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Beyond Abu Qatada: Why The UK Shouldn't Split From the European Court of Human Rights

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David Cameron's alleged plans to remove the UK from the European Court of Human Rights have gained an alarming level of support over the past few days. No doubt distracted by the furor surrounding the recent overruling of the UK's deportation of Islamic cleric Abu Qatada, people have been casually dismissing their need for a last line of defence against the state left, right and centre, taking the prime minister at his word when he defended the possible separation by saying that Britain is "not and never will be a country that walks on by while human rights are trampled into the dust."

Perhaps it's because we have very little to be proud of as a nation right now, and in the face of emerging economies such as India and China, the only high ground the once-great Britain can reasonably take, is the moral one. But while it is true that the UK protects its citizens' rights far better than China, when compared to developed European countries - surely a better basis for comparison - the UK's human rights record is nowhere near as laudable, and many of the policies that the UK champions as proof of its forward-thinking and moral mindedness have only come about thanks to the European Court of Human Rights.

For instance it has taken a great level of intervention by the court to correct, repeal or implement legislation to ensure that the UK's LGBT community is afforded many of the same basic rights as non-LGBT citizens, and indeed LGBT citizens in other European nations.

At the turn of the millennium, while countries such as Turkey, Italy, France and Germany had been affording transsexuals full legal recognition of their acquired sex for well over a decade, the UK was simultaneously offering gender reassignment treatment on the NHS and refusing to acknowledge the new gender in law. This added an unnecessary layer of complexity to the process of social integration, meaning that transsexuals could not change their gender on documents such as driving licences and passports. This was in stark contrast to the attitude of countries such as France, where a person's legal change of gender was dealt with in the same way as a correction of an administrative error would be.

When, in 2004, legislation was finally introduced that allowed legal acknowledgement of a change of gender in the UK, it was only thanks to a 2002 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, in which the UK's existing policy was found to be in violation of Articles 8 and 12 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The UK was also one of the last northern European countries to lift the ban on allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military, trailing behind pioneers such as the Netherlands (1974), Norway (1979) and Denmark (1981), and nearly a decade behind Ireland (1993). When the UK's military finally reversed its position, in 2000, again it was thanks not to the repeals of British lawmakers or politicians, but to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the UK's current policy was a breach of Article 8.

And these haven't been the only times when the European Court of Human Rights has had to step in to correct the UK's less than LGBT-friendly policies. In 1996, it called for an amendment of the UK's ruling that placed the age of consent for homosexuals at 18 - two years older than the age of consent for heterosexuals. A lot of kicking and screaming from the House of Lords meant that the age of consent wasn't equalised for another four years, and even then it was only approved when the little-used Parliament Act was invoked, forcing the legislation through without approval from the House of Lords.

Some might argue that these incidents are all in the past and - following his recent promise to legalise gay marriage - David Cameron can be trusted to uphold and advance the progress of the LGBT rights movement, without the need for the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. To those, I suggest a glance at Mr Cameron's track record of voting on some other key LGBT issues.

Mr Cameron has voted twice in favour of banning gay couples from adopting, and in 2008 he once again made his opinion felt by voting against allowing lesbians access to IVF. He put up a staunch defense of Section 28, a ban on local authorities promoting the acceptance of homosexuality, and in Europe he has palled up with some of the most unreservedly homophobic figures, such as Polish politician Michal Kaminski.

When it comes down to the issue of human rights, we are entirely in the hands of the government. So when your government (and prime minister) has such a questionable reputation with regards to human rights as the UK's, those that believe in equality should really think twice before supporting the country's evolution beyond a need for the European Court of Human Rights.

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