British PM presses for European rights court reforms
(STRASBOURG) - British Prime Minister David Cameron called for the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday to stop wasting time on "trivial cases", in a major call for reform of the court.
In a speech to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, he warned that a huge backlog of cases was diverting the court's attention from its fundamental role of protecting the most serious rights violations.
Cameron also questioned court rulings which overturned decisions made by democratic member states, a particular concern among eurosceptic members of his Conservative party.
The issue flared up last week when the court blocked Britain from extraditing radical cleric Abu Qatada, described as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, to Jordan because evidence against him may have been obtained by torture.
"Today, I want to speak about the once-in-a-generation chance we have, together, to improve the way we enhance the cause of human rights, freedom and dignity," Cameron told the council, which Britain chairs until May.
He said the ECHR had the potential to be a "beacon for the cause of human rights, ruthlessly focused on defending human freedom and dignity", but warned this role was under threat.
One major problem was the number of cases it had to consider, up from 45,000 in its first 40 years of existence to 61,300 applications in 2010 alone -- and a backlog of more than 160,000 cases at its peak.
"The sheer volume risks urgent cases being stuck in the queue," he said.
Cameron also questioned the usefulness of the court considering cases that had already been dealt with by national judges, such as a "completely trivial" bid by one applicant for 90 euros (117 dollars) compensation for an uncomfortable bus ride.
And he warned that the ECHR had become increasingly blind to members' different interpretations of the European Convention on Human Rights, saying it was causing resentment, particularly in Britain.
"Not enough account is being taken of democratic decisions by national parliaments," Cameron said, highlighting rows in Britain over the court's granting of voting rights to prisoners, and the case of Abu Qatada.
He insisted: "At the heart of this concern is not antipathy to human rights; it is anxiety that the concept of human rights is being distorted."
Cameron wants to improve the efficiency of the ECHR in terms of the cases it takes, and also to improve the procedures for nominating judges, suggesting clear guidelines on national selection procedures.
"And we are hoping to get consensus on strengthening subsidiarity, the principle that where possible, final decisions should be made nationally," he said, saying national government should have priority for safeguarding rights.
Cameron's speech was greeted by polite applause, but any reforms will be tough to push through as they need the unanimous backing of all 47 members of the Council of Europe.
Even before he spoke, ECHR head Nicolas Bratza accused the British government of pandering to the tabloid press.
Goodwill towards Cameron is also in short supply among European Union leaders after he refused to back a fiscal discipline pact involving all the other 26 member nations in December.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the premier's call for reforms to address the huge backlog of cases, but warned that he should focus less on the ECHR's rulings and more on the rights violations that it raises.
"Criticism of the court by UK government ministers, or failure to correct misleading reporting about it in the British media, emboldens other governments, such as Russia and Turkey, that would prefer to ignore its rulings," said HRW's Europe and Central Asia deputy director, Benjamin Ward.
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