One of the most interesting features of international treaties and conventions is the loophole clauses that state when they don’t apply. For instance, the Geneva Conventions don’t apply on alternate Thursdays between 7am and 9.30am and there’s a complex formula to determine when the Charter of the United Nations doesn’t apply to certain countries. Obviously, this means that they’re still in force for 99% of the time, so those times when they don’t apply don’t matter, and certainly aren’t used to accomplish all those nasty tasks that can’t be done when the rules are in place.
The previous paragraph is, of course, a complete pack of lies because treaties and conventions, like laws, need to be in place permanently, otherwise everyone who wants to break one of them will just wait until the time they can and go ahead with it. Once you concede that the law is a temporary construct that can be abrogated for convenience, you start to wander down a very dangerous road.
Which is why the idea of the UK temporarily leaving the Council of Europe and/or the European Convention on Human Rights (FT article, requires registration) to facilitate the extradition of Abu Qatada should be a concern to everyone. The purpose of the ECHR is to establish that no government is above the law, a vital principle established in the aftermath of the Second World War (and one that British lawyers were instrumental in implementing). To suddenly change that principle to one that no government is above the law, except on a few occasions when it feels it needs to be, is to make the ECHR useless. If the UK can ignore the ECHR and ‘temporarily withdraw’ when it wants to, then so can anyone else. Belarus could finally sign up to the ECHR, then claim it was ‘temporarily withdrawn’ from it at any time when human rights abuses are complained about there.
If your rights aren’t permanent, then they’re something that can easily be disposed of when it’s convenient for the Government. A temporary withdrawal from the ECHR is being presented as simply an administrative measure to enable one goal to be accomplished, when it’s actually knocking the first hole in the dam. Sure, it’s only one hole and not a very big one, but all the water can flow through it, given enough time. A temporary withdrawal is the government saying that ECHR rights are something we possess only while it’s convenient for the government, and that they can be disposed of whenever they feel like it.
This is why I’m concerned at the following section in the FT report:
An aide to Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, refused to rule out backing a temporary withdrawal but said it had not been proposed, dismissing it as a “complete hypothetical”. Mr Clegg said last year he would never support permanent withdrawal.
Yet again, we have one of Clegg’s aides saying something silly. There’s no compromise possible here, and Clegg should be completely ruling out the possibility of any withdrawal from the ECHR, whether it be temporary or permanent. Human rights are something that apply to everyone at all times, and that’s a principle the leader of the Liberal Democrats – and his aides – should be standing up for.