BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Friday, 29 September, 2000, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Human Rights: The European Convention
The European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
A common misconception is that the European Convention on Human Rights and its institutions have been thrust upon an unwilling UK as part of the wider European project.

But the reality is that the UK (which passed the first ever legislation known as a Bill of Rights in 1689) was one of the architects of the human rights agenda that grew out of the devastation of Second World War.

The European Convention on Human Rights has its roots in the philosophical tradition of universal rights which stretches back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the French Revolution.

But the actual catalyst for creating a model set of rights in the 20th century was the Allies' determination to bring peace to Europe.

The first international step towards codifying these rights came when the General Assembly of the then fledgling United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948.

It was seen as a major success for the international body with some describing the declaration as a "Magna Carta for humanity".

European work

In Europe, work, largely driven by the UK, was already afoot to create a model of rights tailored to the continent.

On 4 November 1950 the members of the Council of Europe signed the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The UK was one of the first members of the Council of Europe to ratify the Convention when it passed through Parliament in 1951.

The Convention came into force in 3 September 1953 and three subsequent institutions were entrusted with safeguarding its workings:

  • The European Commission of Human Rights (1954)
  • The European Court of Human Rights (1959)
  • The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe

    The creation of these bodies (the court being based in Strasbourg) allowed individuals with a grievance against the state to challenge their treatment at an international level.

    UK position

    However, it was not until 1966 that the UK granted what is known as "individual petition" - the right to take a case to Strasbourg.

    In practical terms, this means that for 36 years the British people have been able to challenge the laws of the state at a European level - albeit a costly and lengthy process.

    The Human Rights Act 1998 was designed to deal with this situation and allow the British people to seek redress within their own courts.

    Complaints to Strasbourg

    At the European level, the Court can only deal with cases if the defending state has accepted its jurisdiction.

    The human rights commission was originally set up to receive a complaint from any individual group of individuals or non-governmental organisation which claimed that it had been the victim in a breach of a particular element or elements of the convention.

    But in November 1998, a reorganised court came into being which took on the role of the commission.

    Once a complaint has been made, the court's lower bodies investigate the circumstances. If a case is deemed admissible, it can seek to find a settlement between the alleged victim and the defending public authority.

    If the parties fail to reach a settlement, the case may then progress further to a final judgement by the court.

    The responsibility for making sure that judgements against states are properly followed lies with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

    The same committee of ministers can ask the court to advise on interpretation of the convention or its protocols.

  • Search BBC News Online

    Advanced search options
    Launch console

    The Human Rights Act

    Key Stories

    Around the UK




    Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

    E-mail this story to a friend

    Links to more UK stories