Meet the overzealous Mr Selous

Andrew “the overzealous” Selous MP is Ian Duncan Smith’s Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS). He also seems to be a bit confused. Arguably confusion is to be expected since he cherry picks his ideas of right and wrong from an ancient book with a moral compass that points straight back to the bronze age.

Yet with such a public assertion of faith you’d think he’d have read at least parts of the Bible before taking public office.

His confusion over dyed in the wool biblical issues like gay rights seems very odd. He voted strongly against equal rights for gay people and yet vaccilated about gay marriage. Could it be that his 20th century conscience has been pricked a little despite the ‘ancient wisdom’ of a small group of desert nomads?
Andrew Selous MP social issues voting record
Unfortunately he has had no such fit of conscience in relation to homelessness. This is odd in itself considering that his entry for the SW Bedfordshire Conservative Home website reports a keen interest in homelessness and participation in sponsored sleepouts for homelessness charities.

He supports local homeless charities by taking part in annual sponsored sleep-outs.”

Perhaps though his interest is more about keeping homeless numbers up than about helping the homeless themselves. Perhaps his annual sleep out is no more than a form of penance intended to assuage the wrath of God in payment for his other homelessness related activities.
Andrew Selous MP voting record
As if his voting record wasn’t enough to demonstrate his abusive, pathological need to increase poverty and homelessness he recently attacked that other bastion of his Christian faith, the Trussell Trust. And yet even here he seems confused. Speaking about his local foodbank he said:

“I have been a supporter of Foodbank for many years. Working in addition to the welfare system, Foodbanks have been proven to help turn people’s lives around which is why I think so highly of them”

Andrew Selous, Local Constituency MP

And then he goes and does this:
Andrew Selous MP
It seems that the Right Hon. Andrew Selous MP is fine with his own receipt of taxpayer funded nourishment but not too keen on charitable organisations that provide sustenance to people who really are in need. Especially when those organisations, such as The Trussell Trust have the audacity (some might say ‘sense of fairness and social justice’) to question why so many UK citizens are so desperately hungry in the first place.

Apparently asking questions about hunger and trying to do something to change the situation is ‘too political’. I’d have thought that for someone with such a publically professed Christian faith he’d have heard about ‘the sermon on the mount’ and ‘the beatitudes’ with its list of ‘blessed’ individuals. But let me remind the good Mr. Selous of another familiar bible quote:

“Whatsoever you do unto the least of my brethren, do you also unto me.”
Matthew 25:45

It’s going to take more than the occasional night out of doors to make up for this catalogue of oppression Mr. Selous. Not least because, as the good book says….

You shall know them by their deeds.

More bigotry from UKIP candidates

Meet Harry Perry

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This is the UKIP MEP candidate for Stockport who thinks Pakistan should be nuked, homosexuality is ‘evil’ & thinks the EDL would be worth voting for if they entered politics.

Basically he’s just another UKIP bigot who thinks he can win votes through discrimination and scapegoating minorities.

With views like this it’s hardly surprising that he wants the UK out of Europe. How else could UKIP’s bigotry get a foothold in UK?
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If you hate fairness, human rights, workers’ rights and Johnny foreigner then vote UKIP. If you believe in fairness, equality, rights and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work then don’t.

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Woohoo! Welcome back, Inspector Brown

Inspector Michael Brown is back!

Within the last hour @MentalHealthCop resumed on Twitter and announced that the Mental Health Cop blog is available for public scrutiny again.

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This is truly fantastic news.

If mental health and/or rights interest you go and have a look. Follow @MentalHealthCop on Twitter too. You won’t be disappointed.

Safeguarding 9: Discrimination

As most people are aware many forms of discrimination are unlawful in British society as they are throughout much of the rest of the world. However the nature of discrimination (what it actually means) isn’t always so clearly understood. The confusion about what is and is not discrimination isn’t helped by the way that certain individuals or groups claim ‘discrimination’ when really they are simply failing to get their own way.

A recent example of this involves the Bristol ‘Healing On The Streets’ (HOTS) team. This faith-based group published materials claiming that any and all ailments from mental disorders to cancer would be cured by the power of prayer. They did not state this as mere opinion but rather they presented it as fact without any reasonable evidence to support the claim. This would be a problem in any organisation, not just a religious ministry.

Hayley Stevens is a paranormal investigator who was ‘leafleted’ by a member of the HOTS team. She was concerned that the published material may offer ‘false hope’ to desperate and vulnerable people. She was also concerned that it might discourage people from seeking medical care and so she contacted the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) who upheld her complaint and ordered the group to remove such claims from its publications. The HOTS team subsequently issued a statement claiming that Hayley represented a group, generally opposed to Christianity. They have since removed that statement from their website.

Criticising fraudsters for false advertising is fair comment. The reason for criticism of the HOTS team is not their religion, it is their unethical behaviour in making false claims that would be a problem whoever produced the publicity.

We can see then that what does or does not constitute discrimination depends upon relevance. It would be discriminatory to say that all religious people are liars but it is not discriminatory to ask all people, religious or not, for evidence to back up claims of miracle treatments and to expect them to abide by the law and by accepted advertising standards when they cannot.

It is when we make unreasonable distinctions between people that we are guilty of discrimination. For example when we make assumptions about someone based upon characteristics that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. This sort of discrimination, based upon irrelevancies, is what happens when people make judgements based upon skin colour, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, disability, profession or sexual preference. Skin colour for example has nothing to do with trustworthiness and disability does not invalidate a person’s right to be treated with respect. In both cases, colour and disability, the ‘condition’ is irrelevant to the point under consideration.

However the fact that an individual belongs to a group that is regularly discriminated against does not mean that they can do no wrong. A gay man who assaults his neighbour in a dispute about a garden fence will still be prosecuted. But he will be prosecuted because of the assault. His sexuality is irrelevant. He may claim discrimination on the grounds of his sexuality but his claim will not be taken seriously by the courts because his sexuality is not relevant to the case at hand.

On the other hand a gay couple refused accommodation in a hotel or guest house would be supported under anti-discrimination legislation for exactly the same reason. Their sexuality is not relevant to their right to use services.

Similairly if the manager of a residential drug rehabilitation unit were to evict an Asian man because of his use of illicit substances on the premises he could not then claim racial discrimination. The eviction would be because of the rules of the service which are applied equally to all service-users regardless of skin colour or racial type. Colour is simply irrelevant and therefore the decision to evict is not discriminatory – it is simply an appropriate response.

The basic ‘rule of thumb’ then is to ask if the alleged discrimination is relevant. Is your action the result of the individual’s need or behaviour or is it motivated by the fact that they belong to a particular group.

If it’s because of individual circumstances and would be the same whatever subgroup the person belonged to then it’s probably not discrimination. I say probably not because there is the additional aspect of institutional discrimination that we will consider in a later post. If it’s because of the subgroup they belong to (eg religion, LGBT, disabled, Asian etc) then there’s a good chance you really are discriminating.

As ever ‘relevance’ is the key when deciding whether or not you’re being discriminatory.

About the Safeguarding series

This blog series first appeared on Stuart’s personal blog early in 2010. It has been reposted here as part of a process of ‘rationalisation’ in which work from several blogs has been removed and reposted on only two.

The Convention 19: The future

The European Convention on Human Rights is not, as we have seen, universally popular in Britain. Neither is the UK’s Human Rights Act (1998). Not everyone agrees that these rights should be in place for everyone. Some argue that it is foolish to give the same rights to foreigners or to criminals and many within the current coalition government are vehemently opposed to any European legislation affecting what goes on within these shores.
I first wrote this in June 2011 – sadly government hostility to the ECHR remains just as strong two and a half years later.

From my perspective these arguments are all rooted in what is known as ‘special pleading’. The idea is that some people are somehow ‘special’ or more deserving of rights and consideration than others. As is probably clear by now I see things a little differently – and I hope that you will too.

I believe that history (including some very recent history throughout Europe) has shown us that none of us are really safe from the abuses of those who would exploit or abuse us. The International Court has issued a warrant just this week for the arrest of the Libyan leader ‘Colonel Gadaffi’ on charges of war crimes. Libya, of course is not a European state but the former Yugoslavia was and it’s hard to forget the religiously motivated ethnic cleansing that happened there in recent years.
Less extreme is the way that our current government portrays disabled people (especially those with mental disorders) as ‘benefit scroungers’. The discrimination that seems to be inherent both in the benefits system and the wider job market against people with mental ill health combines to prevent them from finding work and then to penalise and vilify them for their failure to do so.

Hate crime is on the increase in our country, presumably as a reaction to economic austerity (that seems to happen whenever people’s livelihoods are threatened) and intolerance of all kinds seems gradually to be becoming more widespread and socially acceptable. Perhaps now, more than ever before, we need the ECHR to keep the UK ‘on track’ as a civilised country.

The assault on prisoners’ rights and their proposed disenfranchisement (as though losing their liberty wasn’t punishment enough) is worrying, but not so worrying as the increasing calls for a return to capital punishment. There has even been some limited support in this country for an American organisation called ‘Project Prevention’. This ‘charity’ aims to sterilise substance users, as much upon moral and economic grounds as upon any platform of compassion.

It is interesting that Vince Cable MP, a current UK government minister threatened earlier this month that the law prohibiting strike action may be ‘tightened’ to prevent aggrieved workers from taking action to protect their interests. However many argue that without the ability to withdraw their labour workers have no effective means of asserting their rights. It will be interesting to see if workers’ industrial safeguards are removed as Cable threatened and if so whether or not the new restrictions are challenged under article 4.

However that turns out in the future it is already the case that a good deal of our UK employment law is based upon ensuring that working conditions are reasonable and do not become so exploitative that they fall foul of article 4. It is Europe that gave us limits to the amount of overtime we can be forced to work and the national minimum wage (also unpopular with the current government) is based as much on article 4 principles as it is upon anything else. This article, along with article 14 which outlaws discrimination, has also done much to assist minority groups such as women or disabled people to achieve both employment and comparable pay and conditions.

In my own field of health and social care it is amazing how many hard working people are barely able to make ends meet as they exist on minimum wage, regardless of how difficult, exhausting and sometimes dangerous their work may be. Without a strong legal framework to protect them how much more exploitative would their working conditions be? As I write this I’m aware that a private members bill aimed at removing the minimum wage itself has recently been tabled in parliament by a coalition MP.

I don’t know what the future holds for UK but I do know this. Without the ECHR it would be far easier for exploitative and abusive people, especially those in positions of power and authority, to walk roughshod over the rights of citizens who already are struggling to survive in this tough economic climate.
Whatever generalised, unrepresentative illustrations cynical politicians may make about illegal immigrants or ‘loony lefties’ please remember that for most of us – and that almost certainly includes you, the reader – life would be far less secure and a great deal more difficult without the ECHR.

Thankyou for reading this.

Stuart Sorensen (June 2011)

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/

The Convention 18: The right to freedom from discrimination

ARTICLE 14
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

As most people are aware many forms of discrimination are unlawful in British society as they are throughout much of the rest of the world. However the nature of discrimination (what it actually means) isn’t always so clearly understood. The confusion about what is and is not discrimination isn’t helped by the way that certain individuals or groups claim ‘discrimination’ when really they are simply failing to get their own way. A recent example of this involves Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pope Benedict’s personal preacher who likened the current criticism of the Roman Catholic church to anti-semitism. Cantalamessa claimed that the current outrage at the Catholic church’s failure to protect children from paedophile priests is anti-catholic discrimination.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Raniero Cantalamessa

Raniero Cantalamessa

What we see is arguably pro-Catholic discrimination in that the leaders of the church appear to be receiving preferential treatment. If the management of any other organisation had protected paedophiles from the law and knowingly continued to place them in positions of trust with vulnerable children they would be prosecuted. The ‘blind eye’ that the current Pope himself turned in the past would, according to UK law at least, result in prosecution and very probably a lengthy prison sentence. If there is any discrimination at all it is not anti-Catholic. It is pro Catholic.

The desire to protect children from abuse is not discrimination and such claims are merely an attempt to distract attention from the real issue – the repeated abuse of children by paedophile priests in the full knowledge of a hierarchy that was more interested in secrecy than in upholding the law. This would be a problem in any organisation, not just a Catholic one.

Criticising criminals for their abuse is fair comment. The reason for criticism of the church hierarchy is not their Catholicism, it is their criminal behaviour in shielding abusers from justice and continuing, consistently to place paedophiles in positions where they can repeat their abuses of vulnerable children.

We can see then that what does or does not constitute discrimination depends upon relevance.

It would be discriminatory to treat all Catholics, or even all Catholic clergymen as though they were child abusers. This is because Catholicism is not relevant to paedophilia per se. Not all Catholics are paedophiles and not all paedophiles are Catholic.
It is when we make unreasonable distinctions between people that we are guilty of discrimination. For example when we make assumptions about someone based upon characteristics that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. This sort of discrimination, based upon irrelevancies, is what happens when people make judgements based upon skin colour, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, disability, profession or sexual preference.

Skin colour for example has nothing to do with trustworthiness and disability does not invalidate a person’s right to be treated with respect. In both cases, colour and disability, the ‘condition’ is irrelevant to the point under consideration.

However the fact that an individual belongs to a group that is regularly discriminated against does not mean that they can do no wrong. A gay man who assaults his neighbour in a dispute about a garden fence will still be prosecuted. But he will be prosecuted because of the assault. His sexuality is irrelevant. He may claim discrimination on the grounds of his sexuality but his claim will not be taken seriously by the courts because his sexuality is not relevant to the case at hand.

On the other hand a gay couple refused accommodation in a hotel or guest house would be supported under anti-discrimination legislation for exactly the same reason. Their sexuality is not relevant to their right to use services.

Similairly if I, when I was manager of a residential drug rehabilitation unit had to evicted an Asian man because of his use of illicit substances on the premises he could not then have claimed racial discrimination. Actually, anyone who knows me would understand how ludicrous such a claim against me would be but that’s not the point. The eviction would be because of the rules of the service which are applied equally to all service-users regardless of skin colour or racial type. Colour is simply irrelevant and therefore the decision to evict is not discriminatory – it is simply an appropriate response.

The basic ‘rule of thumb’ then for front line workers is to ask if the alleged discrimination is relevant. Is your action the result of the individual’s need or behaviour or is it motivated by the fact that they belong to a particular group.

If it’s because of individual circumstances and would be the same whatever subgroup the person belonged to then it’s probably not discrimination. I say probably not because there is the additional aspect of institutional discrimination that we will consider in a later post. If it’s because of the subgroup they belong to (eg Catholic, gay, disabled, Asian etc) then there’s a good chance you really are discriminating.

As ever ‘relevance’ is the key when deciding whether or not you’re being discriminatory.

The Human Rights Council recently expressed grave concern at discrimination & violence based on sexual orientation
Their concerns are mirrored by the Crown Prosecution Service here in UK who reported on prosecution rates for ‘hate crimes’ here.

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/

The Convention 17: The right to effective remedy

ECtHR in sessionThere is little that needs to be said about article 13. All it really means is that each country must enact laws to ensure that European Convention rights are upheld. If they are not then enacted then aggrieved citizens can take their country to the European Court of Human Rights to sit in judgement in their particular case.

Appealing to Europe is expensive and time-consuming though and so most countries try to ensure that their own, domestic legislation reflects the ECHR. Here in UK that’s what the Human Rights Act 1998 is all about. It includes all the articles of the ECHR except for article 13. That’s because the government believes that article 13 is automatically upheld simply because the Human Rights Act 1998 exists. It provides effective remedy in itself and needs no further discussion.

ARTICLE 13 says:

“Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in this Convention are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.”

The Human Rights Act 1998 also re-emphasises the duty of all UK courts to interpret the law in a way that is consistent with the ECHR when reaching a judgement. There is a ‘side option’ known as a ‘statement of incompatibility’ which allows the court to say that existing UK law cannot be interpreted in keeping with the ECHR and so pass it back to Parliament to review but this is rarely needed.

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/

The Convention 16: The right to marriage

Are you married?
If not, do you plan to marry one day?
If so would you like to be free to marry the person of your choice?
What if you fell foul of the UK’s racial purity laws?
What if you fell in love with someone from a different ethnic group?
How does the prospect of imprisonment ‘grab you’?

Of course there are no ‘racial purity’ laws in UK. You are free to marry whomever you wish, regardless of their race, creed or colour. That’s good isn’t it?

Things weren’t always this way in Europe. During the Nazi occupation marriage was strictly managed according to racial values and characteristics. The German state took it upon itself to interfere in the reproductive rights of citizens in a number of ways based upon the prejudices of Nazism and the myth of Aryan superiority. That’s why article 12, ‘the right to marry’ (along with article 14 ‘freedom from discrimination’) are so important.

ARTICLE 12

Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right. Nobody can interfere with this right, especially if their objection is based upon arbitrary or prejudicial grounds.

Sacked: Registrar Ladell

Sacked: Registrar Ladell

Consider the case of Ms Ladell, the Christian registrar who refused to officiate in a civil partnership between two gay men. Ms Ladell was denying the men their legal right to engage in a civil partnership because her religion (qualified right) told her that homosexuality is ‘an abomination’. Therefore marriage before God is neither consistent with Christianity nor indeed possible within the Christian sense of the word. However this was not a marriage ‘before God’. It was a civil partnership before the state – a very different proposition.

In fact the term ‘civil partnership’ itself only came about so that a distinction could be made between religious marriage and state institution. The newspapers may talk about ‘gay marriage’ but the law does not.

Remember what we said about religious freedom – it’s a right so long as its expression does not interfere with the lawful rights of others. In this case Ms Ladell’s actions very definitely impeded the rights of others and also constituted discrimination on grounds of sexuality. That’s why she was sacked and why she lost her appeal. This may seem harsh but to restrict gay relationships on religious grounds is no more reasonable than to restrict inter-racial marriage on ideological grounds.

Mormon missionaries don't always know about the racist beginnings of their church

Mormon missionaries don’t always know about the racist beginnings of their church

Indeed some religions have done just that. The Church of Jesus Christ and Latterday Saints (Mormons) prohibited marriage between lack and white citizens until the late 1970s. This may be religious doctrine but it does not have any basis in law. The right to religious expression does not equate to the right to discriminate against other people and their right to marry.

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/

The Convention 15: The right to association

We have already established that the European convention is a response to the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler and the creation of the Third Reich. What isn’t quite so well known is the way that German ‘National Socialism’ attempted (and in large part succeeded) in preventing people from associating with each other. The idea was that if people couldn’t come together in large enough groups they wouldn’t be able to oppose the Nazi party’s dominance of the country.

On the 27th February 1933 an arson attack on Berlin’s Reichstag (the German equivalent of the UK’s houses of Parliament) was blamed on German Communists. Most people believed at the time that the fire was actually set by the Nazis themselves as an excuse to demonise their most prominent political rivals. It certainly gave them an excuse to outlaw not only the communist party but also any other associations that might threaten their all encompassing control of German society.

Holocaust dead political prisonersOn February 28th, the very next day, Hitler passed the ‘Defensive Measures Act’. He told aides that:

“The German people will have no sympathy with lenience. Every communist official will be shot where he is found. The communist deputies must be hanged this night. Everything connected with the communists is to be settled. No more indulgence will be afforded the social democrats or the Reichsbanner.”
Adolf Hitler (February 1933)

“My measures will not be crippled by any judicial thinking. I don’t have to worry about justice! My mission is to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!”Herman Goering (March 1933)

The Defensive Measures Act (1933) restricted:
 Personal liberty;
 Free expression of opinion;
 Assembly and association;
 Postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications;
 Domestic privacy;
 Property ownership.

This opened the door for mass arrest and summary execution of political ‘undesirables’ from communists to liberals, democrats and ‘middle of the road’ political activists of all persuasions.

In direct response to this Article 11 concerns itself with freedom of association and ideology. In combination with other articles (predominantly articles 5, 8, 9 & 10) it protects our right to form associations and to meet and discuss our ideas with others.

ARTICLE 11

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. this article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.

Since the early days of the Convention the courts have produced a stream of judgements providing guidance in balancing the right of free association with the need to protect society and the rights and freedoms of others. One definite principle is that mere difference of opinion is not likely to be sufficient grounds to prevent association. A recent case involved the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF).

ASLEF logoASLEF vs UK clarified that a union cannot expel a member simply for belonging to a political organisation unless other problems also apply. The case concerned a far right BNP activist belonging to the traditionally left wing ASLEF union. That is because association is not usually anything more than a private affair. It is possible for the law to intervene in associations where there are reasonable grounds to do so based upon past or likely behaviour. It is also possible in the right circumstances for particular groups or associations to be declared illegal per se but again there needs to be good reason. It ought to be more than merely a difference of opinion.

So thanks to the European Convention on Human Rights you and I have the right to meet and discuss our grievances against the prevailing government. We can form pressure groups or political parties and we can even take our grievances out onto the streets so long as we respect the lawful rights of others to go about their business.

Ironically the extreme far right groups most opposed to the convention are the ones benefitting most from it (and the ones most likely to remove it if ever they achieved power themselves). But that’s not such a problem. The Convention affords these groups the right to meet and to demonstrate but it also prevents them from removing that liberty from others. That’s the price we pay for liberty – we have to accept the right of others to oppose (for others) the very liberty they enjoy themselves. As Voltaire allegedly said:

“I disagree with what you have to say, but I will
fight to the death to defend your right to say it.”

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:

The Convention 14: The right to freedom of expression

According to the European Convention on Human Rights…..
1. “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. this right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Stephen Fry on 'Taking offence'

Stephen Fry on ‘Taking offence’


This has been the source of much misunderstanding, confusion and offence over the years – never more so than today in the United Kingdom of 2011. Fuelled by sensationalist media hype and hatemongering racists playing the ‘freedom of speech’ card many people are far from clear about what article 10 really does and does not say.

One thing that really ought to be made clear from the outset is this:

There is no law that protects people from being offended
In fact the right to express oneself, however offensive others may find your statements is a basic and fundamental right of a democratic state.

Such was the decision of the European court in Strasbourg in the case of Handyside v UK (1976). It is clear in law that the right to express oneself is the ‘default’ and that this right can only be curtailed if the law expressly makes it so. To put that another way…

European citizens can say anything they like unless there’s a specific law against it. To illustrate….

It’s OK to criticize the Bible, however many Christians might be offended by your words. It’s even OK to criticize Christians themselves for advocating such a primitive, discriminatory and barbaric set of rules if that’s what you want to do but it’s not OK to advocate hurting Christians or burning their churches. That’s because advocating harm breaches ‘incitement’ and ‘public order’ laws and also article 9 of the ECHR as previously discussed.
Say what you like – that’s expressing an opinion but don’t imagine that it’s OK to go further and interfere with the rights of other people to live as they choose to.

The reverse of this is that the Christian churchgoers who are protected by Article 10 are also bound by it. That’s why, for example, they find themselves in court for discrimination when they treat gay and lesbian hotel guests differently or attempt to ban women from holding positions of authority among their ranks.
The law may not agree with the tenets of Christianity (try owning slaves on religious grounds or stoning children for playing on a Sunday for example and see what happens) but that doesn’t mean that it will allow anyone to be abused for their belief. Their actions are another thing altogether too.

I’ve intentionally focused upon Christians here to make a point by the way. So far as I know not a single one of my Christian friends would advocate keeping slaves or stoning children. Nor would they advocate eternal damnation for drinking both beer and wine at the same setting and most of them don’t particularly care about other people’s sexuality. But their holy book (the bible) is very clear on these issues and not really very nice about them.

The fact is that it would be ridiculous to condemn all Christians because of a few barely read passages in Leviticus or a throwaway line in one of St. Paul’s epistles. People are much more complicated than that – and on the whole much better. That’s why most (alas not all) Christians I know are genuinely nice people. Consequently it’s OK to criticize the idea of Christianity but not to discriminate against the individuals themselves.

The same, incidentally is true for all religious beliefs. It’s fine to criticise religious ideas – I do it all the time. In fact I just did in the preceding few paragraphs. And guess what – no matter how many people might be offended by that paragraph I have a perfect right to say it. Without the legal right to express our different opinions and views society could never develop, diversity would become narrower and narrower and our nation would revert to the sort of enforced conformity of Puritanism or some fascistic police state.

But we can’t go around stirring up trouble and we can’t be racist because there are specific laws preventing that sort of rabble rousing. Enter the English Defence League.

As regular readers of my blog will know I am no fan of the EDL. On the contrary I consider them to represent the very worst of reactionary and ill-considered bigotry dressed up in a cloak of patriotism that has almost nothing to do with their real purpose. I say ‘almost’ nothing…

What they do demonstrate, at least sometimes, is a genuine concern over the welfare of citizens who may find themselves unfairly judged by religious courts. They’d be more credible if they also opposed Christian and Jewish religious courts instead of focussing purely upon Islam but that’s unlikely to happen. After all their beef isn’t really with Islam – it’s with people who aren’t white skinned. They just use religious extremism as a convenient cover. But let’s apply article 10 to their behaviour and see what we come up with.

Article 10 supports the right of the EDL to protest peacefully and to put their point across.

Article 10 supports the EDL in criticising Islam as well as in debating the relative merits of Islam as opposed to other systems of morality.

Article 10 does not support the EDL in attacking Muslims, in setting fire to Mosques or in inciting violence and civil unrest. That’s why so many EDL members have found themselves in court recently and why so many of them, including their leader, Stephen Yaxley Lennon, have been banned by the courts from attending EDL demonstrations.

Freedom of expression is one thing – attacks against other citizens and blatant discrimination are quite another.

The right to freedom of expression in Article 10 is not an absolute right. It is a qualified right.

“This means that formalities – including Contract Law as laid down by each member state, conditions, restrictions or penalties may be imposed on the exercise of this right if they are prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim and are necessary in a democratic society. This latter condition requires the means employed to be necessary and proportionate to the aim pursued. The legitimate purposes for which freedom of expression can be limited are set out in Article 10(2)”

An interesting and recent ECtHR case involved a Turkish journalist who criticised Islam but who stopped short of attacking or inciting violence against Muslims themselves. I reproduce the summary (together with weblink) below.
“2. Aydin Tatlav v. Turkey, 2 May 2006 (blasphemy, (not) an abusive attack on a religion or its symbols)

In 1992 Erdoğan Aydin Tatlav, a journalist living in Istanbul, published a five volume book under the title Islamiyet Gerçeği (The Reality of Islam). In the first volume of the book he criticised Islam as a religion legitimising social injuries portraying them as “God’s will”.

Following a complaint at the occasion of the fifth edition of the book in 1996, the journalist was prosecuted for publishing a work designed to defile one of the religions (art. 175 Crim. Code). He was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, which was converted into a fine.
Before the ECtHR Tatlav complained that this conviction had been in breach of Article 10 of the Convention, referring to the right of freedom of expression “without interference by public authority”. Essentially, the Court evaluated whether the interference in the applicant’s right could be legitimised for the protection of the morals and the rights of others as “necessary in a democratic society”.

The Court is of the opinion that certain passages of the book contained strong criticism of religion in a social-political context, but that these passages had no insulting tone and neither contained an abusive attack against Muslims or against sacred symbols of Muslim religion (See ECtHR I.A. v. Turkey, 13 September 2005, Iris 2005/10, 3-

4). The Court did not exclude that Muslims could nonetheless feel offended by the caustic commentary on their religion, but this was not considered a sufficient reason to legitimise the criminal conviction of the author of the book. The Court also took account of the fact that although the book had first been published in 1992, no proceedings had been instituted until 1996, when the fifth edition was published. It was only following a complaint by an individual that proceedings had been instituted against the journalist.

With regard the punishment imposed on Tatlav, the Court is of the opinion that a criminal conviction involving, moreover, the risk of a custodial sentence, could have the effect of discouraging authors and editors from publishing opinions about religion that were not conformist and could impede the protection of pluralism, which is indispensable for the healthy development of a democratic society.

Taking into regard all these elements of the case, the Strasbourg Court considers
the interference by the Turkish authorities disproportionate to the aims pursued.
Consequently, the Court holds unanimously that there has been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention (see also ECtHR Giniewski v. France, 31 January 2006, Iris 2006/4, 2-3)

ECtHR (Second Section), Aydin Tatlav v. Turkey, Application no. 50692/99 of 2 May 2006”

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/

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