When I was 13 I was taken to the concentration camp Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. My family lived in Poland at the time, and it was felt by my parents that it was important for me and my education to see the lingering scars of our shared history. It was mid-February, frozen and grey with a desolate wind.
Auschwitz has been maintained as a museum, but Birkenau – always a temporary facility – had been largely left alone. It was a hideously affecting experience – there are no words adequate to describe these chilling monuments to the darkness of which mankind is capable.
What I learned was this: true evil lives not in hatred of one’s fellow human beings, but in the ceasing to recognise the humanity of others at all. True evil, if there is such a thing, is banal.
The Nazi ideology was based on the concept of superiority, of race and ideology. Their actions were justifiable because they were strong, and others were weak, and it was natural for the strong to dominate the weak. In fact, it was better than natural – it was right.
In that sense the ideology was simply a perversion of the imperialist attitude of 19th century Europe.
The 13 year old me followed in the footsteps of other, much better men and women. They witnessed not the lingering scars of the old but the livid wound of the now. The result of their revulsion was a document that entrenched the rights of man most cherished by our forebears – of freedom from torture, of the right to self-expression, association and belief, of the right to private and family life; and of the right to a fair trial, among others.
And recognising that rights without teeth are as useless as no rights at all, they established a court in the city of Strasbourg to interpret and determine those rights, to bind states with their decisions; to offer protection.
60 years ago today, the European Convention on Human Rights came into force. Today it stretches across 47 nations in Europe, covering roughly 800 million people.
One of the myths of democracy is that it is tough rather than fragile – that come what may it will survive intact, that governments will always respect the ultimate will of the people, and that words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ will never become empty sounds. But political ideals are not hereditary, and no system is impervious.
Many journalists and members of my government (and the opposition) regularly attack the Convention; they decry it with spin and falsehood, they conflate it with the European Union (a separate entity altogether). Above all they loathe the bastard child that is the Human Rights Act 1998, and the insidious fingers of continental intrusion into British affairs.
Unforgivably, some claim to seek to withdraw from the Convention altogether.
They point to so-called abuses of the system – prisoners suing for better food and a ‘cushier’ life. There are whispers of other such undesirables using the Convention rights for their own aims, without regard to the spirit of what those rights once stood for. Incidentally, Dostoyevsky wrote words to the effect that one can judge a society by observing how it treats those it does not need to treat well.
For tub-thumpers for the sanctity of the United Kingdom, her sovereignty and many successes, it’s interesting that they ignore the significant hand the UK played in drafting the Convention.
In this they follow the lead of the previous Labour governments, who turned quickly away from championing civil liberties and inclusion to the perhaps excusable if more exclusive language of security. A government that proudly trumpeted the Human Rights Act introduced long-stop detention without charge and a vast raft of criminal and terrorism offences.
I was born into a country which had enormous experience of terrorism, but which nevertheless sought to balance security and freedom. This balance was never fully struck, and there is, of course, red on both sides of the ledger – such is inevitable.
But it was never portrayed as an existential threat that threatened every aspect of our way of life.
Nowadays, a ‘terrorist’ no longer conjures an image of a man with an Irish accent and a balaclava, but he is no less caricatured. And the cycle of interdependence between extremes remains no less bloody.
After so many reminders over the past 12 years that violence begets violence, that war brutalises those who wage it, as it does those against whom it is waged, it is, I think, worth dwelling on the Convention.
Detractors claim to seek a citizens’ bill of rights – we’ll look after our own thank you very much and you do the same with yours. But that utterly misses the fundamental point of the Convention: what we all have in common is our basic humanity, and what we all need from time to time is the reminder of this fact. Humanity is the issue, not citizenship – we’ve seen where such distinctions can lead.
The Convention and its court may be meddlesome, cumbersome and slow. The court may make decisions that infuriate governments and popular opinion alike. Its judges may seek to broaden their jurisdiction beyond what is appropriate on occasion; it may be abused from time to time. But show me the court that doesn’t want to extend its remit. Show me the legal system that is incapable of (routine) abuse.
I was born into a world that bore witness to the dying whimpers of the experiment in madness that was the totalitarian vision of communism. I was too young to understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But throughout my life (and those of generations before and since), I have seen constant reminders of the need for the safeguards of the Convention and reasons for optimism, too; for celebration of those same rights.
Today, for now at least, we should celebrate those rights and the fledgling Council of Europe all those years ago that took such steps to enshrine them in the hope they might help prevent the horrors it had seen from ever returning. It was and remains an important cause.