View all news

Human rights for the 21st century

9 November 2005

In the University's School of Law, human rights is a major research theme with individuals advising governments at the highest level.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 10 on December 1948, without a dissenting vote. It was drafted in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Nuremberg war crimes trials, the Bataan Death March, the atomic bomb, and various other horrors of war. It was the first multinational declaration mentioning human rights by name, and the human rights movement has largely adopted it as a charter.

Subsequently, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), an international treaty that sets out fundamental rights for the benefit of persons within the European region, entered into force in 1953, inaugurating the first regional human rights system. People claiming to be the victim of a violation of these rights by a State Party may apply to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, for redress. In 1998 the ECtHR became the first permanent human rights court in the world.

Human rights in Europe

Some 800 million people from 46 countries now fall under the jurisdiction of the ECtHR. With only one judge per member state the Court's adjudicative capacity is limited to about 700-800 cases a year. With individual applications currently running at 40,000 a year, a figure expected to rise to at least 80,000 by 2010, over 95 per cent of applications are currently turned away at the door without judgment on their merits and fewer still receive a judgment in their favour. Concerns have been expressed that the system will not live out the decade, let alone another half-century. Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights in the University's School of Law, has been reviewing the achievements, problems and prospects of the ECtHR in a book soon to be published by Cambridge University Press, entitled The European Convention on Human Rights: Achievements, Problems and Prospects.

That the Court exists to enable individuals in member states to bring governments before an international court for violations of their basic human rights was not, in fact, one of the objectives which those who designed and drafted the ECHR wanted, or indeed expected, to achieve. The ECtHR was primarily intended to contribute to the prevention of another war between western European states and the 'right of individual petition' only become mandatory in 1998.

Today, Greer believes, the Court's only viable role is the much more subtle one of promoting constitutional convergence in member states, and bridging greater Europe with the Europe of the EU, by providing a common 'abstract constitutional identity' for the entire continent. Cases should be selected for adjudication by the ECtHR largely on the basis of their constitutional significance and adjudicated in a much more constitutionally rigorous manner, with judgements binding on national constitutional and legal systems. Its resources need to be much more strategically targeted on those member states with the most serious structural compliance problems.

The vision of the ECtHR acting as a pan-European court of final appeal fearlessly remedying each and every individual human rights violation wherever it occurs throughout the continent is, sadly, not one it can ever hope to fulfil for sheer logistical and structural reasons.

Human rights in Africa and prevention of torture

On 14 February 2002 a momentous step forward was taken in the prevention of torture in Africa with the adoption of 'Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment in Africa'. The workshop was held on Robben Island because of its historic associations. It was where Nelson Mandela was held during the apartheid years and became internationally known for its institutional brutality - thus the guidelines became known as the 'Robben Island Guidelines'.

Chairing the 26 participants involved in drafting the guidelines was Malcolm Evans, OBE, Professor of Public International Law and faculty dean. He has subsequently been involved in devising and drafting the 'Action Plan for the Implementation Guidelines' and earlier this year the African Commission on human rights held its first meeting outside Africa. This was held here in Bristol and organised by Dr Rachel Murray, also at the University and also active in African Human Rights.

Importantly, Evans points out, work in this area is not just an academic pursuit. It is directly involved with international organisations; looking at the work of international bodies within other countries; going to countries to talk about the implementation of concrete recommendations and there directly engaging with policy makers, Foreign Office staff, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and African organisations trying to oversee projects concerned with the roll-out of the guidelines in local police forces. It therefore has a direct bearing upon prevention of torture and the protection of individuals.

Human rights and religious freedom

Another practical area in which Evans and the School of Law are heavily engaged is the interface between religion and human rights, a subject of particular topicality at the moment. As a member of the organisation of security and co-operation in Europe's panel of expert advisers on freedom of religion matters, Evans receives frequent requests for help in practical situations. He may be asked for comment or advice on, drafts of legislation - for example, are they compatible with human rights standards? - or he may have to travel to discuss with people concerned in countries where there are problems whether it necessary to change laws, legislative structures, or procedures. Recently Dr Julian Rivers, Senior Lecturer in Law, attended a seminar in Strasbourg relating to the issue of religious symbols in general, and headscarves in particular, and Evans has attended all the round table discussions on human rights matters between the European Union and Iran.

These are the kind of issues where people in the faculty are directly engaged with policy makers in developing and influencing approaches. And it is why the work on human rights has become an important research theme within the University.

Malcom Evans, Steven Greer/School of Law

Edit this page