[WATCH] Serious human rights violations in Malta almost disappeared after 1987, Giovanni Bonello says

Former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello said too many legal cases are trying to take a human rights angle today, leaving such rights "trivialised and banalised"

Since 1987, successive governments have done their best to fix the previous situation of serious human rights violations in Malta, Giovanni Bonello said
Since 1987, successive governments have done their best to fix the previous situation of serious human rights violations in Malta, Giovanni Bonello said

Grave human rights violations in Malta have greatly diminished since 1987, and all governments have since done their best to fix the situation which had developed in the 1970s and 80s, where such rights were abused, former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello has said.

On TVM's Xtra Sajf tonight, which discussed Bonello’s life and experiences, the retired judge said a distinction had to be made between serious human rights violations, and those which are of a lesser gravity.

“No country, civilised as it may be, is exempt from human rights violations. But one has to distinguish between “core” violations - such as torture, murder, and the muzzling of any opposition - and other, more marginal, violations. Right now the majority of human rights cases are about the right to enjoy one’s property. The difference in these types of cases has to be appreciated,” he said.

“Since 1987, violations of the first kind have greatly diminished. We practically never hear of cases anymore where someone could enter a police station and risk coming out on a stretcher,” he remarked. A Nationalist government had been elected in 1987, after 16 years of Malta being governed by the Labour Party.

“There are still certain kinds of human rights violations, such as massive libel cases which end up silencing someone from expressing themselves," he elaborated, "But since the late 1980s, all governments have done their best to fix the human rights situation in Malta”.

Bonello, who spent 12 years as a judge at the European Court of Human Rightsin Strasbourg, said he had been amongst those whose efforts were crucial towards establishing the Court’s position that any country which signed the convention would be required to observe its stipulations not only in that country, but in any other country which it was controlling.

He regretted, however, that human rights are being cited in too many cases when it is not merited to do so.

“When I started practising, human rights didn’t factor into any cases. Now we have the opposite - every case is given some human rights angle. We went from one extreme to another, and we’re now trivialising and banalising human rights,” he said.

Hostile environment in 1970s and 80s

Bonello said he had appeared as a lawyer in many human rights cases, 170,  an “enormous” number, and that he had been a lawyer in almost all the “battles” of the 1970s and 80s, where he had to contend with a “hostile or indifferent environment”.

“It was hostile because I was almost always fighting against the government - there used to frequently be thugs in the corridors of the court, trying to threaten me,” he recalled.

“There is also the issue of indifference and ignorance. At the time some judges didn't know that human rights were above Parliament and above ministers. Up to then, Parliament was supreme, and they could not understand that human rights are actually over and above it. There was an environment where I had to fight cowardice, ignorance and indifference.”

Bonello said it was very hard to win human rights cases in those days, because the law courts were “manipulated”, and the people who were appointed as magistrates and judges were chosen because they would sing the same tune as the government.

“The First Court, Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court, with a few notable exceptions, were puppets in the hands of the government,” he underscored, “Constitutional Court sentences of the time were terrifying. When Malta accepted the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg human rights court, most Maltese Constitutional judgements were quashed.”

Asked by presenter Saviour Balzan about the negative opinion former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff - who lead Malta during most of those years - had of Bonello, the retired judge said Mintoff had many “great, charismatic qualities”, and could manipulate crowds more than anyone in Malta.

“He used his substantial charismatic power to bring forward certain social changes which helped the people. But, on the other hand, his views on power and democracy were very different from mine,” he said, “My way of looking at the rule of law was very different from his.”

“I know Mintoff didn’t love me, but he respected me", he said, “I didn’t know him very well, personally, but we had common friends. I don’t think he liked being challenged. Apparently, if someone tried to oppose him, he would become ferocious.”

No satisfaction in defending criminals

Asked by host Saviour Balzan why, after becoming a lawyer, he did not choose to practise criminal law, Bonello said he felt it would not be right if he were to defend criminals and be paid with money obtained through crime.

“What professional satisfaction can I get through seeing a criminal walking the streets a free man, after that person broke the law, many times in horrible ways?” Bonello asked, conceding that this was however a delicate matter, and emphasising that he still respected criminal lawyers.

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