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From swimming lessons to solitary confinement — the highs and lows of human rights

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A single week shows the diversity of ECHR cases

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Human rights has hit the headlines again this week, with two high-profile stories showing just how different European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) cases can be.

First came the news that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg has ruled the Swiss authorities had not violated the right to freedom of religion in insisting that two Muslim parents send their children to mixed-sex swimming lessons.

In a unanimous ruling, seven judges decided that school played a “special role in the process of social integration”, particularly when the children are “of foreign origin”. The judges also cited the fact that the school had been very flexible in allowing the girls in question to wear burkinis and to get changed without boys present.

The ECtHR, Strasbourg
The ECtHR, Strasbourg

In the same week, Norway launched an appeal against a lower court decision that the human rights of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer and far-right activist, had been violated because he had been kept in isolation since his arrest in 2011. The original decision found that his solitary confinement at Telemark Prison in Skien was in breach of article 3 — the prohibition on inhuman treatment or punishment.

Human rights cases never fail to get a reaction. The Daily Mail comments section almost imploded when Breivik was first successful in his human rights case, particularly since media attention focused on the so-called cushy conditions in which he was being detained: he is allowed computer games and has three rooms at his disposal.

And this week’s hearing is no different, not least because the convicted murderer and terrorist made a Nazi salute as he entered the courtroom.

This human rights case is interesting not least because Norway has a proud record of its treatment of prisoners. As one law academic blog put it at the time, Norway believes that:

The deprivation of liberty is the key element of custodial punishment and further imposition of suffering is not acceptable.

On the swimming lessons case, the ECtHR is dealing with acutely sensitive issues of immigration, integration and secularism which have come up over burkinis (banned by the French authorities last summer) and the burka (which may yet be banned in Germany).

There are some who point to inconsistencies between decisions regarding Christians’ desires to express religious freedom, which have been upheld, and decisions regarding Muslims, which have not. Remember the case of Christian employees who successfully took on British Airways to be allowed to wear crosses at work?

Others blame the lawyers.

In an article on the not-for-profit media website Open Democracy, Hakan Altinay, President of the Global Civics Academy, argued a heartfelt plea in support of human rights but also admitted:

Part of the problem may be the dominance of lawyers in the human rights ecosystem.

Well, that’s us told then.

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16 Comments

Not Amused

Well use of the word “ecosystem” isn’t going to help.

Ultimately the ECHR isn’t fit for purpose and our domestic courts are superior. It seems deeply hypocritical for the Guardian to get hysterical about Mr Putin in other spheres and then ignore his influence on the court.

We’ve had 30 years of symbols and a quasi religious belief in virtue signalling. There’s nothing inherently wrong in following that with 30 years of realism and pragmatism. The ECHR is just a waste of time.

(2)(6)

Anonymous

More evidence you’re not a lawyer – you can’t even differentiate between the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Shouldn’t you be focusing more of your time on trying to get a pupillage? Perhaps if you did, you’d be more successful. But then again, I suppose if I were in your position where any application for pupillage (or even a training contract) would be doomed to failure as anyone can see you for the pretentious, self-satisfied little prick you are from a mile off, I might instead waste my all of my time writing obnoxious guff on the internet from the basement of my mum’s house.

(15)(3)

Anonymous

Only a piss poor lawyer would make a point like that. The sense of NA’s comment is clear enough.

I take it you’re a pupil or a mouthy baby junior. Or even a sol.

(3)(1)

Botty Luva

BOTTY’S BACK!!!!!

(1)(0)

Anonymous

What is Putin’s influence on the ECthR?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Yes, some ECHR decisions ‘appear’ to be contrary to common sense, but if time is taken to actually read the judgements, the logic is invariably sound. Do not forget, without the ECHR, basic guaranteed rights such as mandatory legal representation when being interviewed by the police would not exist…nor would your right to enter a same sex relationship, spew whatever rubbish you like provided you are not libelling anyone, etc etc etc.

(3)(2)

Anonymous

Anon@12.58
Every point made in your post is wrong.

(1)(0)

Mongewell of Counsel

Perhaps the Brevik case is an example of how a one-size fits all approach to Human Rights doesn’t work.

In Norway he got 21 years in accommodation akin to student halls.

In most EU countries it would be a life sentence with the possibility of parole if he could prove he had reformed himself.

In the UK he would be doing a whole life sentence and never be released.

In the USA he would be going straight to death row.

All the above are Western democracies.

Time for the ECtHR to respect diversity a bit more?

(1)(1)

Interloper

*cough* margin of appreciation *cough*

(*ducks*)

(4)(1)

Anonymous

(0)(0)

Anonymous

🍆👌💦🤦🏻‍♀️

(0)(0)

Anonymous

21 years in prison for a mass murderer (and mostly of children) is ridiculous. I don’t agree with the death penalty, but he should die in prison. Some people don’t deserve a chance at rehabilitation. Some crimes are so horrific that, even if a person is fully rehabilitated and will never commit any crime again, they should suffer a full punishment. I’m sure I’ll get criticised by some of the trendy Guardian reading liberals on this website, but rehabilitation should not be the only goal of criminal justice, punishment should be a factor too.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

I seem to remember reading at the time that the sentence imposed didn’t actually reflect the maximum time he’ll do and that he’ll never be released. Happy to be proved wrong though.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

“21 years in prison for a mass murderer (and mostly of children) is ridiculous. I don’t agree with the death penalty, but he should die in prison.”

The British government agrees with you.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I’m surprised the ECtHR haven’t investigated Jones Day yet

(6)(0)

Trumpenkrieg

“There are some who point to inconsistencies between decisions regarding Christians’ desires to express religious freedom, which have been upheld, and decisions regarding Muslims, which have not. Remember the case of Christian employees who successfully took on British Airways to be allowed to wear crosses at work?”

Er, thank you for this magisterial account of the Court’s jurisprudence on accommodation of religious practices.

(0)(0)

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