achievement which includes the promotion of human rights.

Abu Qatada’s human rights should be respected and protected. He should be allowed full access to all legal channels to defend his human rights in the face of challenges which may impinge upon or infringe his human rights. Not only that, we should back him and make sure that his human rights are defended and that he has those legal options. If we don’t do that we damage our own human rights.

If Abu Qatada’s human rights are infringed so are mine and so are yours. If his rights can be stripped then so can ours. If a government thinks that it can ignore people’s rights when it suits them then we’re all damaged and the protections we take for granted are diminished.

Secondly, the UK’s membership of the European Union is predicated on the UK being committed to the protection of human rights and even this UK Government isn’t advocating withdrawal from the EU. The UK withdrawing from the strictures it agreed to be bound by under the Council of Europe’s Court of Human Rights would still leave it open to action in the European Union’s Court of Justice through an action under article 265 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Thirdly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also has provision against torture and in favour of fair trials. There is no indication that the Cameron/May axis of incredulity is recommending a withdrawal from the United Nations.

Lastly, there is the not-so-small matter of the Human Rights Act 1998 – the human rights in the European Convention on Human Rights are enshrined there to prohibit torture and promote fair access to justice. There is not, as yet, a proposal to repeal or amend that.

The UK Government faces several logistical problems if it seeks to bypass the human rights that the court in Strasbourg presides over – not the least of which is the UK legislation embedding those rights in domestic law – but those problems are as nothing compared to the sheer moral edifice facing it. That edifice is immense but simple – if the human rights of one person can be disregarded to pursue a particular policy agenda or populist agenda then what is to protect the human rights of any other person when they are in the way of another policy agenda or another populist agenda?

If the right wing fixation moves on from Abu Qatada to another individual then who will protect her or his human rights? If human rights legislation can be disregarded in order to have this one man deported to Jordan where people have already been tortured to provide evidence for his trial what is to stop governments deciding to overturn some other human rights to deliver some other person or persons into repressive regimes or, indeed, merely to dispose of opponents? The extradition agreement with the United States is bad enough without removing some of the few safeguards which internationally accused persons may have.

As Cameron asks “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” we should be asking “who will protect us?” Qatada has been the bogeyman for successive UK governments and we should be glad that he has been.

I don’t intend to rehearse the charges levied against this man nor, indeed, his behaviour in court or out of it; the decisions on his guilt or innocence are for m’learned friends; but I will argue that he has done us all a favour without intending to.

A nation can be measured by how it treats those who would do it harm as much as by anything else; we can be measured by how well we respond to such people seeking to use the safeguards we have set up for ourselves. We should be grateful to Qatada for at least one thing – he has tested and tested the lengths to which some governments might go to get their way or satisfy their press.

His lengthy battle through the UK’s legal system and through the legal system of the Council of Europe has tested how well those systems can stand up to populist pressure and political pressure. Human rights need protection and this saga has tested how well we have protected them; our response to the UK Government’s latest calls and forthcoming action may well test how far we are prepared to go to defend human rights which are, after all, our rights.