Good Riddance to Abu Qatada but Britain Should Stay in the ECHR

Roger Sahota writes for the Huffington Post

“Good riddance” will be the understandable reaction of many to Abu Qatada’s departure from these shores. But we should be wary of those politicians led by Theresa May and including David Cameron, who seek to make capital of the legal obstacles that prevented Abu Qatada’s forced expulsion or today's ruling on whole life tariffs to justify the UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR. Neither case justifies that proposal. The Strasbourg's Court's decision in both cases must be kept in perspective. Britain is almost unique in Europe in sentencing some serious criminals to whole life terms. The Court is not ordering their release, nor does it's intervention make it likely they will ever be released. It requires the Government to review their detention after they have served 25 years in prison and periodically thereafter. This was the position under the old law before the whole life system was introduced.

In Abu Qatada's case, the European Court blocked efforts to deport him to Jordan, where he faces trial for terrorist offences, in January 2012. The Court found that there was a ‘real risk’ that the Jordanian Courts would rely on evidence obtained by torture, which falls foul of Article 6 of the European Convention guaranteeing the right to a fair trial. That ruling was consistent with other international precedents and the practice of our courts outlawing torture evidence on the basis it is not only immoral but inherently unreliable. Theresa May deserves praise for navigating the UK out of this quagmire. By persuading the Jordanians to amend their law she has achieved not only a political coup but contributed to the spread of internationally recognised human rights standards. It is therefore unfortunate that she and others in the Tory party are using the case as an excuse to tear up the ECHR and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. No one knows what the new Tory Bill of Rights will contain or how, if enacted it would prevent a repetition of the Abu Qatada or Jeremy Bamber saga. To stop a foreign national like Qatada from relying on international human rights conventions would be a radical step. Our courts have always applied our international human rights obligations to all nationals within our jurisdiction, not just UK citizens and we expect the same of all States. What Ms May could be advocating is a watered down version of the European convention. Curiously, this may leave UK citizens in a weaker position than they were previously and in a weaker position than our EU brethren when challenging misconduct by our state agencies. When one remembers that the ECHR was drawn up by conservative British lawyers in aftermath of World War 2 as an effort to promote the rights of the individual against an overweening state, there is some irony in the actions of their present day libertarian counterparts. Withdrawal from the ECHR will have other disastrous wide-ranging legal and political ramifications. Repeal of Labour’s Human Right Act, which requires English Courts “to take account of” ECHR judgments where they conflict with UK law, is the first of these. Next, the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe would be in jeopardy as may be our continued EU membership – new entrants to the EU for instance are required to subscribe to the Act. Further questions arise as to whether a decision by Parliament to withdraw would bind the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland assemblies. These debates could keep government, EU and constitutional lawyers in clover for some time. Politically, pulling out from the ECHR will irreparably damage our international standing. It will leave the UK isolated in Europe, where the only other non-signatory is Belarus. Most worrying is the negative signal withdrawal will send about our commitment to internationally recognised human rights principles. It will give succour to those countries among the new EU entrants who are often criticised by the Strasbourg Court for their poor human rights record, not to mention other international pariah states. Last year David Cameron told an audience in Strasbourg that "Human rights is a cause that runs deep in the British heart and long in British history...We are not and never will be a country that walks on by while human rights are trampled into the dust." Those sentiments are laudable. But Cameron words have a hollow ring in light of the position he and many in his party are now taking.