The Irony of British Human Rights Exceptionalism: The United Kingdom and the Council of Europe

The Irony of British Human Rights Exceptionalism: The United Kingdom and the Council of Europe

Tuesday, 12 November 2019 - 5:00pm to 6:45pm
Seminar Room, European Studies Centre, 70 Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HR
Professor Jeffrey Kahn (SMU Dedman School of Law, Texas)
Dr Hartmut Mayer (European Studies Centre, St Antony's College, Oxford)
ESC Core Seminar Series

Assessments of London’s relationship with Strasbourg tend to highlight recent discontent about perceived infringements of parliamentary sovereignty by the European Court of Human Rights.  The British criticism is, in short, that this is not what we signed up for.  But this plaintive argument is not new.  A recurrent theme in the United Kingdom’s involvement with the institutions of the Council of Europe, especially its human rights commission and court, has been the dawning realization that the treaties and institutions that the United Kingdom’s own lawyers and diplomats were so instrumental in devising for an emergent Council of Europe could and would be applied to its own foreign and domestic interests.    

It is ironic that the United Kingdom should have been so central to crafting human rights instruments from which it later sought to exempt itself.  The irony is heightened by the frequency with which this founding Member State realized, opposed, but then accepted the implications of its actions.  An unexpected consequence of this ironic refrain of exceptionalism may be to reinforce the objective legitimacy of the system’s most challenged institutions.  After all, it is hard to allege an infringement of parliamentary sovereignty if the state’s ministers repeatedly choose to abide by the (sometimes changing) treaty obligations they helped establish.  On the other hand, when ministers in high dudgeon declare their outrage at the latest Strasbourg ruling, the erosion they facilitate to popular legitimacy may ultimately reduce overall respect for the European Convention.  Ironically, we become the masks we wear.  

Jeffrey Kahn is a professor of law at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.  In 2017-2018, he was a Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of Oslo, where his research focused on British and Russian relations with the Council of Europe.  He is a graduate of Yale College, Oxford University (St. Antony’s College), and the University of Michigan Law School.

The Chair for this seminar will be: Dr Hartmut Mayer (St Antony's College, Oxford).

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