Why the government must not have the last word

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Matthew Hobson raises important issues about the European Convention on Human Rights. Some ECHR judgments disturb me too (just as some British court judgments do), and so does the spectacle of unrepentant criminals taking multiple bites of the legal cherry (as they do in the British courts), but I am far more angry at the way this is used as an excuse to undermine rights for all of us and deny justice to people like you and me in cases which often go unreported.

Regarding the right to family life, about which he and many others are sceptical, I examined the 24 UK violations of this specific right over the last 10 years. British citizens were subjected to illegal mass phone-tapping, intrusive surveillance, abuse of stop and search powers, retention of fingerprints and DNA when innocent, and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and identity. In one harrowing case, a mother and her cerebral-palsied son on their first visit to a prison were subjected to a humiliating and intimate strip search, contrary to legal process, and only shown consent forms afterwards, which they signed under duress (although the son could not read). The son had nightmares for weeks afterwards, became obsessed with thoughts of prison, and over three years later was still suffering post-traumatic stress – rather more than hurt feelings. These are cases the UK Government fought to the bitter end, in the last case trying to dismiss the gross behaviour of their agents as mere sloppiness.

When another country persecutes its citizens, the answer is not to claim the right to selectively violate a few rights ourselves. We are in a stronger position to pressure fellow EU members to uphold standards, working with other members such as Germany who share our (mostly) good human rights record. As for Russia, as a fully-paid-up member of the “human rights brigade” I know they are notorious for violation of rights: 122 findings against them by the ECHR last year (mainly denial of fair trial and inhuman or degrading treatment). Our influence there is much less, but we do not improve this by signalling that the high standards we set and they agreed to are optional.

None of this overcomes the horror I feel at the UK Government behaviour in the cases I have mentioned, which Ministers of all parties and their supporters in the press do not like made public. Give them the final word, and intrusion and oppression will continue unchallenged.

J Robin Hughes

Towngate Road, Worrall, Sheffield S35