The UK’s defiance of the European Court of Human Rights

Veronika Fikfak argues that by amending the Illegal Migration Bill to require UK courts to ignore a potential interim measure from the European Court of Human Rights, the UK government has reached for the most drastic option, exposing its carefully fostered image of a ‘good complier’ as merely a myth. She warns against passage of the amendment, and criticises the government for taking the same path as Russia by choosing defiance over dialogue.

In late April, the government tabled a number of amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill, including an order to domestic courts to ignore a potential interim measure from the European Court of Human Rights (‘the ECtHR’) to stop someone being removed from the UK if they bring forward a legal challenge. British judges have been told that if the bill is enacted with the new amendments, it will mean that they ‘cannot apply any interim measure, aside from in the narrow route available under the bill where [the applicants] are at risk of serious and irreversible harm.’ The House of Lords Constitution Committee has raised serious concerns about the potential impact of the bill on the rule of law and human rights. In this blog, I argue that this order puts the UK on par with Russia and Poland, which have used domestic law to prevent compliance with their international obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). I show how both countries have sought out a direct conflict with the Strasbourg Court and how the UK – for the first time since joining the ECHR – is taking the same route. I also outline how far its behaviour goes from the usual ‘good complier’ image that the UK has carefully fostered.

Poland and Russia choose defiance over compliance

In international law, courts are notoriously dependent on states, and especially their executive branches, to enforce their judgments. Since the international community has no enforcement mechanism to compel states to comply with a decision of an international court, if a state were to refuse to do so voluntarily, the judgment would remain merely words on paper. Yet generally states have been reluctant to openly defy the ECtHR by refusing to enforce its judgments. Instead, negotiations, lobbying and delays are the standard techniques to avoid or minimise compliance. Even when countries adopt domestic laws that clearly contradict the ECHR (such as in the case of immigration legislation in Denmark or the UK’s recent bill), this is usually done under the cover that the state ‘seeks to clarify the content of obligations under the Convention’ or more boldly that it wishes to ‘test the limits’ of the ECHR. Once a judgment is delivered, the state promptly puts in place a process to comply with the judgment (such as in the case of Savran v Denmark). The intent to voluntarily comply with the ECHR is present for the majority of countries.

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What can the OECD initiative on ‘building trust and reinforcing democracy’ tell us about multilateral efforts to strengthen democracy?

The OECD’s new commitment to ‘building trust and reinforcing democracy’ arrives amid a broader international movement to address ‘backsliding’. In this post, Sophie Andrews-McCarroll explains the new initiative.

Alarm bells have increasingly been sounded about the risks of democratic backsliding across the world – including in established democracies in Europe, the UK and US. Backsliding is the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic – often manifest in the reduction of checks and balances, breakdown in political norms, and reductions in civil liberties and electoral integrity. It is facilitated by political polarisation, and declining public trust in democratic institutions. The OECD’s new initiative on ‘building trust and reinforcing democracy’ – discussed at a high-level ministerial meeting, chaired by Luxembourg, in November – is one response to these concerns.

The OECD approach to policy problems

The OECD is an intergovernmental organisation that provides countries with independent policy analysis to promote economic and social well-being. It promotes best practice and provides international benchmarks, seeking to promote evidence-based policy solutions and entrench norms through a peer review and surveillance approach. Its authority rests on its technical expertise, and it lacks the coercive instruments available to other international organisations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union or World Trade Organisation. This appeal to evidence and best practice is supported by a consensus-based model of decision making: all 38 member countries must unanimously agree to all commitments or declarations made, and any action plans adopted. Such an approach means that initiatives can only be agreed if they have broad buy-in, including from smaller, traditionally less powerful countries. But it also means that ambitious goals may have to be watered down to achieve consensus.

Building trust and reinforcing democracy

This subject has been a long-standing OECD priority, being on the organisation’s horizon since at least 2013. But the holding of the ministerial meeting – which itself required a consensus decision by the member states – reflects its topicality and urgency.

It also comes amid a number of other international initiatives designed to strengthen democracy. Notably, these include the United States’ 2021 ‘Summit for Democracy’, an international summit which set out a programme of democratic reform to be pursued during the following ‘Year of Action’, and followed up at a second summit in March 2023. The US was a vice-chair – along with Colombia, France and Lithuania – of the OECD ministerial meeting, reflecting the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to reversing both the notorious democratic erosion the US suffered under Donald Trump, and its retreat from multilateral institutions and agreements. The November meeting also followed, and drew on, an extensive cross-national survey investigating public trust levels across 22 OECD countries.

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The rule of law: what is it, and why does it matter?

The rule of law is a fundamental principle underpinning the UK constitution. Its core principles include limits on state power, protection for fundamental rights and judicial independence. Lisa James and Jan van Zyl Smit argue that upholding the rule of law is a responsibility shared between politicians, officials and the public – with ministers and MPs having important roles to play.  

Background

The rule of law is frequently cited in political debate, and is a key topic monitored by those worried about democratic backsliding. But what is it, and why is it so important?

The rule of law is one of the fundamental principles underpinning constitutional democracies, and its importance is not seriously questioned in any modern democratic state. But like other constitutional principles, long-running debates exist about how it can most effectively be implemented.

This briefing explains the central concepts constituting the rule of law under three broad categories:

  1. Legality and legal certainty
  2. Legal equality and fundamental rights
  3. Judicial independence and access to justice

Why does the rule of law matter?

The rule of law prevents the abuse of state power, requires the law to be followed by all, and ensures that legal rights are fulfilled in practice. It also provides the means for various other core aspects of democracy to be safeguarded – for example, making certain that the laws made by parliament are enforced, and that fair conduct of elections can be guaranteed. More broadly, it underpins social functioning by providing fair and legitimate routes for disputes to be settled. And it supports stable economies and economic growth by upholding property rights, facilitating the elimination of corruption, and maintaining a business environment in which contracts are enforced, and international trade and investment can flourish. The rule of law alone is not sufficient to make a state democratic, but a state which does not observe it cannot be a healthy democracy.

As such, the rule of law has long been recognised as a fundamental part of the UK system. Many of its core aspects were established during the seventeenth century – particularly by the Bill of Rights 1689. Nineteenth-century scholar Albert Venn Dicey considered it, alongside parliamentary sovereignty, one of the ‘twin pillars’ of the constitution. More recently, Margaret Thatcher considered its observance central to Conservatism, arguing that ‘the institution of democracy alone is not enough. Liberty can only flourish under a rule of law’. And the 2001 Labour government recognised its importance as an existing principle in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

What does the rule of law cover?

Like other fundamental principles, the precise details of the rule of law are debated, but its central tenets are widely recognised. Lord (Tom) Bingham of Cornhill, a former Senior Law Lord, provided one well-known schema, on which the Venice Commission’s Rule of Law tools for assessing constitutional reforms are based. Another influential definition was given by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who defined the rule of law as:

…a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

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Partygate illustrates the fundamental constitutional responsibility of government MPs

Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. Both have misled parliament over Downing Street parties. These are clear breaches of the Ministerial Code, which should lead to resignation. If the PM refuses to police the Code, says Meg Russell, that constitutional responsibility rests with MPs. A failure to exercise it would seriously undermine both the integrity of, and public trust in, the democratic system.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been issued fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules over parties in Downing Street. This means that they have broken the Ministerial Code on two counts. Paragraph 1.3 emphasises ‘the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. But the police have concluded that the law has been broken. Paragraph 1.3c of the Code then states that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

But it has been clear for some time that Johnson breached this rule, by repeatedly insisting in the House of Commons that all regulations were followed, and denying knowledge of Downing Street parties, when it subsequently emerged that he had attended such gatherings. Multiple sources have catalogued these denials. Rishi Sunak also said on the parliamentary record that he ‘did not attend any parties’.

But the final line of paragraph 1.3c is the rub. While both of these forms of breach would normally be considered resigning matters, the ultimate keeper of the Code is the Prime Minister himself. He has already faced down criticism over failing to uphold it in the case of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which led to the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they are not going to resign, indicating that the Prime Minister is once again setting aside the Code – this time over multiple breaches, which are highly publicly salient.

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Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution

At a recent Constitution Unit event (available in video and podcast form), Tim Bale discussed the challenges posed to mainstream conservatism by the recent rise in successful populist politicians. Here, he sets out those challenges, how conservatives have traditionally faced them, and concludes that the UK Conservative Party is so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

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