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

Avatar photo

By Polly Botsford on

A single week shows the diversity of ECHR cases


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.

For all the latest news, features, events and jobs, sign up to Legal Cheek’s weekly newsletter here.