Prisoners should have the right to vote

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 31/03/2011
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Prisoners should have the right to vote

The European Court of Human Rights has confirmed its position that there should be no blanket ban against prisoners voting in general elections. This judgment was not particularly popular in the United Kingdom, the country from where another complaint had been filed with the Court. Even leading politicians stated that they were appalled by the idea that persons sentenced to imprisonment would have the right to vote.

This problem should indeed be discussed, and not only in the UK. A thorough debate would raise a number of issues of crucial importance such as: the very purpose of penal sentences; which human rights should remain for those deprived of their liberty; what approach is likely to promote reintegration of convicts; and what treatment may minimise recidivism and thereby reduce crime.

The prestigious Constitutional Court in South Africa ruled in 1999 that all prisoners should have the right to vote, stating that “the vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally it says that everybody counts”. The Canadian Supreme Court took a similar stance in a famous ruling in 2002, declaring that this position is necessary as a message that “everyone is equally worthy and entitled to respect under the law”.

Universal suffrage – democratic cornerstone

It may be sobering to remind ourselves that democracy was once established through the idea of universal suffrage. Our forefathers accepted the principle that not only male persons, nobles, and those who owned property or paid taxes should have the right to vote, but everyone – irrespective of their status in society. We may now feel that some of these right-holders do not deserve this possibility, but to exclude them is to undermine a crucial dimension of the very concept of democracy – and thereby human rights.

Indeed, international human rights law has established that the right to vote in elections should be granted to all citizens above a certain age. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that everyone has the right to take part in the government of his or her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. It further stipulated that the will of the people shall be expressed in elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.

Prisoners, though deprived of physical liberty, have human rights. Measures should be taken to ensure that imprisonment does not undermine rights which are unconnected to the intention of the punishment. Indeed, authorities should ensure, for instance, that a prisoner can receive health care and have contact with his or her family. The right to study, to be informed and to vote belongs to this same category of rights which should be protected.

Sense of belonging

The South African Constitutional Court made an important point – the right to vote is special in the sense that it symbolises belonging. To be deprived of this right is to be declared an outcast, a non-person. That approach does not correspond to the European values of our times.

Obviously, such stigmatisation does not promote the rehabilitation and reintegration of convicts into society. It does not help to address the enormous problem of recidivism.

Europe is divided on this issue. There are however more states which have decided to grant prisoners the right to vote than those retaining a ban. The former countries – for instance, Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland – have had no problem with this approach. It is seen as natural that prisoners have a possibility to cast their votes.

Thomas Hammarberg