Liberal Democrats have always been proud defenders of the rule of law. As our manifesto stated in 2010, the values of ‘fairness and the rule of law’ lie at the heart of our foreign policy. However, just as we call on other states such as Burma, Belarus and Zimbabwe to respect the rule of law, so we must be ever vigilant that there is no weakening of this fundamental principle at home. The Liberal Democrat policy on the Justice and Security Bill at conference in September was a powerful reminder to the leadership on how seriously we, as a party, take this issue.
With this in mind, I was interested to read over the weekend that the Ministry of Justice plans to publish draft legislation this week, presenting Parliament with a range of options on how to respond to the European Court of Human Rights’ judgments holding that a blanket ban on all prisoners from voting was a violation of the United Kingdom’s obligation to hold free and fair elections. I am not particularly interested in the politics of the issue; I think cogent arguments can be made both in favour and against the notion that prisoners – or, at least, some prisoners – should be entitled to vote. Few prisoners are clamouring for this right and, I suspect, few would exercise the right in practice were they so entitled. The issue for me is more one of principle.
In 1951, the United Kingdom ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 46(1) of that Treaty provides that
The High Contracting Parties undertake to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties.
This Article is crucial. Were states allowed simply to pick and choose which judgments they implemented, the work of the Court would be pointless. Law – including international law – is only effective if parties are bound by it and if there are sanctions for non-compliance. The Labour government’s disregard for international law during the invasion of Iraq was a national embarrassment. Under the rule of law, all of us – individuals and nations alike – are bound by rulings of courts whose jurisdiction we are under. How can we put pressure on other states to abide by international law – including international human rights law – if we ourselves ignore judgments we do not agree with? Refusing to implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue weakens our credibility and our influence on human rights across the world.
For Liberal Democrats, the choice should therefore be simple, for reasons of principle as well as pragmatism. However, when Parliament last debated this issue in February 2011, just ten Lib Dem MPs voted against a motion calling for the judgment to be ignored. This was hugely disappointing. Even more disappointingly, four Lib Dem MPs – Stephen Gilbert, Mike Hancock, John Pugh, and Bob Russell – actually voted in favour of the motion. This is entirely unacceptable. We are a party that supports the rule of law and is unwavering in our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights. We stand for what is right, even when it is unpopular. The Court has made a judgment. Whether we agree or disagree with it, we have a legal obligation to implement it. There are many ways to do this and no doubt the draft legislation will include a number of potential options. Liberal Democrat MPs cannot and must not support the status quo. We alone of the three major parties have always defended international law and the rule law. We have done so when it was easy, such as over the war in Iraq. We must continue to do so, even when, like now, it is difficult.
* Richard Wingfield is a Liberal Democrat member from Vauxhall and works as a lawyer for a human rights organisation.