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The Downing of MH17 and the Potential Involvement of International Courts

Published on July 22, 2014        Author: 

I do not at all want to trivialize the human tragedy that is the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine last week, nor for that matter the parallel unfolding tragedies on the ground in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza, by engaging in some premature lawyerly analysis. But, in reading on the unfolding story of the aircraft’s demise, I nonetheless couldn’t help but think how that story is very likely to find its epilogue in an international courtroom. The facts of MH17′s destruction are obviously far from clear, and are not going to become much clearer in the near future, but the number of possible scenarios is limited – the aircraft was (most likely) destroyed by Ukrainian rebels with Russian-supplied weapons, or (less likely) by either Ukranian or Russian state agents (who may have acted ultra vires). And not only did the downing of MH17 deepen a major existing international crisis, but it directly affected a number of states other than Ukraine and Russia, such as Malaysia and the Netherlands, not to mention the families of the victims themselves. This raises both the incentives and the opportunities for international litigation, in addition to whatever proceedings may ensue before domestic courts or international fact-finding missions.

Consider, first, the possibility that a case or cases regarding MH17 might end up before the European Court of Human Rights. Both Russia and Ukraine are of course parties to the ECHR, and readers will recall that one of the first acts of the new government in Kiev in response to the Crimea crisis was to lodge an inter-state application against Russia in Strasbourg, on which the Court ordered provisional measures. It is perfectly possible for the downing of MH17 to be an issue in the existing or a new inter-state case, or indeed one brought by a third state, such as the Netherlands, since the majority of the victims had Dutch nationality. And obviously the families of the victims may also bring individual applications against either Russia or Ukraine.

In addition to whatever direct involvement these states may have had in the destruction of the aircraft, they could also be held liable for other internationally wrongful acts. For example, Ukraine could be responsible for failing to secure the right to life of the victims and failing to comply with its substantive positive obligations under Article 2 ECHR by deciding not to close the relevant airspace for civilian traffic. Russia could be held responsible for providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry without sufficient safeguards (e.g. appropriate training of the missile crews), thus creating the risk that this weaponry could be used against civilian targets. Both states could be held responsible for failing to secure an effective investigation into the incident. Obviously the facts could yet develop and some very complex preliminary issues could arise (e.g. the extent of Russia’s control over the Ukrainian rebels and the question of the ECHR’s extraterritorial application), but all these points seem arguable.

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OHCHR Publishes Report on Surveillance and Privacy in the Digital Age

Published on July 18, 2014        Author: 

Readers will recall that in its resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age the UN General Assembly had requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report for the next GA session on the various issues raised by mass electronic surveillance and the human right to privacy (see here for our previous coverage). An advance edited version of that report (A/HRC/27/37) is now available here. The report is rich, thoughtful and very much pro-privacy in the surveillance context, albeit not in a blind, fundamentalist way. It reaffirms that the right to privacy, as set out in Article 17 ICCPR or Article 8 ECHR, provides a framework within which the legality of surveillance measures needs to be assessed. While it acknowledges the legitimate governmental interests that surveillance may serve, it finds the existing institutional and legal arrangements in many states wanting and in need of further study and reform. Here are some of the highlights:

- It is important to consider linkages with other possible human rights violations, e.g. the collection of intelligence through surveillance that is later used for an unlawful targeted killing (para. 14).

- Interferences with the privacy of electronic communication cannot be justified by reference to some supposedly voluntary surrender of privacy on the Internet by individual users (para. 18).

- Collection of communications metadata can be just as bad in terms of privacy interference as the collection of the content of the communication (para. 19).

- Because of the chilling effect of surveillance: ‘The very existence of a mass surveillance programme thus creates an interference with privacy.’ (para. 20).

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S.A.S. v France: Living Together or Increased Social Division?

Published on July 7, 2014        Author: 

On 1 July, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has delivered, in a public hearing, its judgment in the case of S.A.S. v France. This case is a challenge of the French legislation prohibiting the wearing of face-covering clothing in all public spaces. In a post on this blog, Stephanie Berry discusses the case and points out a number of positive developments, including the balanced and well-reasoned nature of the judgment, the rejection of the gender equality and human dignity arguments for the burqaban, as she refers to the French law, and the consideration that this ban was not necessary for public safety in the absence of concrete evidence. However, Berry criticises the ECtHR for accepting that the ban pursues the legitimate aim of ‘living together’ under the ‘protection of the rights and freedoms of others’. Berry points out that this concept pursues a distinctly assimilationist agenda. I agree with Berry that this is a worrying development. In this post, I examine this concept of ‘living together’ in more detail and explain why this is such a worrying development. I will not discuss other aspects of the judgment.

First of all, what does this concept mean? The ECtHR mentions that the ‘Report on the wearing of the full-face veil on national territory’ criticises the wearing of the full-face veil as ‘a practice at odds with the values of the Republic’ and as ‘a denial of fraternity, constituting a negation of contact with others and a flagrant infringement of the French principle of living together’ (para. 17). It also refers to the explanatory memorandum to the relevant law, which states that ‘the wearing of the full veil is the sectarian manifestation of a rejection of the values of the Republic’; that ‘the voluntary and systematic concealment of the face is problematic because it is quite simply incompatible with the fundamental requirements of “living together” in French society’; and, that it ‘falls short of the minimum requirement of civility necessary for social interaction’ (para. 25). The French Government stated that one of the aims of the law was the observance of the minimum requirements of life in society because the face plays a significant role in human interaction, and the effect of concealing one’s face in public places is to break the social tie and to manifest a refusal of the principle of ‘living together’ (para 82, and for a similar argument from the Belgian government: para. 87).

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SAS v France: Does Anything Remain of the Right to Manifest Religion?

Published on July 2, 2014        Author: 

Niqab23The finding by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in SAS v France that the so-called ‘French burqa ban’ did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) will not surprise many in the field of human rights. However, the judgment itself contains a number of developments and departures from the Court’s previous jurisprudence that warrant further consideration. In particular, the conclusion that the right to manifest religion may be restricted on the ground of ‘living together’ presents a worrying development, if this right is to have any practical meaning. (photo credit)

In SAS v France, the applicant challenged the French Loi no 2010–1192 interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public of 11 October 2010, JO 12 October 2010 (herein after the ‘burqa ban’), which prohibits the covering of the face in public. The case differs from previous cases concerning the right of Muslim women to manifest religion by wearing religious attire, as the law imposed a blanket ban which extended to the social sphere. The applicant argued that by preventing her from wearing the burqa the ban violated her rights under articles 3, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 14 ECHR. The ECtHR completely dismissed her claims under articles 3, 10 and 11 ECHR, and focused its attention on articles 8, 9 and 14 ECHR, with a notable emphasis on article 9, the right to freedom of religion or belief.

The ECtHR’s judgment in SAS v France, for the most part, is balanced, well-reasoned and provides a thorough consideration of the French government’s justifications for the restriction of the applicant’s right to manifest her religion: public safety and ‘respect for the minimum set of values of an open and democratic society’. The latter category comprises three separate elements: gender equality, human dignity and ‘respect for the minimum requirements of life in society’ or ‘living together’. Whilst public safety is found within articles 8(2) and 9(2) ECHR, as noted by the ECtHR,  ‘respect for the minimum set of values of an open and democratic society’ does not correspond with any of the permissible limitations on article 8 and 9 ECHR (paras 116-7). Consequently, the ECtHR interpreted this justification as falling with the broad ‘protection of the rights and freedoms of others’ (para 117).

While the ECtHR established that the ‘burqa ban’ was prescribed by law (para 112), it did not accept that the ban pursued the ‘legitimate aims’ of gender equality and human dignity (paras 119-120). Specifically, in the context of gender equality, the ECtHR took ‘the view, … that a State Party cannot invoke gender equality in order to ban a practice that is defended by women – such as the applicant – in the context of the exercise of the rights enshrined in those provisions’ (para 119). This marks a significant departure from the ECtHR’s jurisprudence in the hijab cases. InDahlab v Switzerlandthe ECtHR had held that the hijab ‘appears to be imposed on women by a precept which is laid down in the Koran and which … is hard to square with the principle of gender equality’ . However, this approach was the subject of criticism, most notably by Judge Tulkens in her dissenting opinion in Leyla Şahın v Turkey:

It is not the Court’s role to make an appraisal of this type – in this instance a unilateral and negative one – of a religion or religious practice, just as it is not its role to determine in a general and abstract way the signification of wearing the headscarf or to impose its viewpoint on the applicant. (para 12)

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Eroding Religious Freedom Step by Step: France and the Baby Loup Case

Published on July 1, 2014        Author: 

cour de cassationLast Wednesday, the French Cour de Cassation (pictured left), in the Baby Loup case, permitted yet another restriction to be placed on the right to manifest religion in France.  The applicant had been fired from her job at Baby Loup, a private crèche and nursery, for violating the organisation’s rules of procedure. By wearing the hijab, the applicant purportedly breached the rule that

the principle of freedom of conscience and of religion of each staff member may not impede respect for the principles of laïcité [secularism] and neutrality that apply in the exercise of developmental activities, either on the premises of the crèche or during outside activities in which staff accompany children enrolled in the crèche.

The applicant will now take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The decision of the Cour de Cassation in Baby Loup is made all the more significant by the pending judgment in SAS v France, due to be handed down by the ECtHR today. Will the ECtHR continue to permit the creeping erosion of the right to manifest religion (article 9 European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)) by deferring to the State’s margin of appreciation?

The decision of the Cour de Cassation was based on Articles L. 1121-1 and L. 1321-3 of France’s Labour Code, which require any restrictions on an employee’s freedom of religion to be proportionate and justified by the nature of the employment. The Courtfound that the private nursery could not justify the restriction of the freedom of religion of the employee by direct reference to the principle of laïcité, as the principle applies only to public bodies. Nonetheless, it was willing to accept that the adoption of the principle of laïcité in the organisation’s rules of procedure was designed to protect children and to promote gender equality, rather than promoting and defending laïcité as a religious, political or philosophical belief. Consequently, the Cour de Cassation found that the restriction on the applicant’s freedom of religion was permissible.

The ECtHR is also likely to consider whether the freedom of religion of the applicant in Baby Loup can be justified by either the principle of secularism or ‘the rights and freedoms of others’ (article 9(2) ECHR). The recent cases of Ahmet Arslan and others v Turkey and Eweida and others v United Kingdom are directly relevantas previous ECtHR cases addressing the restriction of the right to manifest religion in the private sphere.

Ahmet Arslan concerned the arrest of members of the Aczimendi tankaı religious community for wearing religious clothing in public. The ECtHR found that the restrictions placed on the community by the authorities could not be justified by reference to the principle of secularism as the applicants were not State officials (para 48) and were not wearing religious clothing in a State institution such as a State school (para 49). Thus, Ahmet Arslan limits the circumstances in which States may justify the restriction of freedom of religion on the grounds of the principle of secularism to public officials and institutions. Consequently, it seems unlikely that France will be able to rely on the principle of laïcité in the Baby Loup case, as the nursery was a private organisation. Read the rest of this entry…

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Keep Calm and Call (no, not Batman but …) Articles 31-32 VCLT: A Comment on Istrefi’s Recent Post on R.M.T. v. The UK

Published on June 19, 2014        Author: 

Panos MerkourisPanos Merkouris, LL.M (Athens) 2004; LL.M (UCL, London) 2005; Dr. iur. (Queen Mary, London) 2010 is Lecturer in Public International Law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Groningen.

In a recent post on R.M.T. v. The UK: Expanding Article 11 of the ECHR Through Systemic Integration’ Kushtrim Istrefi raises important issues with respect to the application and content of Article 31(3)(c) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). Although I agree with the general conclusion that Article 31(3)(c) is not a panacea and should not be used as a backdoor for judicial activism, I think it pertinent to highlight certain issues as to the manner in which this conclusion is reached and in particular regarding the presumed content of Article 31(3)(c).

Firstly, let me clarify that this post is not about evolutive interpretation to which the ECtHR seems to be partial. Nonetheless, I agree with Eirik Bjorge’s comment to the above post, that this idea of ECHR as a living instrument is included in the preamble (‘…further realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms’). Furthermore, the connection of evolutive interpretation with Article 31(3)(c) is particularly evident in ‘generic terms’. A ‘generic term’ can be understood either as ouverture du texte or renvoi mobile (Georgopoulos (2004) 108 RGDIP 132-134). In the former case, the openness of the term allows the content of the norm to change alongside the factual situation contemplated (‘evolution of fact’). Such an interpretation probably falls under Article 31(1). In the case of renvoi mobile, the norm, whenever interpreted, reflects the ‘evolution of the law’. As the law changes so does the content of that norm. In this case, evolutive interpretation could be understood as also being based on Article 31(3)(c).

Kushtrim’s main argument is that because ILO Convention No. 87 and the European Social Charter (ESC) are not binding on all member States of the Council of Europe (CoE), they probably do not fall within the scope of Article 31(3)(c). This conclusion is based on a restrictive interpretation of Article 31(3)(c), which holds that the Article should be read as ‘any relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties to the treaty’ and not expansively, as ‘…between the parties to the dispute’. This restrictive interpretation allegedly finds support in EC-Biotech:

7.68… This understanding of the term “the parties” leads logically to the view that the rules of international law to be taken into account in interpreting the WTO agreements at issue in this dispute are those which are applicable in the relations between the WTO Members…

7.69 … Accordingly, based on our interpretation of Article 31(3)(c), we do not consider that in interpreting the relevant WTO agreements we are required to take into account other rules of international law which are not applicable to one of the Parties to this dispute.

With respect to this restrictive interpretation I would like to raise the following three issues: Read the rest of this entry…

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Gray v. Germany and the Extraterritorial Positive Obligation to Investigate

Published on May 28, 2014        Author: 

Last week a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights decided Gray v. Germany, no. 49278/09. The applicants were the sons of a British man who died in the UK after a doctor gave him the wrong drugs on a house visit. The doctor was German, and was hired by the UK National Health Service to provide out-of-hours home service to NHS patients. The doctor returned to Germany after the applicants’ father’s death. After a criminal malpractice investigation was conducted in the UK, Germany refused to extradite the doctor on the basis that criminal proceedings would ex officio take place in Germany. Those proceedings were later summarily completed, with the doctor sentenced to a fine, without notifying the applicants that the case would be disposed of summarily. The applicants claimed that this violated the procedural limb of Article 2 ECHR, read jointly with the overarching Article 1 obligation to secure human rights.

For various reasons, the Court rejected the applicants’ claim on the merits. But what makes this case interesting is that neither the German government, nor the Court sua sponte, thought that there was any Article 1 jurisdiction issue in saying that Germany had the positive obligation to investigate an unintentional death that took place in the United Kingdom, and at that at the hands of a private individual. Look at just how broad this position is – broader, indeed, than what I have argued for, since in my view a positive obligation would only apply if the death took place in an area controlled by the state or with state involvement.

Again, neither the Court nor the German government apparently thought that any Article 1 problem arose, presumably because the doctor was on German territory even though the applicant’s father had been in the UK. This well shows how in the small, politically unimportant cases people just tend to follow the universalist impulse and are oblivious to the existence of threshold applicability problems. Note, however, that the Court must ex officio confirm that the Convention applies and accordingly mind that it has subject-matter jurisdiction. If the issue was raised perhaps the Court would have decided it differently, but even so the case stands for the proposition that ECHR states parties have the duty to investigate even accidental deaths that took place outside any area under their control if the alleged perpetrator is located in such an area.

Stated in these terms, the implications of such an expansive approach are I think clear. Remember Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in London, ostensibly at the hands of Russian agents? His family took a case against Russia to Strasbourg, which (I’ve been told) is on standby while issues around possible inquiry proceedings are being resolved in the UK. Suddenly that case becomes much easier for the applicants – regardless of whether the radioactive poison was administered by a Russian agent, if the alleged perpetrator is in Russia then Russia would have an Article 2 obligation to investigate. Similarly, if say a British tourist killed somebody in Thailand but then managed to escape back to the UK, the family of the deceased person in Thailand would have Article 2 rights vis-à-vis the UK and the UK would have to investigate the death, at least if it refused extradition. And this approach would a fortiori apply to cases where there is state involvement, e.g. when a soldier kills a civilian in an area not under the state’s effective control, but later returns to the state’s own territory.

In short, the Court seems to have actually created a comprehensive aut dedere, aut judicare principle under the ECHR, that applies even to unintentional taking of life, and probably did so unwittingly. Obviously we’ll have to wait and see whether Gray will have such an impact, or whether the Court will somehow manage to reverse course.

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Crimea after Cyprus v. Turkey: Just Satisfaction for Unlawful Annexation?

Published on May 19, 2014        Author: 

On 13 March 2014 Ukraine lodged an inter-state application under Article 33 of the European Convention against the Russian Federation. Philip Leach has addressed in this forum the likely implications, suggesting that the occupation of Crimea will present a situation for the European Court similar to that in Ilaşcu v. Moldova and Russia.

The other decided case of the European Court that writers are speculating may be relevant to Ukraine is Cyprus v. Turkey. The Court’s just satisfaction judgment in Cyprus v. Turkey, adopted on 12 May 2014, is the first ever to award just satisfaction in an inter-State case under the Convention. Judge Pinto de Albuquerque and Judge Vučinić declared the judgment “the most important contribution to peace in Europe in the history of the European Court of Human Rights.”

What is important about Cyprus v. Turkey? And how, if at all, might Ukraine use the just satisfaction judgment to advance its own application against Russia?

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The Successes and Challenges for the European Court, Seen from the Outside

Published on May 14, 2014        Author: 

Helfer photo croppedLaurence R. Helfer is the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law and Co-director of the Center for International and Comparative Lawat Duke University.

Cross-posted on AJIL Unbound.

In this post I wish to address the successes and challenges for the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), as seen from the outside.  I will take this opportunity to draw upon my research on human rights systems outside of Europe to explain how these systems have responded to some of the same challenges now facing the Council of Europe and the ECtHR.  My main contention is that international human rights courts, wherever they are located, require sustained political and material support if they are to thrive and grow over time.

I will illustrate my points with examples from the Inter-American and African courts of human rights and from lesser-known courts of sub-regional legal systems in Africa—the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).  The judges of these courts often look to ECtHR case law for guidance.  They are also aware of the high level of political and material support for the Strasbourg supervisory system.  Just as these courts have drawn inspiration from the ECtHR, so too those who will shape the Court’s long-term future should consider both the achievements and the challenges that these regional and sub-regional systems have faced.  In describing these positive and negative developments, I will focus on three issues—the evolution of human rights jurisprudence, the politics of compliance with court judgments, and government resistance and backlash.

I will begin with jurisprudential trends.  The innovative doctrines and principles pioneered by judges in Strasbourg are alive and well in other human rights systems.  Interpretive tools such as the evolutionary nature of human rights, the presumption that rights must be practical and effective, the creative and strategic approach to remedies, and cross-fertilization of legal norms are commonplace in the case law of all regional and sub-regional courts.  For example, Inter-American judges have applied these doctrines in several types of cases, including the obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of past human rights violations, the prohibition of amnesty for such violations, the rights of LGBT persons, and affirmative measures to combat violence against womenMtikila v. Tanzania, the first merits judgment of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights decided in 2013, analyzes the decisions of the other two regional human rights courts and the U.N. Human Rights Committee to support its conclusion that a ban on independent candidates standing for election violates the African Charter.  Among the most striking examples of creative legal interpretation appear in the case law of the East African Court of Justice and the SADC Tribunal.  The judges of those courts have cited references to human rights, the rule of law and good governance in the principles and objectives clauses of treaties establishing the economic communities to justify expanding their jurisdiction to include human rights.

These capacious interpretations have broadened the scope and reach of international human rights law.  But they have also engendered significant compliance challenges.  All other things equal, the more expansive and far-reaching remedies a court requires, the greater the likelihood of delay or resistance in implementing its judgments—in terms of political will, capacity, and commitment of resources.  The Inter-American Court has by far the most ambitious approach to remedies, often specifying in exquisite detail the measures states must adopt.  Governments have responded by implementing the easier and less politically costly remedies, with the result that partial compliance with the Inter-American Court’s judgments is now commonplace. Read the rest of this entry…

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R.M.T. v. The UK: Expanding Article 11 of the ECHR Through Systemic Integration

Published on May 12, 2014        Author: 

Court building exterior - autumn Medium PortraitOn 8 April 2014, the ECtHR rendered a decision in the RMT v. the UK. The case represents an example of using systemic integration as a tool of judicial activism. In applying Article 31(3)(c) VCLT, the Court expanded rights under Article 11(1) ECHR through international instruments that were not binding on all parties to the Convention. This approach adds to the perplexity of the effects of the principle of systemic integration.

In the RMT case, the ECtHR responded to the novel question of whether secondary action—or the so-called sympathy strike that is performed by a trade union in support of the cause of another group of strikers involved in a dispute—comes within the scope of Article 11(1) of the Convention. The Court ruled in the affirmative by relying exclusively on international instruments that recognize secondary action as part of trade union freedom. Although the Court considered that a different outcome could have been reached if one read the wording of Article 11(1) on its own (para 76), it deemed that

the Convention cannot be interpreted in a vacuum but must be interpreted in harmony with… any relevant rules of international law applicable in relations between the parties, and in particular the rules concerning the international protection of human rights.

Referring to Article 31(3)(c) VCLT, the Court utilized the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 87 and the European Social Charter (ESC) to conclude that secondary action formed part of Article 11(1) of the Convention. The Court viewed that such reception of international law was in line with the Demir and Baykara judgment, which read in the relevant part as follows:

[t]he Court, in defining the meaning of terms and notions in the text of the Convention, can and must take into account elements of international law other than the Convention, the interpretation of such elements by competent organs, and the practice of European States reflecting their common values.

Against that background, the Court continued, Read the rest of this entry…

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