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.Continue reading