U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated a potential withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights and the accompanying Court in Strasbourg. The withdrawal could be a necessary condition for the government to “keep our country safe,” Cameron said. In reality, a withdrawal from the ECHR would do nothing to keep the United Kingdom safe. Cameron’s move would impede a uniquely efficient supranational court professing human rights law and would also entail a withdrawal from the European Union.
The European Court of Human Rights has been accused by the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom of jeopardizing national security by suspending the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals to home countries. Cameron himself insisted that the United Kingdom should be able to “chuck out of our country people who have no right to be here, who threaten our country.” However, this accusation is merely a response to an abuse of court rules, rather than a criticism of the court itself.
Between 2008 and 2011, more than 4,000 U.K. applications were made to the court in the hope of suspending deportation. Yet of these applications, only 911 were granted. This discrepancy has prompted the president of the court, Jean-Paul Costa, to stress that the judicial body “is not an appeal tribunal from the asylum and immigration tribunals of Europe.” The process of suspending deportation is in fact restricted by the Practice Directions for the court. The document affirms that the court will only suspend cases where “the [deportee] faces a real risk of serious, irreversible harm if the measure is not applied.”
The large discrepancy is evidence of a misconception of Court Practices Directions on behalf of the lawyers who represent these applicants. Yet it is not only the lawyers who are mistaken. Cameron’s rash response is also evidence of a serious misconception — or purposeful distortion — of the court’s role.
The European Court of Human Rights does not undermine legitimate deportation processes. The court stops European countries from being complicit in the torture of deportees upon arrival in their home countries.
Being a member of the European Union necessitates that the nation also be a member of the Council of Europe. To maintain membership to the Council of Europe, it must also be a signatory of the ECHR. It is inconceivable that Cameron, and the Conservative Party, is ignorant of these basic facts. It is also unlikely that Cameron is genuinely oblivious to the court’s role. These reasonable assumptions indicate that the government is acting strategically.
Cameron is seeking to take advantage of technicalities within EU membership standards to effectively bypass a previously proposed referendum on the United Kingdom’s participation in Brussels. Attacking a straw man of the court has allowed the prime minister to advance a strategic and instrumental withdrawal from the European convention and consequently the European Union.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 2 print edition. Peter Keffer is a deputy opinion editor. Email him at [email protected]