Why we should all love human rights this Valentine’s Day

‘Break the link’, they say, ‘limit the reach, ignore it, defy it’.

There’s little love for the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) from the UK government at the moment. It makes me wonder whether our politicians have any understanding of reality, and in particular of the importance of the Court and Convention itself in protecting us and our LGBTI rights, and for our sense of security at home and abroad. This relationship matters, and it’s one we need to fight for. 

Going anywhere nice on your holidays?

If you’re like me and permanently afflicted with travel-itch, one of the many new and unfamiliar things you have to grapple with when you fall in love with someone of the same gender after years of primarily hetero relationships, is an entirely different approach to planning holidays. Out goes the my-only-limit-is-the-Foreign-Office-travel-advice-effect-on-my-insurance approach to picking your next adventure, in comes obsessively scanning the will-we-be-ok-if-I-kiss-her-in-public blogs.

I’m not naive enough to think that having anti-discrimination laws – or at least the absence of positively discriminatory ones – will protect us from (at best) disapproving looks or raised eyebrows when I reiterate on arrival that yes I did mean to book a double room rather than twin one, but I do know that the one place where I feel – with a few notable exceptions – safe to hit ‘Book’, is Europe. And for me, that’s about the ECHR, baby.

It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t a guarantee of safety on a day-to-day level, but the existence of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does help me to feel empowered and confident while I’m on its soil. The local laws saying so might be weak or non-existent. Practice in country might be poor. The Pride parade I’ve booked for might still be refused a permit, I might still be the victim of hate crime not properly prevented by the police, or denied access to my girlfriend if one of us is in an accident, but I know that’s wrong in more than theory. I know that others in those countries bravely fight for their legal rights every day, and I know that I too can claim them. I carry around the metaphorical sword and shield of not just Article 8 (the right to family and private life), but Article 14, which says I am no more or less entitled to my rights than any heterosexual person in the same situation in the same place.

The government of the country I’m in has committed to ensuring I’m not discriminated against in the enjoyment of my rights and freedoms, and there is a Court that I can go to that will hold it to account if it fails to do so. And it’s a Court that actually does that, a guardian that increasingly in recent years has a real impact on the lives of LGBTIpeople across the continent when their national governments don’t measure up. The safety net is real, if not as strong as I’d like. 

Standing up for LGBTI rights

In all honesty, I find the slow progress approach of the Court’s judgments in this area excruciating. For me, when Article 12 says: “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”, it doesn’t specify who can marry who. The fact that gay marriage wasn’t socially acceptable when it was signed shouldn’t limit the proper understanding of the text today (as it shouldn’t any right – which is why the ECHR is treated as a ‘living instrument’ and continually reinterpreted). And the fact that it still isn’t everywhere today, shouldn’t affect the Court’s decisions either. But its judges do more than just help us pick where we want to go on holiday.

It was the Strasbourg Court which ruled that all Brits had the right to serve openly in the army in 1999, a policy change strongly resisted by the Ministry of Defence but which they finally in 2007 apologised for not adopting earlier. Attacking laws that criminalised gay sex back in 1981, protecting step-parent adoption rights for same-sex couples, recognising that freedom of religion is an individual right and not a collective right to discriminate against LGBTI people - the rulings are many, if not always going far enough. And on my right to marry the woman I love, it’s now pushing progress across the continent.

The softly-softly approach is paramount here – in a recent judgment last July, the Court found the absence of any kind of legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Italy was a violation of the right to family life, but stopped short of saying that recognition had to be marriage. Still, it’s finally given the Italian parliament a much-needed push to table legislation for civil partnerships that’s currently being debated. So it seems I might get that Tuscan hilltop ceremony after all.

We separate ourselves from this steam engine of progress at our peril.

Today we here in the UK (well, not all in Northern Ireland, shamefully) might rejoice in having an Equality Act that enshrines anti-discrimination in domestic law – stopping us being turned away from hotels or similar; the right to legal marriage; and a government that happily espouses its support for our rights in many forums, but what about tomorrow? I don’t want my equality dependent on the goodwill or good sense of the current group of politicians. I want it to transcend national borders, to be accepted and signed up to in perpetuity in a binding international agreement that I can personally enforce, and which sends a strong message to countries inside and outside our bubble as to what is and isn’t acceptable.

Let’s not delude ourselves that the UK can sever its links with the Court without other countries, with poorer human rights records, doing the same. Just this December, Putin did exactly what the UK government has been promising to do, in legislating for his politicians to be able to ignore ECtHR rulings they don’t like. I’d stake my lovely anniversary necklace on such rulings including any like those that have already said he has to permit gay Pride marches and ensure participants’ safety. We should be fighting for stronger adherence to the ECHR and a more robust Court as so many brave human rights defenders are across the continent, not undermining it.

So let’s not be so quick to jump to the dump. No relationship is perfect – we need to keep working at it, to keep the dialogue between our courts and Strasbourg going, and push our partner harder to be its best self. But as so many have found before, the grass isn’t always greener. I, for one, don’t want to know what life would be like if I had to live without it. As they say, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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