Strasbourg had to rule on two cases with inflammatory potential ? an application against whole-life jail sentences, and an appeal against expelling Abu Qatada
In the dock at the court of public opinion was Europe's human rights framework. Strasbourg had to rule on two cases with inflammatory potential ? an application to stop the state locking up heinous murderers and binning the key, and an appeal against expelling the unsavoury jihadist Abu Qatada from Britain to Jordan. One clumsy move on either count, and the flickering rage against rights on the Tory right could have flared up in middle Britain.
There are serious moral objections against whole-life jail sentences, which preclude the very possibility of redemption. There is also a pressing practical reason for not saying never to release ? offenders denied all hope are harder to manage. Nonetheless, Strasbourg ruled that none of the three whole-life prisoners whose cases it was concerned with had suffered inhuman or degrading treatment. Reformers will be disappointed, as of course will be the few dozen inmates in England who are locked up for ever. The court found, however, that after a properly secured conviction for an exceptionally grave crime, the state is entitled to imprison a subject for good.
This ruling may turn on a narrow reading of human rights, but narrowness is the inescapable corollary of universal reach. This is doubly true with the protections against inhuman and degrading treatment under article three, because these are rights that, uniquely, come with no get-out clause. Strasbourg will have worried some liberals in the Qatada case by accepting that deportation to Jordan, where torture is rife, might be allowable on the basis of the intergovernmental "memorandums of understanding". Such a gentlemen's agreement with a tyrannical regime to hold back its heavies is an unattractive form of guarantee, but the judges decided that if there is monitoring and diplomatic pride invested then credible protection is possible. They thus dismissed Qatada's own fears of torture, and yet barred his expulsion for fear he would then face a trial infected with evidence forcibly extracted from others. The consequences will be messy but manageable. The unacceptable alternative would have been, in the US supreme court phrase, to afford brutality the cloak of law.
Regardless of the merits of yesterday's rulings, they were both cases concerning precisely those fundamental rights which need to be held up to a continent-wide standard if the European framework is to have any bite. And in their rulings the judges showed themselves to be hard-headed, principled and pragmatic. In doing so, they helped to acquit themselves of the ludicrous charges the right hurls Strasbourg's way ? and reinforce the case against silly suggestions of drifting away from the continent on a British bill of rights.