The ECHR – Sixty years of the ‘judgment of the civilized world’

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the entry into force of the European Convention on Human Rights. As we celebrate this remarkable milestone it is also worth remembering the positive role that the United Kingdom played, particularly as increasing numbers of British politicians are in favour of an isolationist agenda, including withdrawing from the Convention in some cases.

The ECHR was, in part, the consequence of pressure from the United European Movement in which British politicians played a leading role. The Chairman of the United Europe Movement Sir Winston Churchill noted in his opening address to the Congress of Europe at Hague (7 May 1948) that the movement ‘must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values .. it is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission … in the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.’ The Movement consistently put the case for a charter of human rights throughout the turbulent debates that marked the early years of the Council of Europe. Despite resistance to the idea the Movement’s proposal for a European Charter of Human Rights eventually found favour. As is well known one of the movement’s members Sir David Maxwell-Fife KC MP, as chairman of the Consultative Assembly’s Committee on Legal and Administrative Questions, played an important role with Pierre-Henri Teitgen (Teitgen report) in drawing up the proposals that ultimately became the ECHR. The result was a revolution. For the first time individuals could take nation states before an international court and obtain a remedy.

Today the Convention and the Court are fundamental features of the European legal order. The Convention is rightly regarded as an exemplar of effective international justice. As the Court noted in its judgment in Wemhoff v Germany [1968] ECHR 2122/64 the Convention ‘is a law-making treaty’ (para 8). A rich vein of human rights jurisprudence has been the result, cited with growing influence not just in Europe but from India to the United States of America. Indeed, the European model of human rights protection has been copied both on the American and African continents. And only yesterday it was reported that the Gulf states are to establish a similar court. Yet without the contribution of figures such as Winston Churchill and David Maxwell-Fife the Convention may well have taken a different form, had it existed at all.