The European Court of Human Rights, or ECtHR, is an iconic institution that allows individuals to hold states to account. Based in Strasbourg, France, it was established in 1959, and has since then served as a last resort to people whose rights have been violated under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was in turn developed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Court is housed in the imposing Human Rights Building, which was designed by the British architect Richard Rogers. The building itself is said to resemble the scales of justice when viewed from the front, whilst the exposed concrete, glass and metal structures represent the transparency and accessibility of justice. The foyer of the building comprises a tubular metal frame in blue, white and red, which could be a nod to the host country’s flag, or even a tribute to Rogers’ Union Jack.
Although the Court receives hundreds of letters and phone calls daily from people across the continent, the vast majority of these applications are rejected, since applicants have to first raise cases before their own national court. However, if an application is deemed to be admissible, the judges of the Court will decide whether there has been a violation of the ECHR and award due compensation. Currently, there are 47 judges in the ECtHR, one for each of the member states of the Council of Europe. These judges are elected, fully independent and are prohibited from representing any institutional or national interests.
The rights and freedoms contained in the ECHR include the right to life, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. With about 820 million people across Europe covered by the convention, the Court’s reach makes it an incredibly influential and relevant bastion of power in the world of law today. Moreover, in some cases the convention will protect non-Europeans as well, such as refugees or people who happen to be in the jurisdiction of a member state. For example, in Hirsi Jamaa and Others vs Italy (2012), the Court ruled that Italy had violated the convention in dealing with Somali and Eritrean migrants travelling from Libya. In returning them to Libya, the Italian Government were found to have knowingly exposed them to danger and ill-treatment, resulting in the Court awarding each applicant around €16,000 in compensation.
In exceptional cases, the scope of the convention and hence the powers of the Court can also extend beyond physical European borders, such as in the case of Al-Skeini and Others vs the UK (2011). During a security operation in 2003, British soldiers had been involved in Iraqi civilian deaths, but the UK government decided not to conduct inquiries into or accept liability for them. The Court held that as an occupying power responsible for maintaining security in the region, the UK should have conducted an investigation into the deaths, and had hence breached the convention by failing to do so. Finally, the ECtHR can rule against the actions of non-member states if they took place in a member state with their knowledge. For example, in El Masri vs the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2012), the Court found Macedonia responsible for the torture of a suspected terrorist at the hands of the CIA. Since the Macedonian government knew about the treatment of El Masri on their territory but did nothing to stop it, they were ordered to pay the applicant €60,000 in compensation.
the powers of the Court can also extend beyond physical European borders
It is therefore clear that the European Court of Human Rights is, and will continue to be, an iconic legal institution that wields global influence. Not only has it prompted changes in national legislation, but it also directly affects the lives of individuals within its jurisdiction by opening the way for retrials, restitution and compensation – sometimes even by releasing individuals who were detained unlawfully. We have also seen how the Court’s decisions may have a hand in shaping the legal regime of the future when it comes to ruling on difficult and controversial issues. However, the Court has stressed the importance of the principle of subsidiarity – all member states must first and foremost apply the convention at national level, and governments are responsible for ensuring that it is respected in their own countries. Whilst the Court has helped protect thousands of applicants, they are, ultimately, a last resort, reinforcing the significance of their decisions. Although it may be rooted in Europe, the world is always watching.