Parliament paves way for EU human rights ‘czar’

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The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly yesterday (18 April) to change the future direction of the EU's human rights policy and pave the way for a new position of "human rights czar".  

The report's author, British Labour MEP Richard Howitt (Socialists & Democrats), said the EU had finally "filled the gap" with the United States and would no longer lack the authority to make its case heard whenever human rights are violated across the globe – be it in Iraq, Syria or Burma.

"Europe was negotiating improved trade terms with Gaddafi just four weeks before we started dropping bombs on him, and it is time to show the mistakes of the past will not be repeated," Howitt said.

Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, attended the plenary debate in Strasbourg and praised her fellow Labour colleague Howitt for achieving "a consensus across the political spectrum on his report".

"Work is in hand to pave the way for appointment of a special representative for human rights … It is important that this person be somebody with a strong track record and on in international human rights," Ashton said.

The 47-page Parliament report seeks export bans to be placed on technologies which restrict internet freedom and calls on governments to establish consultations on human rights at the same level as other foreign policy discussions. The report also calls for each of the 130 delegations of the EU across the world to appoint a contact person responsible for human rights issues.

The human rights resolution was adopted by a vote of 580-28.

Consensus?

Not all deputies appeared to share Howitt's views, however. The Labour MEP had initially insisted on adding a clause to the report condemning Britain for what he described as an "obstructionist attitude" in negotiations over the EU's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights (see background).

British Prime Minister David Cameron has vetoed the EU's accession to the ECHR, saying it would unnecessarily interfere in cases already dealt with satisfactorily by national courts. Cameron also says some countries such as the UK observe the European Convention's rules much better than others and the ECHR should really focus its efforts on the worst violations of human rights.

According to the BBC, some high-profile cases have set Cameron's government at odds with the Strasbourg court.

The court threatened action against Britain for not complying with a 2005 ruling that said prisoners had a right to vote under the European Convention. The ruling regarded a convicted killer, John Hirst, and a majority of MPs at Westminster voted to defy the ECHR on this issue.

Then the case of Islamist cleric Abu Qatada made headlines when the ECHR blocked a UK move to deport him to Jordan to face trial. The judges feared that evidence obtained by torture would be used against him in Jordan.

Qatada, said to be linked to al-Qaeda, now faces deportation as the UK government says it has received new assurances from Jordan about his case.

Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, the Tory party's foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament, said: "Labour seems unable to tell the difference between a bad record on human rights and a good record on defending common sense, on upholding national sovereignty and on making sure the European convention, once it is implemented, works as it should."

"Prime Minister Cameron is absolutely right to block EU accession to the ECHR which would threaten much of the UK's hard won economic reforms and enormously expand the powers of the unelected Strasbourg judges."

Final text of the Howitt report.

The Council of Europe (CoE), separate from the 27-nation EU, is Europe's oldest institution and its main watchdog for human rights and democracy, established after World War II in Strasbourg.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is established by the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted by the CoE in 1950, and seeks to ensure compliance by all 47 member countries. Any one of those states can also bring a case against another when it believes the country is violating the European Convention. ECHR also rules on the grievances of individuals who believe their national courts have failed to deliver justice.

But ECHR rulings affect EU member states and become part of European case law, influencing EU legislation. The EU's Lisbon Treaty aims to make the EU a member of the Council of Europe. The main reason for doing that is to prevent any conflict between ECHR rulings and judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is the EU's top court.

The ECJ, like the ECHR, relies on the European Convention when it adjudicates in disputes affecting the rights of EU citizens, companies or institutions.

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