Overview: Political Ideologies & Their Perspectives on Human Rights
The following text is based on an interview
How Do Political Ideologies Affect Human Rights?
Political ideology can significantly affect human rights in different ways and its impact is very complex. One political ideology may prioritize a certain right above another. For example, liberal ideology emphasizes the importance of freedom of speech, assembly, and freedom of expression, i.e., it places a lot of emphasis on individual freedom and civil liberties because of liberalism’s focus on individualism. Differently, socialist ideologies prioritize economic rights and rights pertaining to access to health care and education. Moreover, an authoritarian ideology may restrict certain rights in the name of control, stability, and a sense of security.
What Are Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights Standards and How Do They Intersect?
Cultural relativism and human rights standards are two contrasting approaches to the concept of human rights. Cultural relativism is based on the idea that human rights are not absolute or universal. It posits that they are culturally constructed and, therefore, not objective. This means that they are applicable differently in different cultures. Thus, cultural relativism acknowledges the diversity of cultures and traditions around the world and argues that human rights should be understood and applied in ways that are consistent with different cultures and traditions.
Contrarily, universal human rights standards are applied to all individuals regardless of their cultural or political context. That is to say that the same rights are afforded to everyone regardless of who or where they are. In doing so, they dismiss the differences between the different communities.
These approaches (cultural relativism and universal human rights) are the subject of great debate in academia. On the one hand, proponents of cultural relativism argue that understanding and respecting the local culture is essential to promoting human rights, and that viewing human rights as universal dismisses the differences between communities. By taking a post-colonial approach, many cultural relativists contend that the notion of universal human rights is a Western imposition. On the other hand, universal human rights advocates argue that all humans deserve the same basic rights and that the law must be based upon this.
The European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was established in the aftermath of World War II with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights in Europe. The foundation for the ECHR was laid with the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1950. The ECHR was drafted within the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1949 to promote cooperation and human rights in Europe. The Council of Europe, distinct from the European Union, sought to create a common legal framework for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms across its member states. The ECHR was one of the primary instruments developed for this purpose.
The ECHR came into force on September 3, 1953, after being ratified by a sufficient number of member states. The convention set out a range of civil and political rights and established the legal framework for the protection of these rights at the regional level.
The ECHR also provided for the establishment of a judicial body to enforce its provisions — the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The Court was officially inaugurated in 1959 and began its operations in 1960. One significant feature of the ECHR was the ability of individuals to bring cases directly to the Court. This allowed individuals to seek redress for alleged violations of their rights after exhausting domestic remedies.
Over the years, the Court evolved, and additional protocols were added to the ECHR to enhance and expand human rights protections. The Court's jurisdiction was gradually extended, and its role in interpreting and developing human rights law in Europe became increasingly significant.
Today, the European Court of Human Rights stands as a crucial institution for the protection of human rights in Europe, providing a forum for individuals and states to address alleged violations and contributing to the development of a common European understanding of human rights principles.
The Margin of Appreciation at the ECHR
The ‘margin of appreciation’ is a legal tool used by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Initially introduced in the 1960s, this legal doctrine acknowledges that different member states may interpret and apply certain human rights standards differently based on their unique cultural, historical, and social contexts.
The margin of appreciation essentially grants a degree of flexibility to individual states in implementing certain human rights obligations, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. This concept was particularly crucial during the early years of the ECHR, when the court had to navigate diverse legal traditions and political systems among its member states.
Over time, the margin of appreciation has evolved through a dynamic interplay between legal decisions and changing societal norms. While initially intended to accommodate diversity, the concept has been subject to ongoing debate and refinement. Critics argue that it could potentially be used to justify human rights violations, while proponents maintain that it allows for a nuanced understanding of cultural differences without compromising fundamental rights.
The evolution of the margin of appreciation reflects the ongoing challenge of balancing universal human rights principles with the need to respect the diversity of legal systems and cultural contexts within Europe. As human rights jurisprudence continues to develop, the concept remains a significant aspect of legal discourse.
An example of this is the case of Muslims women’s headscarf decided at the ECHR. In these cases, the Court has allowed member states to decide whether the manifestation of religious symbols, e.g., the wearing of veils, was incompatible with the notion of public order enshrined in article 9.2 of the ECHR. While article 9 (1) protects “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion”, Article 9 (2) limits this right in the name of public safety, public order, etc. In the case of the veil, European countries have constructed the veil as an element able to endanger public order and so in need of regulation, although there was no proof of this danger. In those cases, the ECHR has widened the margin of appreciation, leaving member states to decide which religious symbols could endanger the public order of European societies.
Scholars have widely criticized those decisions, contending that the ECHR’s decisions regarding christian symbols contrast with those that concern Islamic symbols (as in the comparison between Dahlab v Switzerland and Lautsi v Italy). If you compare the ECHR’s decisions related to the Muslim veil with those related to Christian religious symbols (such as in the case of Lautsi v. Italy), you can see how they are treated differently.
This is an example of how the application of the margin of appreciation could be applied differently. Indeed, it is important to note that in cases related to the wearing of the Muslim veil, the ECHR defined the headscarf as oppressive towards women, without considering whether Muslims consider the practice oppressive. In doing so, it could be argued that they are solely applying a Western/liberal understanding of women’s freedom.
Another example is that of abortion in Ireland. Before the recent change in the law in this regard, there were cases decided by the European Court of Human Rights concerning Irish women's right to abortion. Here, the European Court of Human Rights left a great margin of appreciation, refusing to interfere with the law in Ireland. The Court took into consideration the fact that Ireland is a Catholic country and has a specific moral tradition regarding the issue of abortion. Thus, it widened the margin of appreciation, allowing Ireland to forbid abortion. Hence, the right to have an abortion was not obtained through the ECHR, but by a national referendum in Ireland in 2018.
Critics argue that the ECHR has used the margin of appreciation inconsistently, and for this reason, it is seen by some as a political tool, which the court can choose to apply or not.
Often, the decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights have changed along with societal and political changes in Europe.
For instance, in cases related to the manifestation of religious symbols (such as cases related to the wearing of the muslim veil and the building of minarets), the ECHR has widened the margin of appreciation, leaving member states considerable discretion. On the contrary, it has traditionally restricted the margin of appreciation in relation to LGBTQ+ rights. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has witnessed a notable development in LGBTQ rights, progressively recognizing and affirming the importance of protecting the rights of individuals regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In landmark cases such as E.B. v. France and Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, the ECHR played a pivotal role in advancing LGBTQ rights by interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights in a manner that reinforces the principles of non-discrimination and respect for private and family life.