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A convention that could affect your life

Today - 3 September 2013 - marks the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) coming into force. Panos Kakaviatos analyses its impact.

European Convention on Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg

Today – 3 September 2013 – marks the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) coming into force. Why is this significant ? Most readers know how the horrors of World War II led governments, including the UK, to draft the convention and to agree a set of human rights so that tyranny would never again prevail, to protect individual citizens by (voluntarily) subjecting their governments to a binding set of international rules which limit how they can act on certain core issues. 

Most know that this convention would be enforced by a European Court of Human Rights, based in the French city of Strasbourg as part of the Council of Europe. But that was a long time ago, right? Europe is a different place today, mainly concerned with economic stability and more pressing “bread and butter” day-to-day matters. Right?

A living instrument

Actually, no. Since its creation in 1959, this European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has delivered some 16,500 judgments on applications alleging violations to a range of civil and political rights that can affect your daily routine. In turn, governments have altered legislation and administrative practice in many areas, which makes the convention a living instrument to meet new challenges and to consolidate the rule of law and democracy in Europe.

Take data protection. In this day of easy data access, mere storage of information about an individual’s private life could amount to interference according to article 8 (right to respect for private life) of the convention. For example, the 2003 judgment in Peck v. UK determined a violation of article 8 on account of the disclosure to the media of footage filmed by a street closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera, installed by the local council.

More recently, an individual challenged an employer’s policy banning the wearing of a cross necklace for corporate image reasons. In a judgment earlier this year (Eweida v. UK), that policy was held to have infringed rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (article 9).

Much has been written about the rights of homosexuals, from marriage rights to the right to assembly in countries like Russia. Take, for example, last year’s judgment in X v. Turkey, a case that concerned a homosexual prisoner who, after complaining about acts of intimidation and bullying by his fellow inmates, was placed in solitary confinement for more than eight months. 

The court took the view that these detention conditions had caused him mental and physical suffering, together with a feeling that he had been stripped of his dignity, thus representing ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’ in breach of article 3 of the convention. The court found that the main reason for the applicant’s solitary confinement had not been his protection, but rather his sexual orientation. It concluded that there had been discriminatory treatment in breach of article 14 (prohibition of discrimination).

In our 24/7 information age of social media, tweeting and text messaging, the court repeatedly emphasizes that article 10 of the convention safeguards not only the substance and contents of information and ideas, but also the means of transmitting them.

Mosley case

A 2011 judgment – Mosley v. UK – concerned the publication of articles, images and video footage in the now (infamously) defunct News of the World newspaper and on its website, which had disclosed details of Max Mosley’s sexual activities. Mosley complained about the authorities’ failure to impose a legal duty on the newspaper to notify him in advance of further publication of the material, so that he could seek an interim injunction. The court found no violation of article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and held that the human rights convention did not require media to give prior notice of intended publications to those who feature in them. UK media, including even the right-wing Daily Telegraph, dubbed Strasbourg’s judgment a 'significant victory for free speech'.

Countries listen

Because people brought their cases to the court, the UK (as well as France and Spain) passed laws to regulate telephone tapping. Ireland decriminalized homosexual acts. Belgium changed laws on homeless people and adopted measures to prohibit discrimination against children born outside marriage. Bulgaria created an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors. Greece improved detention conditions for foreigners awaiting deportation. Ireland introduced legislation on adoption and Austria on adoption rights for same-sex couples.

When you think of human rights, issues such as the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and freedom of expression come to mind, and the convention does indeed cover these. But the court has addressed themes that one may not immediately associate with human rights. Take the example of applicants who rely on the convention to challenge rules of contracting states in tax matters, and methods used by tax-authority officials. Such applications are often based on article 1 of protocol No. 1 (protection of property).

Selecting cases

Contrary to certain media reports, the court is very choosy in its selection of cases it considers. Taking the UK as an example, the court dealt with 2,082 applications last year, of which the vast majority (2,047) were declared inadmissible or struck out. It delivered 24 judgments concerning 35 applications, and only 10 of these were found to have had at least one violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

For Europe as a whole last year, the court delivered 1,093 judgments concerning 1,678 applications. Almost one third of the judgments in which the court found a violation included a violation of article 6 (right to a fair trial), whether on account of the fairness or the length of the proceedings. Furthermore, 50% of violations found by the court concern article 6 or article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment). Lastly, about one quarter of violations found by the court concern the right to life or the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (articles 2 and 3).

Six of the Council of Europe’s 47 member States accounted for nearly half of the court’s judgments last year: Russia (134), Turkey (123), Romania (79), Poland (74), Ukraine (71) and Bulgaria (64). Of the total number of judgments it delivered in 2012, in over 82% of cases, the court found at least one violation of the convention by the respondent state.

Nearly perfect

Certainly the court is not perfect. Nothing is. But it represents the best human rights protection system anywhere in the world. Reforms that have been underway for several years – from measures to deal more efficiently with repetitive cases (pilot judgments), to reinforcement of a filtering capacity to address clearly inadmissible applications – are bearing fruit.

This blog posting is longer than I normally like, because as the saying goes, ‘less is more.’ But the convention has brought about such positive change, I wanted to include examples from the court to illustrate that change, and I would encourage readers to look up the court’s recently revamped website: full of fact sheets, many more examples of topical and historical judgments, and other bells and whistles.

Take time today to reflect on what this convention means not only on a general level for Europe, but what it can mean to you – or to someone you may know. 

Entirely separate from the European Union (EU), the Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe is an international organisation that promotes human rights, the rule of law and democracy. It includes the European Court of Human Rights with 47 member states and 800 million citizens, including Turkey, Ukraine and the Russian Federation – among 19 non-EU members.


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03 September 2013

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