… We Should Make the European Court of Human Rights Stronger

commented by Peter Steudtner

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

According to official information from the European Court of Human Rights, it can take three years before a decision is made, or a judgement passed down. And some plaintiffs have to wait even longer if they bring a human rights violations case to the court. To me, that is obviously too long.

During a workshop in Istanbul in 2017 – it was on dealing with stress and trauma as well as cybersecurity - myself, another trainer and eight Turkish human rights defenders were arrested. After two weeks in custody, a judge ordered that most of us remain in pre-trail detention. The absurd charges we faced said we were suspected of supporting, or membership of, an armed terrorist organisation. After 113 days, we were released. But the case against us continues to this day. As a result I filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR. There are 54,350 other cases in the pipeline though, so we are waiting to see if our complaint goes through.

A case will only be considered by the ECHR if all other legal means in a country have been exhausted. This means that my lawyer and I also have to wait for a decision from the Constitutional Court of Turkey. As I understand it, the ECHR cannot work around that rule, even if the last judicial instance of the case is systematically delayed in the country of origin, or if a judicial system is under fire because of lack of resources, or political influence.

For years, human rights lawyers have been advocating for an evaluation of a country’s legal system, arguing that this belongs to the basic analysis of any case before the ECHR. But it doesn’t happen. However the ECHR needs exactly that ability to be able to intervene more quickly in systematic abuses of human rights.

In 2017, there were 63,350 new cases submitted to the ECHR. That increase of over 20 percent compared to the previous year has to be processed by the same number of staff. For years also, people have been saying the court is overburdened - but nothing has changed in terms of funding or personnel.

The ECHR’s costs are borne equally by Council of Europe member states. And I ask myself whether this system of funding actually plays into the hands of those member states who would prefer to see the court underfunded. Should countries like Germany, which make the defence of human rights part of national policy, be giving extra funding, in order to explicitly strengthen the ECHR?

The punishments handed down by the ECHR could also do with some improvement. Compensatory payments that are meted out to certain states are often a lot less than they might be expected, at an international level. That makes it easy for violators to dismiss the ECHR fines as “peanuts”. There are hardly ever political consequences either, for example, the suspension of membership of the Council of Europe. Greece was suspended from the Council at one stage. Yet other nations like Russia systematically abuse human rights.

For a long time, I used to view the ECHR and all of these criticisms from a distance. But given my personal experience, of being arrested and then trying to bring a case before the ECHR, this far-flung institution of the Council of Europe has suddenly come closer and really important to me.

At the same time I feel lucky to be free while others in this case remain in prison. Our case is symbolic of thousands of similar ones being brought before the ECHR, to do with human rights violations in many European countries. If we, and our governments, really want to improve the defence of human rights then a strengthening of the ECHR is urgently needed. 

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