On Friday the European Court of Human Rights delivered its Grand Chamber judgment in Catan and Others v. Moldova and Russia, nos. 43370/04, 8252/05 and 18454/06, yet another case on the ECHR’s extraterritorial application, dealing in particular with the Convention’s application to the separatist republic of Trandniestria in Moldova (link to judgment). The case is in effect a sequel to the Court’s earlier judgments on Transdniestria in Ilascu and Ivantoc, this time dealing however with a significantly different factual pattern.
The applicants were Moldovans who lived in Transdniestria and who were at the time of lodging the application pupils at three Moldovan-language schools and their parents. They complained under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention and Article 8 of the Convention, taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14 about the closure of their schools and their harassment by the separatist Transdniestrian authorities. The reason for this harassment was basically a policy of Russification by the Transdniestrian authorities whereby schools in the region could only operate in and teach the Moldovan (i.e. Romanian) language as written in the Cyrillic alphabet, rather than the much more commonly used Latin one. In short, the applicants’ education became embroilled in language politics, very similar for instance to those in the Balkans.
What makes this case particularly interesting is the relationship between Article 1 ECHR notion of state jurisdiction, as the threshold for the existence of (all or some) state obligations under the Convention, and the attribution of conduct under the secondary rules of the law of state responsibility. In Ilascu, paras 392-3, the Court held that
[T]he “MRT” [Transdniestria], set up in 1991-92 with the support of the Russian Federation, vested with organs of power and its own administration, remains under the effective authority, or at the very least under the decisive influence, of the Russian Federation, and in any event that it survives by virtue of the military, economic, financial and political support given to it by the Russian Federation. … [T]here is a continuous and uninterrupted link of responsibility on the part of the Russian Federation for the applicants’ fate, as the Russian Federation’s policy of support for the regime and collaboration with it continued beyond 5 May 1998, and after that date the Russian Federation made no attempt to put an end to the applicants’ situation brought about by its agents, and did not act to prevent the violations allegedly committed after 5 May 1998.
Ilascu was notable for several reasons. First, it apparently applied the spatial model of Article 1 jurisdiction as control of an area while lowering the threshold of the needed control (the ‘decisive influence’ bit). Secondly, it completely confused jurisdiction with responsibility; it was utterly unclear from the case whether the Court considered all acts of the MRT to be attributable to Russia, apparently on the basis of a sui generis rule on attribution of conduct that hardly seemed compliant with the ILC’s work on state responsibility or the jurisprudence of the ICJ, or rather whether Russia was held responsible for failing to comply with a positive obligation to prevent human rights violations by non-state actors (the MRT) operating in an area under its jurisdiction. Third, the Court also found that Moldova had positive obligations in the MRT despite having lost control of the territory, a (human rights-friendly) ruling that in my view compromised the purely factual nature of the Art 1 jurisdictional tests for the sake of a rather vague positive obligation which did not amount to much in practice anyway.
Here comes Catan, which provided the Court with the opportunity to revisit some of these points. What distinguishes Catan and Ilascu is primarily the lapse in time with regard to the facts of the two cases, during which Russia’s control over Transdniestria arguably decreased. Moreover, unlike in Ilascu Russian authorities had no involvement in the harassment of the applicants and the interference with their right to education. The Court thus had to build upon Ilascu, and that it did, producing a rather mixed (if again human rights-friendly) outcome. In brief, it found that both Moldova and Russia retained jurisdiction over Transdniestria; that Moldova this time did comply with its positive obligations; but that Russia was to be held reponsible for a violation of Art 2 of Protocol 1, and was as a consequence liable for significant damages.
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