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Human rights and law
Human rights and law

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3.2 What is the European Convention on Human Rights?

In the aftermath of the Second World War there were public disclosures of huge numbers of cases of brutal, inhuman and tyrannical treatment of people, frequently within the civilian populations of occupied countries. Many serious concerns arose about the way in which millions of people had been mistreated at the instigation of or with the connivance or concurrence of government. There was almost universal disgust and condemnation at the disclosures made, together with a general recognition that such events must not be allowed to happen again. As a result, a number of countries in Europe came together and created the Council of Europe in 1949. At this time it was felt that the United Nations was not likely to be fully effective at protecting individual human rights because of the growing divide between a democratic west and a communist east in Europe. The subsequent division of Germany and the building of the Berlin Wall contributed to this feeling. The terms of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 were negotiated over a period of 14 months. States agreed that everyone within their individual jurisdictions should be afforded what were considered to be their basic rights and freedoms, which should be enshrined within the laws of each state. Many nations, including the UK, were opposed to the establishment of a European court of human rights as they did not want an international court judging their own domestic law. To ensure that negotiations did not collapse a compromise position was reached under which nation states signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights could choose whether or not to allow their individual citizens the right to bring a complaint, and also whether they wished to submit to the jurisdiction of the court.

Despite reservations about a human rights court, the UK became the first nation to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). At this time the UK regarded the development of human rights protections within Europe as an important part of its foreign policy. The ECHR had the potential to play an important role in security and in dealings with the new international organisation, the United Nations. It was felt that the UK itself had adequate protection of human rights through existing common law principles.

Activity 2 gives you the opportunity to consolidate your understanding of the ECHR.

Activity 2: The European Convention on Human Rights and the UK

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

From what you have read of this course so far, make some brief notes about the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to the UK.


  1. The UK has no single source of constitutional rights. It is said that the UK has an ‘unwritten constitution’.

  2. The UK was a member of the Council of Europe, which was created in 1949.

  3. Like many other nations, the UK was opposed to a European Court of Human Rights as it did not want an international court judging its domestic law.

  4. However, the UK was the first nation to ratify the ECHR.

  5. Although the UK saw the importance of the ECHR in terms of foreign policy and security, it considered at this stage that the existing common law provided adequate protection of human rights in the UK.

You may find it helpful to think about these points when you come to consider the English Courts and human rights in Part C of this course.

In this Comment, the notes are listed as a number of key points. Of course, you may have chosen to use an alternative form of notes, for example in the form of a diagram. Use the style of note taking that you find most useful.