The Human Rights View

By , on 14 July 2011

Human rightsA guest blog with contributions from invited academics commenting on topical issues that have a human rights slant.

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Lord Sumption’s Attack on Strasbourg: More Than Political Rhetoric?

By , on 10 December 2013

George Letsas
Co-Director, UCL Institute for Human Rights

In a lecture delivered on the 20th of November, Lord Sumption, the United Kingdom Supreme Court judge, mounted a direct attack on the legitimacy of the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg Court, he claimed, makes new law by continuously expanding the scope of the rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In doing so, Strasbourg treads on matters of policy that are not for unelected judges, let alone international judges, to decide.

Any law student who has studied constitutional law or jurisprudence will immediately recognize the age-old questions that Lord Sumption’s critique raises. Do judges make or discover law? Are drafters’ intentions relevant in interpreting legal texts? Is judicial review undemocratic? Can the meaning of fundamental rights change over time? Such questions concern fundamental political issues in any liberal democracy, issues about which reasonable people disagree. They are issues that have received extensive philosophical treatment by constitutional scholars around the world, particularly in countries, like the USA, in which judges have long exercised the power to review the compatibility of legislation with abstract constitutional rights. But this power of review is quite new for the judges in the UK most of whom have been schooled in the archaic doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty. The power was formally introduced with the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the ECHR into domestic law. Within a decade, old questions about the nature of fundamental rights and the role of judicial review came to the forefront of British law and politics.

So Lord Sumption’s questions are not new. But are there any new arguments? Lord Sumption rose to prominence by being appointed to the Supreme Court directly from the practicing bar in 2012. He was educated at Eton College and his first degree, from Oxford University, was not in law but in history. In his speech, he makes three arguments in support of his claim that Strasbourg acts illegitimately. The first is that the Strasbourg Court, by interpreting the ECHR as a living-instrument, recognizes rights which states did not intend to grant, contrary to legally binding norms of interpretation found, amongst other sources, in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The second is that the value of certainty requires strict construction of legal texts. The third is that the Strasbourg Court decides matters of policy that should be decided by democratically elected branches of government. Now, is there any merit in these arguments?

The view that judges should not overstep the boundaries of their jurisdiction and decide matters of policy is common ground in any debate about judicial review. Neither the Strasbourg Court nor its supporters believe that its approach to interpretation should exceed the bounds of law and lead to an abuse of judicial power. They are not cynics who knowingly flout the law as part of some anti-democratic international conspiracy. Rather, the Court holds – honestly and reasonably- a particular conception of what the EHCR rights, qua legal rights, are. It is a conception of human rights, according to which the scope of ECHR provisions may evolve over time in order to account for new or previously neglected threats to individual freedom (the ‘living instrument’ approach). It is also a conception of rights with which Lord Sumption happens to disagree. But precisely because both the Strasbourg Court and its critics agree that judges must not decide matters of policy, the allegation of Lord Sumption that Strasbourg’s ‘living instrument’ approach exceeds the bounds of law needs a further argument. Without an argument, it is question-begging; it assumes what needs to be shown. So what is the argument for why the 800 million people who live in Europe today have no legal rights against new or previously neglected threats to their human rights?

Lord Sumption appeals to drafters’ intentions, the text of the Convention and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. But his opponents can equally appeal to all these in order to support their competing conception of the ECHR rights. Didn’t the drafters of the ECHR have the abstract intention to protect whatever human rights people indeed have, as opposed to the human rights that they, in 1950, believed exist? If the aim of human rights treaties is to protect what human rights people indeed have, based on the best available argument on the day, then isn’t Strasbourg’s ‘living-instrument’ approach compatible with the rules of interpretation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties which prioritizes the object and purpose of treaties?

And then there is the text. Lord Sumption finds that the expansion of the scope of the ECHR to illegitimate children, criminal sentencing, immigration, extradition, homosexuality, abortion, assisted-suicide was “not warranted by the express language of the Convention”. Now, I read again the text of article 8 ECHR and it says ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life”. It does not say that everyone has a right to respect for his private and family life except homosexuals, illegitimate children, criminals, immigrants, pregnant women or terminally ill patients. One can return the textualist argument to Lord Sumption: doesn’t ‘everyone’ mean everyone? No amount of strict textual construction, however ingenious, could block considering the new human rights claims of these vulnerable groups. To be sure, there may be other reasons why such claims should be thrown out. But solely appealing to the abstract language of a bill of rights, or to the specific (as opposed to the abstract) intentions of drafters, never made a good legal argument.

Lord Sumption does offer one argument in support of his claims that his opponents must reject. He appeals to the value of certainty, which, he rightly notes, is very important in law. His opponents cannot rely on it because the idea that the ECHR is a living instrument often comes with a degree of surprise: the Strasbourg Court may recognize as a human rights issue something that some or most states never expected. But is the legal value of certainty paramount? We think that it is paramount only in some areas of law, such as criminal law, where it is unfair to defeat the expectations of individuals about when the state will use its coercive force: nullum crimen et nulla poene sine lege certa. But no individual’s life plans are upset when the Strasbourg Court unexpectedly upholds new human rights claims, such as trafficking or prisoners’ rights. The only one who might be surprised and adversely affected by such holdings is the state which is held responsible for the human rights violation. And the value of certainty is meant to protect individuals from arbitrary interference by the state, not to protect the state from being scrutinized about its intrusion on individual rights. So the value of certainty, important as it may be, cannot carry the weight of a conclusive attack on the living instrument approach.

The above objections to Lord Sumption’s claims are not new. I, and many others, have made them in scholarly publications with a view to sharpen and improve the quality of the debate about the best understanding of the role of human rights and judicial review in a liberal democracy. Judges should of course take part in this debate. But they are required to do so by developing normative theories of the legal values in question (i.e. democracy and human rights) and by engaging, in good-faith with well-known legal and philosophical arguments made on the other side. No one is exempt from this requirement, just because she is a judge or just because she thinks that the debate is ‘political’. ‘Political’ does not mean devoid of argument.

We all hold the values of democracy and human rights dear and we all agree that judges, in promoting these values, must not usurp the functions of parliament. Lord Sumption’s attack on the Strasbourg Court was based on question-begging arguments that failed to address the substance of the issues involved. It was a piece of empty political rhetoric, which does not help to promote the kind of dialogue about democracy and human rights that a mature liberal democracy, like the United Kingdom, needs.

Against Modern Slavery by Dr Virginia Mantouvalou

By Virginia Mantouvalou, on 26 September 2012

On Tuesday 25 September, US President Barack Obama gave a powerful talk on human trafficking, describing abuses of workers’ rights as modern slavery. Obama undertook the commitment to make this a matter of priority for his administration. ‘We see you’, he said. ‘We hear you. We insist on your dignity’.

Setting workers’ rights at the top of the agenda and classifying their abuse as modern slavery has much symbolic power. This is particularly so when coming from the President of a country that has been scarred by slavery historically.  ‘I do not use the word “slavery” lightly’, Obama said. And he went on to explain: ‘When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape — that is slavery.  When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery.’

Obama is not alone in classifying present-day labour abuses as slavery. Organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe have also adopted this position. The European Court of Human Rights itself brought the issue to the forefront of discussions in Europe. In Siliadin v France (2005), the abuse of a young migrant woman employed as a domestic worker was held to be servitude. In Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia (2010), the abuse of a young migrant woman, victim of sex trafficking, was held to be slavery. The position of the Court is that state authorities have a duty to criminalise this behavior, to protect and support victims, to investigate allegations, and other such issues. Against this background, the European Union adopted a Directive on Human Trafficking, and issued a Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking by 2016. The UK enacted legislation criminalizing human trafficking and modern slavery.

That grave labour exploitation of workers has been set at the top of the agenda, in Europe and the US, can only be welcomed. The recognition that workers’ rights are human rights, and that their breach is an affront to dignity, is an important start. The political will seems to be there. Yet the eradication of modern slavery will be no easy task. Present-day slaves are hidden. They work in private homes, in isolated agricultural areas, in factories in remote countries. They may wish to remain invisible to the authorities. They are in desperate need of jobs and may be fearful of deportation. We have to take firm steps to discover the victims and help address their abuse. But the recognition that the problem exists is no small achievement, so it is rightly celebrated as such.

Immigration rules for domestic workers: a step closer to slavery, by Dr Virginia Mantouvalou

By Elizabeth Milner, on 2 March 2012

On Wednesday 29 February the UK Government announced new immigration rules, governing, among other issues, the visas of migrant domestic workers accompanying foreign visitors and diplomats. The rules provide that a domestic worker accompanying a visitor can stay for no more than six months, cannot settle in the country, be accompanied by dependents or change employer. Those that accompany diplomats can stay with them for up to five years. They may have dependents, but again have no right to change employer.

Tying a migrant domestic worker to a particular employer can lead to situations of modern slavery, as Kalayaan and Anti-Slavery International, both London-based NGOs working on migrant domestic workers, underlined. It is no secret that this group of workers, particularly when they are live-in, is very prone to abuse. Living and working in private households, they are invisible to the authorities. A recent report produced by Kalayaan said that in 2010, 60% of those who registered with it were not allowed out unaccompanied, 65% had their passport withheld, 54% suffered psychological abuse, 18% suffered physical abuse or assault, 3% were sexually abused, 26% did not receive adequate meals, and 49% did not have their own room. Their working conditions were exploitative: 67% worked seven days a week without time off, 58% had to be available ‘on call’ 24 hours, 48% worked at least 16 hours a day, 56% received a weekly salary of £50 or less (M Lalani, Ending the Abuse, Kalayaan, 2011, p 10).

In the face of calls for regulation of domestic work in national and supranational fora, the Government did the very opposite. With the new rules, if a domestic worker leaves the employer to escape abuse, she will either remain in the country as an irregular migrant, or be deported. The fear of deportation will probably make them prefer to remain invisible victims of exploitation. Read the rest of this entry »

A ‘wriggling’ concern: The Government, the European Court of Human Rights and the rule of law written by Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia

By Elizabeth Milner, on 7 December 2011

Observers of the government’s stance with regard to its European human rights obligations will have noticed there is something going on. To get what is going on one has to understand the difficult position in which the Conservative part of the coalition government has found itself when it comes to human rights in the UK. The UK is signatory to European Convention on Human Rights, and subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in interpreting the Convention rights. The Human Rights Act (1998) incorporated the convention rights directly into UK law. Judges in the UK in precedent setting cases have decided, rightly, that they are bound by ECHR jurisprudence as a bottom limit, a ‘floor’, on what protections they should give domestically. But they did not stop there. They also decided that they should not go too far beyond the Strasbourg court’s decision by giving more generous human rights protections at home, even where it might be warranted. They do, after all, come from a judicial tradition that works fundamentally on precedent. At the same time, the right wing of the Conservative party and its own ministers, viz the ‘cat-gate’ incident with Theresa May at the Tory party conference, have been pressing for the leadership to come good with its pre-election and post-election promises on the Human Rights Act. The inability to freely deport people it deems undesirable when this would violate their human rights has become emblematic of the government’s dissatisfaction with its ECHR obligations. This and the scandalous level of media misrepresentation of the effects of the act, have added to pressure on the government to do something. Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding Why the Riots in England Occurred: An Academic Perspective by M. Rodwan Abouharb

By Elizabeth Milner, on 10 November 2011

The reasons why the riots took place are complex, but not complicated.  Likewise, explaining why the riots occurred needs a sophisticated response; it is not simply either poverty or criminality.  Such dichotomies serve to erroneously categorise a heterodox group of people and the reasons that led to the rioting.  Such different reasons for individual participation mean that if the government wants to take these issues seriously then it needs a multifaceted response. In many ways, the riots represent the culmination of a perfect storm of factors which have increased the probability of violence.  Understanding these factors does not mean condoning them, but provides some insight about how such events might be prevented in the future. A more nuanced understanding of these events comes not from ideological posturing, but through distilling a lot of the research in political science and sociology. To be sure, I think each of three sets of reasons listed below explains different motivations for why the riots took place. Read the rest of this entry »