I do wish all readers the very best for 2015. Even as I composed this, however, with the year barely a week old, a succession of events was reminding us that these are difficult times for those fundamental values that our legal order seeks to uphold.
The ruthless murder of the editor and staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo strikes at the heart of freedom of expression, as well as the rule of law in a country that takes pride in the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. If such an atrocity can happen there, are we in the UK any less at risk?
Then we have the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, not only in frontline countries in southern and eastern Europe, but in successful nations such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and even liberal, social democratic Sweden. The common ploy of stigmatising migrants as often criminals only serves to stoke the prejudices that the Council of Europe, and at least the majority of its member governments, have sought to eliminate in recent decades through the European Convention on Human Rights and various forms of equality legislation.
Here in the UK we face a general election where immigration will also be a central issue, and in which at least two parties hoping to be part of the next Government are set to campaign for withdrawal of the UK from the ECHR, on the basis that the Parliament they hope to dominate should not be fettered to any degree by the rulings of European judges – judges who, it must be said, apply a developed body of jurisprudence and not the arbitrary rulings of which some politicians accuse them. Yet at the same time there appears to be a growing risk of legislation that infringes basic civil liberties, the latest example of which is the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.
For my part I cannot see how our country can hope to retain international influence, or address migration or any other cross-border issue, without seeking to maximise international co-operation rather than pull up the
drawbridge, or without continuing to show respect for the Human Rights Convention it was instrumental in drawing up. When the number of refugees from a single troubled country, Syria, reaches the millions, and there are many more from other less publicised but sometimes equally troubled regions – witness the scale of the latest atrocity in Nigeria by Boko Haram – we will attempt to isolate ourselves in vain.
Amid all this, it is regrettable that the Court of Justice of the EU has ruled as incompatible with EU law, the treaty enabling the EU to formally adopt the ECHR. Criticised by informed commentators, the highly technical decision stalls an agreement that was hailed as the missing link in European human rights protection.
Let no one take any of our fundamental rights for granted.