Located in Strasbourg, France, this Supreme Court is an emanation of the Council of Europe, an international organization created in 1949 and now composed of 47 states, including the 28 members of the European Union but also other countries such as Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Switzerland and Azerbaijan to name a few. Established ten years later, the court is responsible for sanctioning violations of the Council of Europe’s key international treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, by states parties to it. The Convention is a bill of rights greatly inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 but whose provisions, unlike those of the Declaration, are legally binding for states parties, which therefore must respect them. At the time it was devised, the court was quite revolutionary: for the very first time, individuals were able to sue and seek damage from their own state before an international instance.
Six decades and 20.000 judgments later, it is apparent that the court took its mission very seriously. To this day, the three countries that were most often convicted are, in descending order, Turkey, Russia and Italy; however, other sates such as France, Belgium, the UK and Germany also got their share of condemnations throughout the years. In 2005, for instance, in Siliadin vs. France, France was found not to have sufficiently protected the plaintiff. She was a Togolese woman who, after travelling to France for her studies, ended up in a private home where her passport was taken away and where she was coerced into working 15 hours a day without pay. The court concluded to a breach of Article 4 of the Convention, which forbids slavery and forced labour. In 2014, in the Vasilescu vs. Belgium case, the court found that Belgium had violated Article 3 of the Convention, which prohibits torture and degrading and inhuman treatments, because of the terrible material conditions (defective access to water, overcrowding, etc.) in which prisoners were detained in two of its prisons.
A Protector of Everyday Rights
Alongside defending those essential and basic rights, the court also took landmark decisions in cases concerning every citizen’s right to private and family life, freedom of thought and religion, freedom of expression, right to not be discriminated, right to enjoy one’s property… Where clashes arise between an employee’s human rights and her employer’s interests, the court always tries, more or less successfully, to strike a fair balance between all of the parties’ interests. For example, in 2013, it ruled in Eweida vs. UK that the British Airline, by completely banning all religious signs in its uniform policy, had crossed a line; the company’s desired image of neutrality was deemed to be of lesser importance than Mrs Eweida’s freedom to carry a Christian cross around her neck. Similarly, in the 2011 Heinisch vs. Germany case, the court protected a whistle-blower, a nurse, who had reported degrading treatments in the home for the elderly where she worked and feared legal suits and dismissal.
Ingeniously, the court has also succeeded in protecting other interests, which were never part of the Convention, by using existing rights: for example, in a series of cases, it used Article 8 of the Convention, prescribing everyone’s right to private and family life, to sanction states that had not taken enough measures to protect citizen’s lives and health from highly polluting industries located near their homes. This way, it started building the framework for a right to a clean environment. This example shows the way in which the court, over the past 60 years, has progressively and successfully given human rights clear content and purpose; once mere intentions, they are now fully fleshed-out, actionable norms, which ought to be complied with by states and have risen human rights standards across the continent and beyond.
Do we still need it?
So, does 2019 Europe really still need a court of human rights? Last year, the court itself reported a worrying increase of cases concerning alleged violations of Article 2 (right to life) and Article 3 (prohibition of torture). Furthermore, as already highlighted in the columns of this newspaper, the noose is tightening around journalists as some of them were, within Europe, recently murdered for having investigated and denounced the corruption and human rights violations of some governments. Hostility against them, partly enhanced by populist leaders, is now simmering everywhere. More generally, the conservative throwback many European countries are currently experiencing are very bad news for human rights, since political agendas founded upon hatred for others and upon increased, albeit fictitious safety have never led to more freedom and more rights; quite the contrary.
Therefore, the answer to our question is yes: we still need a court to defend our most fundamental rights, now maybe more than ever. The European Court of Human Rights still has a lot on its plate, and it might become worse in the upcoming years, as its very existence could eventually be threatened by the proliferation of authoritarian governments. In this context, it might need all the support it can get, and we all have a part to play.
Marie-Sophie is absolving a Master’s in European Law at UM, and has interned at the European Court of Justice. She has been writing for student journalism for years