The burden of rights

Created in the aftermath of World War II to guarantee the rights of all Europeans, right-wing parties now want to reform the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While they argue the convention meddles with Danish immigration laws, critics warn that altering the convention might invite changes that undermine the philosophy that all people are entitled to inalienable rights

Danes can thank the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) that they can’t be tortured by the police, forced into slavery, or persecuted for their religious beliefs.

While these things are illegal under Danish law, the laws were only written to satisfy Denmark’s responsibilities as a signatory of the 62-year-old convention.

But although it lays the foundation of democracy across Europe by safeguarding the rights of all, there is growing political discontent with the ECHR.

In Denmark, a number of political parties want to reform the convention, which they say interferes with their ability to implement Danish immigration laws.

Critics argue, however, that it would be a slippery slope towards weaker and culturally relative rights, far from the fundamental and inalienable rights we now enjoy.

An annoyance
Gimi Levakovich isn’t a well-liked member of Danish society. With his long criminal record, the Croatian patriarch of a family that counts a number of other criminals, has long since worn out his welcome in Denmark.

After being convicted of possession of a weapon and making death threats last August, he was given a 15-month sentence and a deportation order. But in May, the Supreme Court ruled that his right to a family life – he has two small children in Denmark – means he cannot be forced to leave Denmark.

“It is not reasonable,” Morten Messerschmidt, MEP for the Danish People’s Party (DF), told Berlingske. “Denmark should not have to abide by old conventions when we can’t remember who wrote them, why, and under what reality they were written.”

The rest of the governing blue bloc of parties supports DF’s proposal to suggest a reform of the convention next year when Denmark assumes the presidency of the Council of the European Union.

“The presidency of the Council is an excellent time for Denmark to propose and lead the work to modernise and revise the European Convention on Human Rights, because we have a strong international voice in the field,” said Christina Egelund, immigration spokesperson for the Liberal Alliance (LA). The political spokesperson for the Conservative People’s Party (Konservative), Mette Abildgaard, argued the issue should be at the top of the European agenda.


Imperfect but necessary
The Social Liberal Party (Radikale) is opposed, arguing that it’s a bad idea to alter the convention simply to fit a given political position.

“We are against any limitations on fundamental human rights and we and fear that the consequences of revising the current convention might lead to an even more undesirable result,” said MP Anders Steenberg.

“There are a number of nations that violate these rights daily and would like to see the convention disappear altogether.”

He added that Europe’s top priority right now should be finding a common solution to the crisis in the Middle East and a durable answer to the immigration crisis, rather than focusing on reforming the convention, as LA and Konservative suggest.

The Danish Institute of Human Rights expressed similar concerns. President Jonas Christoffersen warns that starting this kind of debate with the other 46 members of the Council of Europe might force Denmark to compromise on values that it holds dear.

“Denmark risks inviting changes that we think are unreasonable, undesirable and backwards. Denmark will not get enough out of it, and we might be forced to give up rights that we cherish in order to get our way.”

He urges politicians to consider whether the supposed problems created by the convention are so serious that it is worth risking all the progress made in securing human rights in Europe over the past 70 years.

“Personally, I would rather live with the fact that we cannot have it exactly as we want in order to protect human rights.”

Out of the shadow of war
The ECHR is a product of the times in which it was conceived. The year was 1950, and World War II had recently come to an end, closing an era of serious crimes against humanity. Inspired by the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Council of Europe set out to create a legally-binding document to guarantee basic human rights for the citizens of Europe.

Now ratified by the 47 members of the Council of Europe, the ECHR is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights, where citizens can appeal court rulings from their home countries.

The power of the convention, and the reason it underpins Western democracy, stems from the belief that the rights it outlines are permanent and can’t be undermined by shifting political sands and ideologies.

Christoffersen emphasises this point, as well as the power of the convention to safeguard people against oppressive policies. Fundamental human rights are a guarantee that governments can’t disregard citizens’ rights on a whim.

“The idea that each individual country ought to be able to adjust the fundamental human rights and freedoms to the policy of the incumbent government is dangerous. The purpose of the convention is to take some questions out of the political arena, and thereby prevent politicians from making decisions at odds with human rights.”

The only time any European government has left the ECHR was during the Greek military dictatorship of 1967-1974, known as the Regime of the Colonels. When democratic rule was reinstated, one of the government’s first actions was to re-join the Council of Europe and ratify the ECHR.

But the ECHR is under threat from current signatories. The Turkish government has partially suspended the ECHR after introducing a three-month state of emergency following July’s attempted coup. Russia is known to repeatedly violate the ECHR and has had over 500 cases lodged against it following its military aggression in the Ukraine. In 2015, Russian President Putin signed a law that allowed its Constitutional Court to dismiss ECHR rulings.

The ECHR also has opponents in Western Europe, most prominently in the UK, where the ruling Conservative Party has voiced similar objections to DF’s in Denmark. Before she became Prime Minister in July, Theresa May called for the UK to leave the ECHR and instead formulate its own Bill of Rights.

“The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights,” May said in April when she was Home Secretary.

Since becoming prime minister, and with the party divided on the issue, she has backtracked on her position.

Change can be good
According to Kristine Kjærsgaard, Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Southern Denmark, supporters of the ECHR see the convention as a positive framework for international cooperation – cooperation within which Denmark must solve all its challenges.

This does not mean, however, that the convention can never be changed or reformed, she says. The convention allows states to make reservations on particular sections, or even pull out entirely of it and the Council of Europe.

“It can be viewed as a strength of international cooperation that signatories are listening to the differing viewpoints that are critical of international cooperation and of the limitations it causes to sovereignty and self-government. But, on the other hand, this scepticism can develop into an opposition that might cause a further gap between the elite and the citizens, and which can become both a political and democratic challenge.” M

Features, News

By Sophie Stenner Frahm

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