Q&A: Human Rights Tried by European Court

Q&A: Human Rights Tried by European Court

Excerpt­ed from “Churchill on the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights,”  my essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Q: Did he or didn’t he?

I recent­ly heard on UK tele­vi­sion that Win­ston Churchill sup­port­ed the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights. Since the ECHR is viewed by many here as a stum­bling block to refus­ing entry to ille­gal aliens who are not refugees, this seemed to me extra­or­di­nary. Is it true? —D.J., Hal­i­fax, West Yorkshire

A: Yes and no

This is a new and inter­est­ing ques­tion. For answers we scoured our dig­i­tal files of Churchill’s 20 mil­lion pub­lished words and 60 mil­lion about him. The evi­dence is that Churchill twice spoke in favor of a Euro­pean Court of Human Rights. It is also rea­son­able to assert that juris­dic­tion of today’s ECHR is much broad­er than Churchill’s con­cept. It is there­fore ques­tion­able to cite Churchill as a sup­port­er of the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights as cur­rent­ly con­sti­tut­ed. But judge his words for yourself…

Brussels, 26 February 1949

The Euro­pean Assem­bly is now on the point of being achieved…. We have now to take the sec­ond step for­ward and try to estab­lish, as the prac­ti­cal result of our meet­ing here, the set­ting up of a Euro­pean Court of Human Rights. Such a court in no way chal­lenges the author­i­ty of a world court, but it may well be that the prin­ci­ples laid down by the Unit­ed Nations will be bet­ter and more effec­tive­ly inter­pret­ed by courts in the more lim­it­ed and homo­ge­neous area of region­al units: Let Europe judge Europe…..

It must not be pos­si­ble that, with­in the bound­aries of Unit­ed Europe, such a legal atroc­i­ty could be per­pe­trat­ed as that which has con­front­ed us all in the case of Car­di­nal Mind­szen­ty.* Here you have the crime of reli­gious per­se­cu­tion com­mit­ted on an inno­cent man under the direct orders of Moscow….

London, 23 July 1951

Churchill’s sec­ond ref­er­ence to the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights came two years lat­er in Lon­don. The essen­tial require­ment of the Unit­ed Europe move­ment, he said, was ami­ty between France and Ger­many. There must be no fur­ther wars of aggres­sion such as Ger­many had unleashed five times from 1864 to 1939:

There can be no Europe unless it be based upon a sol­id foun­da­tion of trust and com­rade­ship between the French and Ger­man peo­ples. With­in the wider frame­work of the UNO [Unit­ed Nations Orga­ni­za­tion] a Coun­cil of Europe has been set up. A Euro­pean Army is begin­ning to take shape, and a Euro­pean Court of Human Rights is short­ly to be established….

I have long believed in the idea of a Unit­ed Europe. In the tur­bu­lent year 1943 I said… “We must try to make this Coun­cil of Europe into a real­ly effec­tive league with a High Court to adjust dis­putes and with armed forces, nation­al or inter­na­tion­al or both, held ready to enforce its deci­sions and to pre­vent renewed aggression. 

Churchill then again added what he saw as Britain’s asso­ci­at­ed but unin­te­grat­ed role: “[T]here are forces at work in Britain which will enable our island and our Empire and Com­mon­wealth to play their full part.”

The European Court today

The Euro­pean Court of Human Rights was estab­lished in 1959 by the Coun­cil of Europe. The Coun­cil (cur­rent­ly 46 states) is often con­fused with the Euro­pean Union (27 states). The Coun­cil of Europe can­not make laws, although it can enforce agree­ments. The EU is entire­ly sep­a­rate, has greater reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ty and its own Court of Jus­tice.

Britain has long been one of the most wel­com­ing coun­tries to refugees, most recent­ly from Ukraine. It is also cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing about 50,000 undoc­u­ment­ed arrivals a year on its Chan­nel shores. Many of these are not refugees, some are crim­i­nals and traf­fick­ers. It is assert­ed that the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights for­bids Britain from tak­ing action to refuse entry to any­one claim­ing to be a refugee. 

Pro­to­col 4 of the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion on Human Rights, which the ECHR enforces, includes the right “to freely move with­in a coun­try once law­ful­ly there; and to enter a coun­try of one’s own nation­al­i­ty.” It pro­hibits “the col­lec­tive expul­sion of for­eign­ers.” Con­cerned that this might nul­li­fy nation­al laws, the UK and oth­er coun­tries have nev­er rat­i­fied Pro­to­col 4. 

“Ally and friend”

How would Churchill view the juris­dic­tion of today’s Euro­pean Court over British immi­gra­tion law? We can­not judge, since he is not here to ask, though we may draw con­clu­sions. How he felt with regard to inte­gra­tion with Unit­ed Europe is how­ev­er on record:

Our atti­tude towards fur­ther eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments on the Schu­man lines [Euro­pean Coal and Steel Com­mu­ni­ty] resem­bles that which we adopt about the Euro­pean Army. We help, we ded­i­cate, we play a part, but we are not merged with and do not for­feit our insu­lar or Com­mon­wealth char­ac­ter. Our first object is the uni­ty and con­sol­i­da­tion of the British Com­mon­wealth…. Our sec­ond, “the fra­ter­nal asso­ci­a­tion” of the Eng­lish-speak­ing world; and third, Unit­ed Europe, to which we are a sep­a­rate closely—and spe­cial­ly-relat­ed ally and friend.


*József Mind­szen­ty was a Catholic car­di­nal and Arch­bish­op of Eszter­gom in Hun­gary who opposed both the Nazis and the com­mu­nists. As Churchill spoke, he was the vic­tim of a a show tri­al. Con­vict­ed, he was impris­oned and tor­tured by the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment. Freed dur­ing the Hun­gar­i­an revolt of 1956, he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy. There he lived for 15 years before being allowed to leave Hun­gary in 1971. He died in exile in Vien­na in 1975.

Further reading

Andrew Roberts, review of “Churchill on Europeby Felix Klos, 2016.

Richard M. Lang­worth, “EU and Churchill’s Views,” 2015.

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