Posted by HSMP Forum at 11/24/2012 2:15 AM | |
The recent political tension revolving around prisoners’ right to vote has been widely debated. The issue surrounds strong political sentiments and the newspapers and television programmes created awareness and found widespread public opinion against the European Court of Human Rights judgments urging the UK to amend its law. The UK’s refusal to adhere to the Court’s ruling may mean it will be in breach of its international obligations.
The country’s domestic law yet again clashes with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Representation of the People Act 1983 (amended in 1985 and 2000) prohibited sentenced prisoners from voting except those on remand and on electoral register.
It is unlikely that there would be a big problem in prisons for denying prisoners a right to vote but the fact that there have been cases in courts for allowing such a right to be exercised provides ample evidence that there are prisoners who want to vote.
This issue which is now a controversy, faced the test in Hirst v United Kingdom (74025/01) (2006), a case which challenged section 3 (1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983. The case was brought by Mr John Hirst who spent his time in prison for murdering his land lady with an axe and was given widespread publicity for his racist views on an MP. But irrespective of individual characters and their opinions, what should be considered is the content of the European Court of Human Rights judgment. In 2005, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights upheld the decision of the European Court that the UK had violated article 3 imposing a blanket restriction on all convicted prisoners irrespective of the length of their sentence and the gravity of their offences. The Grand Chamber concluded that section 3(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 is incompatible with Article 3 of the First Protocol of the ECHR. The Grand Chamber emphasised that right to vote is a right and not a privilege and rejected the idea of automatic disenfranchisement based on what might offend public opinion.
Earlier in 2001, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said that it ‘fails to discern the justification’ for blanket prisoner disenfranchisement and considers it an unwarranted and additional punishment that contributes nothing ‘towards the prisoner’s reformation and rehabilitation, contrary to article 10(3) in conjunction with article 25 of the Covenant’.
In February 2011, Members of Parliament (MPs) voted 234 to 22 to maintain the blanket ban on prisoners’ right to vote. More recently in May 2012, the Grand Chamber gave UK an extra span of 6 months to amend its blanket prohibition regarding the voting rights of prisoners. The UK government like most other countries in the Europe need not remove the ban completely but must introduce some measures, for e.g., allow voting rights to prisoners who may not have committed very serious offences such as terrorist activities or a murder.
The Prime Minister David Cameron recently quoted in November 2012 that the idea of prisoners voting in elections made him sick. His views are in line with the majority of the politicians in the country but Mr Cameron may soon be forced to reconsider his position. The Attorney General Dominic Grieve recently told the MPs: “If Parliament chooses not to implement the judgment, it would be a serious matter, because it would place the UK in breach of its international obligations to which it is a signatory. I accept that other countries are in breach of their implementation obligations, but that does not provide an excuse for our not honouring our own.”
It is important for the UK to follow the footsteps of other countries. In Germany, only people convicted of serious crimes such as terrorism or political violence are disenfranchised from exercising their voting rights. Iceland bans serious offenders, while Italy and Greece prohibits prisoners with life sentence from exercising their vote. On the other hand, countries such as Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden and Spain allow their prisoners to vote.
A quote from Winston Churchill, Home Secretary in July 1910 says it all; he said “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even those of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man – these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”
What the United Nations Human Rights Committee said earlier and the European Court of Human Rights held may be contrary to the member states’ public opinion as it is not a decision based on a popularity contest, unlike that of the most politicians. Denying prisoners the right to vote in this day and age is primitive. The politicians have their own egos to deal with and their disagreement with the European Court’s verdict is nothing new. Some of them want to get rid of the Human Rights Act 1998 and abandon the ECHR obligations and are finding ways to gather public support. There is a need for a Court to have an upper hand when deciding on matters concerning a smaller section of society. Politicians who are generally interested in majority support and views cannot be expected to protect the rights of the minority segments at all times.
Prisoners are those who break the law and as a consequence have been sent to prison and the politicians now intend to break the law (European or international law) by not adhering to the Court’s judgment. It will be a poor state of affairs to see the politicians abusing their powers to deny those who are facing punishment their right to vote, and in the process break the law. The MPs need to show flexibility and should debate on allowing prisoners who have not committed very serious offences and/or are not awarded life imprisonment, to exercise their right to vote.
Author: Amit Kapadia
Amit is the Executive Director of the HSMP Forum. He campaigns against issues such as – unfairness, inequality and abuse of human rights.
Twitter @ amit_kapadia