Tech & Rights

The Perilous Future of the European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights became a victim of its own popularity. In 2014, it has opened 17,200 new proceedings, while almost 100,000 still await judgment. With such a backlog, the ECHR's ability to fully protect human rights is in doubt.

by Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

Because of the backlog of cases mentioned above, a series of conferences have taken place since 2010, devoted to enhancing the system. They have produced two additional Protocols for the Convention, awaiting ratification by the member states.

Last week, another conference took place in Oslo, where the future of ECHR was discussed. The conference was organized by the Government of Norway and Pluri Court, a research unit of the University of Oslo. The conference was attended by representatives of government agencies (who are responsible for litigating at the ECHR) and staff members of the ECHR's administrative office. The conference is an important part of the process of reforming the Court, and will have a significant impact on its further shape.

During the opening speech, ECHR's chairman, Judge Dean Spielmann, pointed out that the Court has been undergoing reforms for many years. The effects of introducing Protocol 14 became visible when the filtering section started to notice invalid and dependent cases, thus reducing the number of cases the Court had to examine. Giving priority to important cases reduces the time required for them to be examined. The chairman also noted that national governments should now focus on effectively implementing the Court's judgments at the local level. At the moment, more than 10,000 judgments are awaiting implementation. Spielmann's speech was a clear message to the national governments, pointing out that they should stop focusing on how the Court works, and instead support the reforms by effectively introducing the standards resulting from past judgments in their own lands.

Sadly, and not for the first time, Judge Spielmann's voice has been talked down by government representatives (of, among others, Czech Republic, Great Britain and Switzerland), who all had many ideas for repairing the system. Very few members of NGOs attended the conference. The only official testimony of the civil society sector was given by the representative of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Dr. Adam Bodnar. He pointed out that the basic action that can be taken by national governments to help increase the Court's effectiveness is by providing staff and financial support. He also mentioned the problem of Russia, which has in recent months given a display of disrespect for the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as Great Britain, which has been constantly undermining the Court's efforts and threatening to quit the Conventions.

Sadly, his voice remained unsupported, and other participants didn't even find it fit to answer his points. It seems to be a dangerous habit - to discuss the future of European Court of Human Rights without the attendance of NGOs and groups representing the claimants. It is them, and not the governments, who are the major "clients" of the system working in Europe to protect human rights, and it is therefore their voices that should be heard with highest priority, before any further reforms come into action. Leaving the reform to the governments, who are most often the accused side in cases that come before the Court, leaves no good predictions on the Court's future. Despite the symbolic location of the conference, the government representatives did not take a leap of faith of accepting the responsibility for implementing the Court's rulings in their own countries, which would reduce the number of repeating cases of the same subject - which itself indicates an error in the system - that reach the Court. The Court can it increase it's effectiveness and speed up the most grave cases only if it receives funding from the member states.

It is worth mentioning that before the conference, HFHR, together with 20 other Central and Eastern Europe NGOs, published an open letter to its participants. The NGOs have emphasized that their countries of origin are places where the actions of the Court have improved the state of democracy and have brought progress to the advocacy of human rights. Therefore, they feel obliged to take a position in the ongoing debate. They have anxiously noted that some of the countries are undermining and even openly attacking the Court. Such actions have been observed during debates, where introducing restrictions on bringing a case to the Court was proposed, for example by imposing fees, or mandating compulsory representation of a professional solicitor. Other hostile attitudes were expressed by showing disrespect towards the Court and its administrative office. Such actions can pose a serious threat to citizens, human rights advocates and NGOs in countries where the Court is the only chance of seeking justice and respect for human rights.

The conference was attended by Dr. Adam Bodnar and Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska, representing the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

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