Arguably the most basic of the convention rights is the right to life. This is article 2 of the ECHR. Article 1 is a clause binding member states to the convention itself but doesn’t describe any of the specific rights.
Not everyone agrees that life should be an absolute right. Many have argued that certain crimes such as rape or murder should be punishable by death, a penalty that is not possible under the European Convention. There are, of course, a number of problems with this idea.
Someone would need to decide which crimes should attract the death penalty and in what circumstances.
There is also the problem of miscarriage of justice. There have been more than a few people released from prison following wrongful conviction by the courts.
It’s difficult to revive a hanged man, however innocent he may be.
In the context of the ECHR though the issue seems much more related to government. For example recent events in Libya with state police shooting protesters dead at the whim of their political masters is hard to ignore. Without the European Convention it’s easy to see how the same might happen here. How might Mrs. Thatcher have dealt with the poll tax riots of the 1980s for example, or in more modern times what about the anti austerity measures demonstrations by angry students or by UKUncut? Just as Churchill ordered the army to shoot strikers might not David Cameron wish he could do the same in the face of such widespread opposition? Even if David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg wouldn’t choose lethal force to get their way it’s safe to say that someone, somewhere might.
That is too great a risk for the Council of Europe to take.
The death penalty or the use of politically sanctioned lethal force is the thin edge of a very large wedge. Self defence is one thing if there is an immediate danger to life and limb but to take the life of a person unnecessarily is not acceptable.
About ‘The Convention’
This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here: http://stuartsorensen.wordpress.com/amj-freebies-downloads-and-services/