Human Rights vs Civil Liberties in Europe

One of the most defining legal motions of the last hundred years on a worldwide scale is the European Convention on Human Rights, which imposed for the first time a codified standard of behaviour that all signatories must meet. Although the document is referred to in a specifically European context, it is truly important throughout the world as a clear guideline for reference to matters on human rights. But what about before the Convention – what were the protections for the citizen against encroachment from the authorities, and what recourse was there for grievances? In this article we will look at the position of many European countries prior to the Convention and after, to highlight the change in legal position for the average citizen.

The European Convention of Human Rights codified a number of key human rights principles which were required to be satisfied by those that ratified it at law. For monitoring the behaviour of the signatories, a European Court was established to hear grievances against member states, with the ability to air problems and effectively embarrass nations into compliance. Since its inception, the court has been exceptionally successful in enforcing the provisions within the convention. No one member state wants the embarrassment of a public trial, and therefore they bend over backwards to accommodate for the needs of the Convention. Has it worked? Well it has certainly massively overhauled the nature of private, criminal and public in almost every regard and this has lead to widespread disruption. However, it looks almost undoubted that the European Convention on Human Rights is having a positive effect on the rights of the citizens across Europe, including in the wealthier nations.

Take the United Kingdom for example. Prior to the European Convention on Human Rights, it was quite possible to detain a suspected criminal without judicial involvement – i.e. people could be deprived of their liberty almost indefinitely with no possible legal intervention. This meant people didn’t have to be told why they were being detained, and had no right to put forward a case to an impartial justice, reserved until the prosecutors decided to step in, and had enough evidence to do so. For a country that boasts one of the world’s strongest economies, and with a very high GDP, this is a shocking proposition, and one which has been remedied since the introduction in law of the European Convention. The Convention has been loved and reviled in equal measures, and although it’s had some tough challenges throughout its life span, it is slowly but surely changing the position for the citizen. For the prospect European Union member state, it is an essential minimum, meaning those on the fringes of European recognition are striving with great result to meet the targets. The larger, more developed nations are keeping on their toes and learning that they can’t do as they please, and the European Court is making sure of that.

Prior to the Convention, it was up to the people to rely on the provisions within their constitution for the protection of their rights, and this was very much a ‘luck of the draw’ scenario. Some countries had excellent provisions, like Germany, where as others like the UK had abysmal records, mainly down to their lack of fundamental freedoms for the citizen. Since the introduction and ratification of the Convention, these countries have all levelled upwards to create an environment that is ideal for the citizen, and aims to protect his rights whilst also protecting the interests of the state and the public at large. The European Convention on Human Rights has certainly come along way, and it has brought the entirety of Europe, even those on the margins, together in a bid to improve living conditions and basic human rights for the ordinary citizen in the street. As the decades come and go, only time will tell how effective it will end up, although from initial projections it is looking to have a positive impact for the people of Europe.

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