A Simple and Safe Insurance Policy

I argued that the convention should set out a short list of basic personal rights, to be acknowledged by all governments, and a minimum standard of democratic conduct for all members. This would provide a moral basis for the activities of the Council.

In the 70th anniversary year of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights, we are sharing extracts from the autobiography of David Maxwell Fyfe, one of two of its artisans with Pierre-Henri Teitgen, describing how it came to be. In this second extract, he describes the controversy leading up to its final signing in Rome, November 1950.

The President of the European Assembly was M. Spaak, a former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Belgium…

I was elected chairman of the legal and administrative committee, to which the question of human rights was referred. I am proud of being the first British chairman of one of the principal committees of the Assembly, especially as … it contained most of the leading figures of Free Europe.

Original Flag of United Europe

… I made a speech in the main meeting on August 19th in which I asked my colleagues to accept a system of collective security against tyranny and oppression. I argued that the convention should set out a short list of basic personal rights, to be acknowledged by all governments, and a minimum standard of democratic conduct for all members. This would provide a moral basis for the activities of the Council… I said that there was nothing in all this which the States concerned were not pledged to work for. The difference was that they were now asked to take action at once and put an international sanction behind a scheme so simple and practical that it could take effect immediately. It was, I said, a simple and safe insurance policy.

I was supported in a speech of great emotional and rhetorical power by Teitgen. The matter was then referred to my Legal Committee and we had many sittings right up to the end of the session. Most of the articles of the draft convention went through fairly easily… The real difficulty arose with regard to the rights of parents in regard to their children’s education and right of property…

When we got back to the Assembly from the Committee I was faced with the position that all the Socialists would vote against the convention if these rights were included, and all the Catholics would vote against the convention if they were left out…

Winston Churchill addresses the people of Strasbourg in Platz Kleber in August 1949

The most moving and exciting occasion of that August was a great meeting on the Platz Kleber. All around every building flew two flags, the tricolour of France and the green and white flag of United Europe. In the square the people were so packed that it seemed you could hardly have placed a walking stick between any two. From a balcony came the sturdy and invigorating Churchillian French. ‘Mesdames et Messieurs les Strasbourgeois, prenez garde. Je parlerai en Francais.’ Mesdames et Messieurs adored it… Winston’s speech on the need for unity in Europe was received with roars of applause.

…In the year between the first and second meetings of the Assembly I went to a number of meetings of various committees… The Committee of Ministers had taken our Convention of Human Rights seriously and appointed a committee of experts to advise them…This committee did an admirable job… They had, however, left out the rights of free elections, property, parent’s choice, and of petitions from individuals. I pointed this out in introducing the draft Convention in its new form to the Assembly, and when the matter was referred to the legal committee they were reinserted. The Committee then decided on a new approach to the Ministers and (on) August 26th 1950 it was unanimously adopted by the Consultative Assembly…

The Committee of Ministers did ultimately meet our points and the convention was signed in Rome in October at the Palazzo Barbarini. I am sorry to say that my good friend M. Spaak was still rather sour at the Ministers’ interference – like myself, he was still in opposition – announced the signing in these dry words, ‘The Convention of Human Rights will be signed by 15 countries at 3pm at the Palazzo Barbarini. It is not a very good Convention, but it is a lovely Palace.’… Whether he was right or wrong we had succeeded in doing what the United Nations had failed to do, namely, to create an enforceable convention guaranteeing democratic rights.

Extract from A Political Adventure, Chapter 11, A Gleam in Alsace, by David Maxwell Fyfe

Published 1964 Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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