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The European Human Rights system

The European Court de justice

Today we’ll focus on the evolution of the European system, with a brief overview of its key institutions and the composition, structure, and functions of the European court. And we’ll also review in brief, some of the Court’s key achievements, and some of the potential risks of its success.

Let’s begin with a brief overview of the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights. Which are respectively the international body and the international Treaty that comprise the core of the European human rights system.

So the Council of Europe is a regional organization. It is a larger body than the European Union, so please don’t confuse the two. It has currently 47 member states, all of whom must respect the rule of law, and protect human rights. Now the Council of Europe began after World War II as a much smaller body limited to Western Europe. And it slowly expanded South and then after the end of the Cold War in the early 90s, East to include the former Soviet blocked countries as well as Russia.

The convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, is a civil and political rights Treaty, which is very similar to the ICCPR, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other institutions, in addition to the Court, that you should know about, are the Committee of Ministers. Which is an inter governmental body that issues recommendations to the member states, and also is responsible for monitoring or following up, on the implementation and compliance with the judgements of the European Court. Also important is a regional legislative part, body that parliament assembly of a council of Europe An elected regional legislature that also makes recommendations on human rights issues.

Let’s turn now to the activities of the so called petition system, the individual petition system in Europe, and how it has changed over time. Here you see a brief overview of how the individual petitions system or individual complaint system, was structured during the period from the creation of the European Convention on Human Rights in the 1950s through 1998. The process essentially preceded at two levels. The European Commission on Human Rights first determined whether complaints would be heard on the merits. It screened them for admissibility, much, as you may recall, with the 1503 procedure under the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and subsequently the U.N. Human Rights Council. This is a screening procedure to determine whether there were at least plausible arguments regarding the violation of rights. Whether there had been an exhaustion of domestic remedies and so forth. If these procedural hurdles were overcome, the Commission would review the case on the merits, and issue a non-binding decision and recommendation. Indicating its view as to whether the State had, in fact, violated one or more rights in the European Convention. At that point the State or the Commission, not the individual, interestingly, could appeal that non-binding decision to the European Court for a legally binding judgement.

As you might imagine, this process was rather lengthy. It could go on for two, three, four, five, or even more years. And as the system matured and as more and more states became part of the European Convention on Human Rights, the decision was made to restructure the individual petition system, to streamline it and to make it more effective. And this involved creating a permanent European Court of Human Rights, abolishing the Commission so the screening functions are now performed by the court itself, and allowing the court to review cases in panels.

On the merits generally a chamber of seven judges, but for cases of significant importance, a Grand Chamber of 17 judges. Now, altogether there are 47 judges on the European Court of Human Rights, one for each member state, but they don’t all sit together at the same time. In the same year that the convention’s complaints procedure was overhauled, the member states also completed work on a human rights building, at the court’s headquarters in Strasbourg, France.

 I think the, the prominence of the building and its striking features, are really a testament to the commitment of the European Convention member states to having an active an, and hopefully effective court. Here you see an image of a hearing room in a case being argued before a chamber of seven judges. The working languages of the court are English, and French, and I’d like to talk a bit about some of the ECHR’s achievements. But I want to highlight just a few for you to give you a flavor of some of the important things the court has done. So first the court has had a really remarkably diverse and rich case law. It has issued decisions about a topic’s that in previous decades were really thought to be matters exclusively within the domestic jurisdiction of states. And it’s produced a vast body of judgments interpreting civil and political rights for all 47 member States. And here you see a pie chart indicating the general breakdown at the end of 2013 of the subject matter of the cases, including things like the prohibition of torture, the right to a fair trial the right to an effective remedy, the right of property.

So this just gives you a very kind of cursory overview of, how rich and how diverse the Court’s case law actually is. Another achievement associated with the ECHR are high rates of compliance with the court’s judgement.

I think it’s fair to say that in the main, the member states have done many things to give effect to the court’s legally binding rulings. They have awarded compensation. They have reopened judicial proceedings. They have modified, or enacted, statutes. They have freed illegally detained individuals. They have changed administrative practices. And I could go on and on. So, the, overall the compliance rate with the ECHR’s judgments is quite high. Although there are some important exceptions.

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