Justice is truth in action. So said Benjamin Disraeli, who never had to deal with the European Court of Human Rights. Many modern politicians tend to a more jaundiced view. In their opinion, justice as dispensed by Strasbourg is not only blind but also, on occasion, deaf and dumb. The Euro judges, in their critics’ eyes, are an obstacle to British self-determination.
Today, the Strasbourg court will prove or disprove such preconceptions in a ruling on whether extraditing alleged extremists to the United States would violate their human rights. The potential deportees include Abu Hamza, the hook-handed preacher jailed in 2006 for inciting murder and racial hatred.
There would be few tears shed over our offloading a job lot of perceived menaces to the US, with the prospect of life sentences in a “supermax” jail. Should the court conclude that such a fate would contravene the petitioners’ human rights, senior politicians are preparing to encourage David Cameron to take the law into his own hands. Iain Duncan Smith is among those said to want the Prime Minister to extradite Abu Hamza irrespective of the ruling, apparently telling friends that it would be “ludicrous” not to get rid of him, especially since America is an “entirely civilised” ally.
Leaving aside the civilised nature, or otherwise, of the US penal system, many will back the Work and Pensions Secretary. Meanwhile, the clamour is mounting to put Abu Qatada, described as Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe and now freed under surveillance, on a plane to his native Jordan. That campaign has been amplified after Italy and France disposed of their own Islamist rabble-rousers. If Nicolas Sarkozy, struggling for re-election, can expunge the unwanted faster than you can say “Votez pour moi ”, then what, many politicians are wondering, is stopping Mr Cameron?
Not much, some might think, especially since the Government has so far failed to strike a deal with Jordan. When the court blocked Abu Qatada’s removal in January, arguing that a trial might include evidence obtained by torture, Mr Cameron rushed to Strasbourg to complain about “interference”. This intervention attracted the scorn of Sir Nicholas Bratza, the admired British president of the court, who pointed out that, far from being the victim of egregious meddling, Britain had lost only eight out of 955 applications in the previous 12 months.
Moreover, irrespective of what Strasbourg decides, sub-contracting British justice to America is not as desirable as it might first appear. Among those on the extradition list is Babar Ahmad, a British Muslim accused of running a website that incited violent jihad abroad, and held without charge in a maximum security jail for eight years. Since the alleged offences were committed in Britain, if at all, there is no reason why he should not be tried in this country – except that Mr Ahmad says the police have apparently sent evidence directly to the US without showing it to British prosecutors. Unease over the case has been voiced by David Bermingham, one of the NatWest Three, who wonders why those who think the Extradition Act 2003 unfair to bankers should not also find it wanting when it comes to Mr Ahmad.
Human rights extend to the despicable as well as to the righteous, just as all are equal under the law. Tempting as it might be to subject Abu Qatada to Sarko’s Law, Britons should remember that the French president got rid of his problem elements for political reasons. The recent massacre of soldiers and Jewish children by an Islamist gunman previously known to the security services could have been fatal to Mr Sarkozy, who expelled his troublemakers both to save his own skin and because the constitution says he can.
French judges lack the clout and the independence of their British counterparts, ceding power to the citizen and the state. The diluted importance of due process has a knock-on effect in France’s festering banlieues, in the racism that currently taints the presidential campaign and in the creed that deems a non-citizen to be subhuman in the eyes of the law.
And yet summary injustice is always seductive. It is easy to think that Britain is being taken for a fool by the unwelcome, the loathsome and the downright dangerous, when even suspected pedlars of hatred can be supplied with the homes and benefits that good and honourable citizens might envy. As a result, Theresa May has signalled that she is going to change immigration rules to stop the courts from preventing deportations because of people’s right to a family life.
Having got into trouble last year for suggesting that having a cat was sufficient grounds for claiming protection under Article 8 of the human rights convention, Mrs May has now challenged the judges head-on. Previous home secretaries have tried and failed to curb judicial power, and Mrs May might fare no better.
Indeed, those who hope she prevails should first consider the cases where the judiciary has correctly checked the power of the executive. In the latest reversal for Mrs May, a judge strongly criticised her attempt to deport a Palestinian activist, ruling that she was wrong about the danger posed by Sheikh Raed Salah. In a decision labelled “entirely unnecessary”, she had been misled about his supposedly anti-Semitic poetry and planned to ban him on the basis of a fragment from an old sermon.
Few may be delighted by the sheikh’s victory, but his case illustrates the right of every individual to protection against an overweening state. The balance between Parliament, the executive and the judiciary is vital and endlessly fragile. At times, judges veer towards the political arena; at others, politicians attempt, with the public urging them on, to usurp the role of judges. We are now at such a moment.
Look to America to see what happens when the line between judges and politicians grows blurred. The Supreme Court, which once attempted to block Roosevelt’s New Deal, is deciding whether to overturn the Obama reforms under which poorer people can at last hope to get some decent health care. If it succeeds, it will be less on grounds of constitutionalism than because the mightiest of courts is so stuffed with conservative placemen as to resemble a Tea Party tribunal.
British justice is imperfect. It is, none the less, the envy of a world in which human rights are routinely squandered. That is why Britain has a duty, at home and in Europe, to offer an example and a warning to tyrants and torturers everywhere. It is why citizens should be less frightened of truculent agitators, as long as the security services are vigilant, than of the secret courts favoured by ministers. It is also why the Government cannot ever summarily over-ride the rulings of the Strasbourg court, to whose jurisdiction we are bound.
The human rights that Mr Cameron longs to embed in Libya are no less precious in London. If liberty and the rule of law sometimes bear a price, so be it. As Martin Luther King once said: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is the duty of our Government to ensure that this curved line still terminates on British soil.