Thursday, February 17, 2011

Czechs and balances

Suppose a country was both democratic enough to have some human rights legislation and undemocratic enough not to allow women the vote. Suppose an unelected judge ruled that the latter was in breach of women’s human rights. Then suppose the elected executive of the country said that the judge should mind his own business because he wasn’t elected. That would sound a bit rich, wouldn’t it?

One of the advantages of having elected executives accountable to an unelected judiciary is that when it comes to trampling on the interests of minorities and the disenfranchised there are lines that won’t be crossed, even if crossing them would appeal to the majority of people with votes. An example would be the death penalty. For a long time the death penalty was supported by a majority of people in my country, but by a minority of the MPs they elected. Perhaps it still is. The MPs resisted the temptation to bring it back, even though this might well have been a vote-winner. I’m glad they did, but I understand that since the Human Rights Act came in they no longer have the option, and I’m glad they don’t. A lot of what goes on here in the name of fighting Terror sails pretty close to the wind too, and it’s comforting to know that no matter how hysterical the public or how soon the election, there are some people in Strasbourg we can appeal to if things start going a bit Kafka.

I am, of course, thinking about the current debate over giving prisoners the vote. It’s been suggested that the decision shouldn’t be made by EU judges, because they’re unelected. As well as being a bit rich, I think this is exactly the sort of decision which should be made by unelected people. This isn’t because I want prisoners to have the vote, although I do. (Then again, I’d lower the voting age to thirteen if it was left up to me.) It’s because when it comes to the tyranny of the majority over the disenfranchised, elected officials can’t be trusted. Prisoners are among the most vulnerable people in society, and as such they’re exactly the kind of people human rights legislation and an independent judiciary are there to protect.

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