Senate to government: Hands off the European Court of Human Rights

20 April 2011

Senate to government: Hands off the European Court of Human Rights

The government’s plan to tie the hands of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) can now, thanks to an overwhelming vote in the Senate, be binned. A huge majority of Senators voted to express the view that Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal had presented no argument that could possibly persuade them to approve his plan to interfere in the jurisdiction of Europe’s highest court. SP Senator Tiny Kox describes himself as ‘delighted’ by the vote. “The Senate has taken a firm stand in favour of the unique protection afforded to all Europeans on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights and the fact that they can go to the ECHR in Strasbourg to enforce these rights. The government should be ashamed of itself.”

During a general debate on Europe in the Senate, Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal clashed with almost every party. In a new official statement on human rights policy, the government expresses harsh criticisms of the judgments of the ECHR and proposes that governments be given more space to “interpret” its verdicts. The statement concedes that the Council of Europe, of which the ECHR is the judicial organ, plays an essential role as human rights watchdog in forty-seven European countries. This is true, as since the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the continent’s division this watchdog protects the rights of some 800 million people, and more than 100,000 Europeans have at present a case before the Court. Every legislative proposal in the Netherlands has to pass the test of whether it is ‘ECHR-proof’, as the Convention has become the standard to which legislation throughout Europe must conform. Now the Lisbon Treaty requires the European Union to become a signatory to the ECHR, moreover, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is in negotiation with the European Parliament regarding this.

Rosenthal’s statement put paid to decades of support from the Netherlands, a founder member of the Council of Europe, for the unique system under which the human rights of every European are protected. “Does the minister really not understand now that his proposal will be applauded by those governments in Europe which all too often and with no justification try to avoid the verdicts of the ECHR?” asks Senator Kox. “The government’s attitude is grist to their mills.” Kox pointed to countries such as Russia, Romania and Turkey where governments continually attempt to get around binding judgments, accusing the ECHR of operating in ‘too political’ a manner. The Dutch government has now joined this select group, and its attitude has been noticed outside the borders of the Netherlands – by the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, by Members of Parliament from other Council of Europe member states, and above all by countries whose governments have trouble implementing the Court’s decisions. Strasbourg forces them to match deeds to words, but the Court’s verdicts are too often honoured in the breach.

Rosenthal was criticised from all sides. In his official statement he gives absolutely no supporting evidence for his assertion that there is something wrong with the Court’s rulings. “Such an attitude is stupid and dangerous,” says Kox. “No arguments, so no change of policy. The European Convention on Human Rights is unique. Every European can go to the Strasbourg court if his or her rights are abridged. In a world in which the powerful generally determine the order of things, this Convention, with the Court to enforce it, is a shining example of the civilised international rule of law.”

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