Wednesday 16 May 2012

Eleventh Hour Reform - Qatada and the Issue Of Human Rights

Henry Norman

Wrangling between the UK government and the ECHR leaves the fate of Abu Qatada in a state of limbo.  Matt Dunham.
Back in February 2009, the then Law Lords judged that Abu Qatada, the radical Islamic cleric, could be deported back to Jordan under the agreement that Qatada evidence obtained by torture would not be used in any trial against him. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) then stepped in and in January of this year ruled that returning Qatada to Jordan, in spite of the potential of such evidence, would be a ‘flagrant denial of justice.’ Such a move would contravene Qatada’s protection under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights which dictates one’s right to a free and fair trial. This is an unalienable right that extends even to a man widely seen as a security threat and Bin Laden’s ‘ambassador in Europe.’
The Home Secretary, however grudgingly, has played to the letter of the law. Diplomatic missions have been despatched to Jordan to gain further assurances that evidence obtained by torture will not play any role in a trial against Qatada. This is perhaps in light of recent events that have seen the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, threatened with litigation surrounding his alleged collusion with the CIA and the illegal rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhadj to Gadhafi’s Libya.
The Eleventh Hour  
Just as it seemed that Qatada’s one way return to Jordan had  all but been booked, an eleventh hour appeal was submitted to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR by Qatada’s legal team. Confusion between what the Home Office thought was the appeal deadline and what the ECHR thought has resulted in utter disarray. 
What is really troubling about this affair is that it will fuel the resentment of many within the Conservative half of the coalition towards the ECHR. This may result in further eleventh hour reforms driven by populist sentiment. This threatens to have dire consequences for our role in upholding human rights within the international community.
To combat the perceived erosion of state sovereignty by foreign judges, reform of the ECHR has been made a key priority for the UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe. At the opening of the Brighton Conference, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke announced, ‘Our shared priority is to show that it is possible to bring sensible and meaningful reform to the Court without weakening human rights, giving up on the Convention, or undermining decent standards across Europe.’
The much maligned European Court of Human Rights dispensing justice since 1959. Vincent Kessler.
These proposed reforms will really be in the eleventh hour as UK chairmanship of the Council expires on the 14th May 2012. However, what seems to be most worrying is the wish to allow ‘greater margins of appreciation’ in interpreting the ECHR rulings. In other words, member countries can decide how far (if at all) they wish to implement the judgments of the court. For a liberal democracy such as the UK, this worry is far less profound. Amnesty International, on the other hand, has concerns for the countries such as Russia from which the ECHR ‘provides the only means of redress for millions of people.’ 
Comparative versus Absolute
As such, these reforms, spearheaded by the UK government, threaten to treat human rights as an issue of comparative advantage rather than of absolute gain. In other words, the UK government gain comparatively in their ability to keep many popular policies such as deporting hate clerics and stripping prisoners of the right to vote. In absolute terms however, as members of an international community, they neglect their universal obligations to uphold human rights. Such disregard of universal human rights also threatens to put too much power in the hands of governments that don’t always act in the interests of its citizens. As a policy advisor for Amnesty International reminds us, ‘UK courts don’t always get it right. It was this self-same European Court of Human Rights that reprimanded the UK government when it wanted to indefinitely retain the DNA of innocent people.’ As such, the ECHR is pivotal in providing a system of checks and balances for what could be unruly governments. 
Road Ahead
This is not to say that the ECHR is not in need of reform; there are obvious problems surrounding the enormous bottleneck of over 150,000 cases currently clogged up in the backchannels of the ECHR. However, such reform cannot be achieved by what appears to be eleventh hour dealings at the end of the UK chairmanship. As the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Jean Claude Mignon reminds us, ‘for every indigestible adverse ruling, there are dozens that are quietly progressive and have come to be regarded as profoundly sensible.’ As such, we should not allow cases such as that of Qatada to cloud our obligations towards international institutions such as the ECHR. 
Furthermore, if we want more quantitative data on the matter, then look to the ECHR’s Annual Report of 2011. Going by headlines in the popular press, anyone would think that the ECHR had ruled against the UK on countless and far too many occasions, but the actual figure is only 8. Compare this with France and the number is 23, and compared with Russia the total number of violations comes to 123. 
Obviously there is no question that the UK will leave the ECHR (despite the wishes of a few backbenchers). To do so would cause a cataclysmic dent in the soft power apparatus of the UK. However, the UK must remain vigilant in not appearing at all isolationistic when it comes to issues such as human rights. The government’s proposed reforms still have a hint of self-interest more than a concerted effort to actually effectuate substantial change within the ECHR. The outgoing President of the ECHR, Sir Nicholas Bratza has commented that, ‘reducing or even eliminating the backlog [of 150,000 cases] will require additional resources.’ Such a view will not go down well with law makers across Europe, but perhaps it is the tangible evidence needed in order to demonstrate member states’ deep commitment to human rights across Europe- at least that is the populist, easy to say, hard to deliver rhetoric we have all grown so used to.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Social Woes in Pre-Election France and Europe

Erik Edman

A European citizen should be able to maintain their cultural identity within their host nation. Just because someone is Muslim, does not mean there are not also French. Europe should not promote a system which has “second class citizens”. Reuters

French Issues
As France edges closer to a presidential election, the nation has come under the scrutiny of the political microscope. The examination has revealed scores of economic, administrational and cultural “tumours” within the government and society. Politicians claiming to possess the golden formula, believe they can cure them. They have some very difficult and delicate work ahead of them.
Most prominent among these issues has been the case of the French-Algerian gunman who shot and killed 3 soldiers, 3 children and a rabbi in the French city of Toulouse. Apart from being a significant case of racial hatred, this event revealed to the world an underlying social rift between France’s Muslim community and the rest of its society. Back in 1962, following a long and bloody struggle with France, Algeria’s independence was finally recognised and it was released from its former colonial status. The seed of animosity, however, was sown deep within the souls of Muslims living in France. Fifty years on and watered by a feeling of social exclusion, the seed has grown. When, following the shootings in Toulouse, New Statesman journalist Andrew Hussey asked some Muslim youth in the outskirts of Paris if what happened all those years ago in Algeria justified the killings, they answered “Who knows? Who knows anything? Maybe everything was a set-up to provoke the Muslims… We are Muslims. We hear things. France is our enemy.” An isolated incident? Indeed. Many Muslims voiced their concerns and condolences for this unreasonable violence and it is very possible that they constitute the majority. The fact remains, however, that a great number of these people feel alienated and trapped in a country that they feel does not respect them. This disdain leads them to crave revenge, and this revenge can take many forms. Important to also mention is the niqab (Muslim religious veil covering the face of women) ban that came into effect last April. And last year, the country spearheaded the military intervention in Libya. It is not too difficult to see how France might not be perceived as the most hospitable nation for Muslims.
And the Muslims are not the sole social group with a bone to pick with the French government. The Roma have been targeted by Sarkozy’s “immigrant clean-up”. Last summer saw many illegal Roma camps disbanded and people evicted from the country. Many of them, being citizens of Eastern European countries now members of the European Union, have the right to live and work in France as they would in their home-countries. The European Commission has warned the French government that it will face legal action if it does not respect EU legislation on freedom of movement. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has maintained that France has not respected a 2004 EU directive on the matter and she will therefore suggest the launch an infringement process will be launched against the French government. People are left homeless and their means to make a living for their family and themselves is hampered by the social stigma that accompanies their people. On top of this, Sarkozy in one of his pre-election speeches has threatened to take France out of Schengen, Europe’s passport-free zone. 
The young are also restless. The “generation Y”, as those born after 1980 have been named, is reacting to the lack of jobs, the fact that their education and work is underappreciated, harsh economic measures (not only in their own country but others too, in a sign of European solidarity) and what they perceive as their marginalisation by the government.
A Pan-European Phenomenon
This is by no means a nation-specific case. The entire Union is showing signs of what one expert has called European Hypocrisy. For all its liberal ideas and outlooks, the nations of the EU are showing signs of neglect towards certain social groups, regardless of European legislation.
There are cases of EU citizens who should be able to live and work freely within any of the 27 country-members, but poor citizenship education and a lack of interest in these people has meant that they spend time and money trying to acquire papers which they do not need. About 2.5% of the European population (12 million people) consists of Europeans living outside their home countries and even the most educated of them can trip over administrative barriers. There have been initiatives, such as the European Commission-supported ECAS (European Citizen Action Service) to educate people working outside their country of origin and provide them with information regarding their civil rights.
As the economic crisis takes its toll in the continent, xenophobia has started raising its ugly head in nations around Europe, with the far-right gaining supporters in places traditionally seen as liberal, such as Sweden and the Netherlands. In search of scapegoats, people have come to blame immigrant workers for taking jobs which could have been filled by locals. Europe and its people have yet to accept a pan-European identity, which makes a “European citizenship” a very vague concept indeed. A united Europe is definitely the future but greater care needs to be given to how society perceives this integration. There is a great need for everyone to realise that they not just citizens of their respective countries but also of a greater institution; the European Union. That second identity must be strengthened, demystified and explained if Europe is ever to function as a unit.

An anti-Swedish Democrats (Swedish far-right party) rally in Sweden. The far-right managed to gain 19 seats in the country’s parliament. Bob Strong/Reuters.
The United Kingdom and “The Continent”
If one nation could be singled out of as the least European-minded among the 27 members, it would have to be the United Kingdom. Its foreign policy and economic outlook tends to follow independent paths and bypass the views of its European partners. Many Brits refuse to see themselves as Europeans. The “them” and “us” distinction is almost palpable in the UK’s conscience, whether the distinction applies to social classes, religious groups or simply British and European.
If British society is decisively distinct from those found in the rest of Europe, it has not managed to avoid many of its flaws and problems. From gaps in social identity and roles within society, to the treatment and perception of immigrant workers within the country, the UK is treading on a fine line. The Summer Riots of 2011 are an excellent example of how people from various social groups in the country have failed to become part of society or, depending on one’s view on the matter, the state has failed to integrate them into it. Muslims have voiced greater concerns in Britain than in any other European country on the future of their families within the country. People have an instinctive need to belong and when the state does not satisfy that need and appears to be neglecting them, the results, as the whole world saw, can be disastrous.