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Copenhagen: Keeping on Keeping on. A Reply to Mikael Rask Madsen and Jonas Christoffersen on the Draft Copenhagen Declaration

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The debate about the future of the European human rights system is absolutely vital, and with that in mind we venture here to reply to just some of the points made by Mikael Rask Madsen and Jonas Christoffersen in their post about the draft Copenhagen declaration.

Commenting on the position paper recently published by the European Court of Human Rights itself, Madsen and Christoffersen detect a ‘strikingly different tenor’ compared with our comments and those of other academics. However, the Court’s reticent tone is only what one would expect from an international judicial institution, in commenting on draft proposals by a member state of an inter-governmental institution such as the Council of Europe. We would observe that the Court’s apparent cautiousness should not be mistaken for consent to the proposals in the declaration. Indeed, we understand that the draft declaration has caused no little concern within the Council of Europe. We also understand that a number of states have already expressed their serious reservations about the way in which the draft declaration downplays the Court’s oversight, queries its independent judicial role, pronounces on how the Court should interpret and apply the Convention, and questions the principle of the universality of human rights. Closer to home, the Danish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has called for its ‘complete revision’.

Subsidiarity

It is suggested by Madsen and Christoffersen that the declaration is simply codifying recent developments relating to subsidiarity, and they identify ‘an increased demand’ for subsidiarity since the Brighton Declaration. However, in its paper the Court underlines that the concept of subsidiarity is nothing new, and that it is context-dependent – a matter for the Court to assess in each case. (more…)

The European Court of Human Rights’ View of the Draft Copenhagen Declaration

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The draft Copenhagen Declaration has already triggered some debate at this blog. So far the tone has been highly critical. Donald and Leach denounce the Declaration as essentially a tool for institutionalizing undue political pressure on the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that risks jeopardizing the Court – even European human rights at large. Geir and Føllesdal follow suit and declare that the Declaration‘s mantra of dialogue and shared responsibility is a thinly concealed attempt at weakening the court and empowering states.

The Court itself has now published its own Opinion on the draft Declaration and it has a strikingly different tenor than that of the cited academics. That difference, we will argue, is not simply the effect of different institutional roles, but also of a different appreciation of the problems facing the ECtHR in terms of case-load and the need for an enhanced and more structured dialogue between the major stakeholders in the system in order to safeguard the Court’s institutional authority.

In fact, the Court and its President, Guido Raimondi, have very openly recognized that the Court faces two fundamental challenges. In a speech in Nijmegen on 18 November, 2016, he noted that, first, ”the very high number of cases” was ”a cause of great concern to the Court”, but that it faced another fundamental challenge:

“The second challenge is of a different nature. It is essentially a political one. The challenge is to the very idea of the Convention system. It questions the authority, and even the legitimacy of the European Court of Human Rights.”

The draft Copenhagen Declaration is an attempt at addressing precisely these two fundamental challenges: caseload and authority. (more…)

The Draft Copenhagen Declaration: Whose Responsibility and Dialogue?

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Scattered responsibility and Melian dialogue?

The Danish Chairmanship of the Council of Europe has proposed a new installation to the reform saga of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Their recipes sound innocuous: no one can be against ‘sharing responsibility’ for human rights protection, or for improved ‘dialogue’ between the Court and states. Yet some suspect that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; at least it may be so in Denmark. Many fear that in the Danish details, sovereignty will trump human rights protection. Alice Donald and Philip Leach have provided detailed annotations to the Copenhagen draft in support of the criticism of eight NGOs in their joint response of 13 February 2018.

Broader trends and issues in the shadows of subsidiarity merit further attention, lest shared responsibility morphs into no one’s responsibility, and the discursive dialogue turns Melian, allowing state executives to do as they can and leave the Court to judge as it must.

States surely have grounds for concern about international courts, who have grown in numbers, functions and influence. State ambivalence is even greater about the ECtHR that allow individuals to challenge states. Still, some of the recent resisters are surprising. They count not only those with weak traditions for human rights and the rule of law, among the main suppliers of the large backlog of ECtHR cases – 57 350 by 31 January 2018. Vocal critics include Denmark and other states where little is rotten when it comes to human rights. One explanation may be prominent political parties’ general calls to renationalize authority from international institutions, further fueled by perceptions that the ECtHR protects bad people, criminals in particular, and hinders the defense of democracies under threat. (more…)

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Why the Draft Copenhagen Declaration Must be Rewritten

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The Danish Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has issued a draft declaration ahead of the High Level Conference of foreign ministers of the 47 states in Copenhagen on 12-13 April 2018.

Here, we argue that the Draft Copenhagen Declaration poses a grave risk to the independence, integrity and authority of the European Court of Human Rights – and, in turn, to the protection of human rights in Europe – and should be substantially rewritten. Our concerns echo those raised in a detailed joint response to the draft declaration issued by eight non-government organisations that have monitored and participated in the process of ameliorating the Convention system, including at the high-level conference in Kokkedal in November 2017, after which the NGOs expressed disquiet over the proposed approach of the Danish Chairmanship.

That disquiet is borne out by both the tone and content of the draft declaration. While it professes to respect the Court, its leitmotif is a misconstrued understanding of the principle of subsidiarity, which underpins proposals that would seriously infringe on the role and jurisdiction of the Court and potentially expose it to permanent political pressure from states. Moreover, the draft declaration contains errors, contradictions and indeterminate proposals that would, if they are not removed, become dangerous weapons in the hands of those who bear ill-will to the Convention system, undermining it through weak implementation and/or politicised attacks (see here and here).

In so doing, the draft declaration irresponsibly squanders the opportunity to build upon the Brussels Declaration of March 2015 by reinforcing the imperative on states to strengthen national implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and judgments of the Court.

Below, we contextualise the Copenhagen process before explaining our principal concerns about the tenor of this dangerous draft in terms of how it misconstrues subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation, undermines the universality of human rights, and creates channels for states to apply political pressure on the Court. Further, we highlight an unexplained and extremely worrying proposal to remove human rights litigation arising from armed conflict from the Court’s remit. (more…)

Copenhagen – much ado about little?

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The Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted the ‘Copenhagen Declaration’ Friday April 13 concerning the perpetual reform of the European Human Rights System. Previous installments were agreed at Interlaken, Izmir, Brighton and Brussels.

On the face of it not much is new in the Declaration. It is still interesting, not least for what the Ministers agreed not to include from the draft circulated by the hosts April 5. The Danish draft urged states to reign in the Court by a dramatic extension of the ‘margin of appreciation,’ and by more control through political ‘dialogue.’ The robust rejection of these proposals also show us how the Court is independent yet accountable, to states committed both to protect human rights in Europe, and to complex conceptions of sovereignty and subsidiarity.

The agreed declaration is strikingly different:  Instead of being skeptical to the Court’s achievements and its course, the final Declaration is explicitly supportive of the Court and its independence from the states. The large backlog of cases gives reasons for “serious concern”, though the principal problem is not the Court, but rather some states’ failure to implement the Court’s judgments.  (more…)

Can the ECtHR provide an effective remedy following the coup d’état and declaration of emergency in Turkey?

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The question posed in the title of this post has been discussed in various blogs suggesting that recent decisions of the ECtHR rejecting cases for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies have been politically motivated.  I recently discussed this issue at a meeting organised by the Law Society in conjunction with the German Bar Association (DAV) in Berlin on 5th March 2018. 

Let me say from the outset that I will argue that this question, for someone who has worked for many years with the Court (ECtHR) and who has dealt with many Turkish cases, is not the right question to ask.

From my perspective, the right question to ask is not whether the Court is capable of offering an effective remedy to Turkish citizens – of course it is – BUT rather when, and under what circumstances, will the Court offer such an effective remedy? 

As you can readily appreciate, this is a more positive formulation which better accords to reality.  After all, we would not doubt the capacity of the UK Supreme Court or the German Constitutional Court to offer effective remedies for violations of fundamental rights. So, why should we doubt the capacity of the European Court to do so given its proven track record of upholding Convention (ECHR) principles, often in the face of vitriolic criticism from states and others?

Subject to that reservation, I make the following remarks about the matter. (more…)

In the name of the European Club of Liberal Democracies: How to Evaluate the Strasbourg Jurisprudence

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How should the European Court of Human Rights be reformed? Para. 41 of the Copenhagen Declaration of April 2018 seeks to scrutinise, for this purpose, recent developments in its jurisprudence, to decide, before the end of 2019, on further reform (para. 5 Copenhagen Declaration). What is a meaningful idea for such scrutiny? This post provides a legal reconstruction of the Court with respect to who it represents and in whose name it decides, that is in the name of the European club of liberal democracies. From here on, it flags the identity crisis of the club as the Court’s most important challenge. It also shows the procedural margin of appreciation doctrine as a possible path to the Court’s future, with a reformed role that focuses on the essentials of the club.

The focus “in whose name?”

An evaluation of the Court’s jurisprudence needs an idea of its democratic legitimacy, not least because it often confronts elected governments. The question, ‘in whose name’ the Strasbourg Court is deciding, evokes such an idea. Indeed, many national courts state right at the outset that they decide In the name of the people or the republic, whatever is conceived as the ultimate source of their legitimacy. Accordingly, most evaluations of domestic courts start from this premise.

In the judgements of the ECtHR, as those of any international court, nothing of that kind is written. So the question is what could feature in there as a short formula which provides a similar idea? One might consider referring to the Convention. It would then read In the name of the European Convention on Human Rights, as if a domestic court would start with In the name of the law. Yet, this is a step too short: the legitimacy does not stem from the law itself, but from its approval by parliament. Accordingly, the basis of the Court’s democratic legitimacy stems from the national ratifications of the Convention.

Hence, in a normal international controversy between two states, one could consider a court to decide In the name of the high contracting parties litigating before the court. But this makes little sense for the Strasbourg court: most controversies at the ECtHR are between a state and a national of that state. A different formula is needed. (more…)

Climate Change before the Courts: Urgenda Ruling Redraws the Boundary between Law and Politics

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On the 9th of October, the Hague Court of Appeal upheld the first-instance judgment in the Urgenda case, ordering the Dutch State to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more progressively than planned by the government. The appeal judgment was applauded across the world and welcomed as a source of inspiration for climate change litigation in other jurisdictions. At the same time, the ruling has evoked criticism in the Netherlands, where commentators wondered if the court had not overstepped the boundary between law and politics, violating the separation of powers (eg in Dutch here, here, and here). The ruling raises intricate questions concerning the proper role of domestic courts in securing compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in matters of general policy. Arguably, the judgment expands the role of courts beyond what Dutch constitutional law allows them to do, but this expansion fits with the increasing emphasis put on the notion of subsidiarity by the Member States of the Council of Europe.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Human Rights

The Court of Appeal confirmed that by 2020, the Dutch government should have reduced the cumulative volume of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 % compared to the situation in 1990. The government had agreed to a 49 % reduction target for 2030 and a 80-95 % target for 2050 (para 46), but disputed that it was legally obliged to commit to a reduction target of at least 25 % for 2020, in light of the EU’s commitment of 20 %. The appeal court agreed with Urgenda that a reduction of 20 % by 2020 would not be sufficient to meet the 2030 target and that reduction efforts should not be delayed (para 47).

According to the court, the State’s refusal to commit to at least 25 % breached its duty of care under Articles 2 and 8 of the ECHR. In interpreting these Articles, the court ruled that ‘the State has a positive obligation to protect the lives of citizens within its jurisdiction under Article 2 ECHR, while Article 8 ECHR creates the obligation to protect the right to home and private life’ (para 43). The court noted ‘a real threat of dangerous climate change, resulting in the serious risk that the current generation of citizens will be confronted with loss of life and/or a disruption of family life’ (para 45). In this context, the State’s duty of care required a reduction of at least 25 % (para 73). (more…)

A Danish Crusade for the Reform of the European Court of Human Rights

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Tomorrow (15 November) Denmark will take over the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe (CoE). The CoE was established in 1949 and has since adopted numerous treaties, including the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Denmark is a CoE founding member and has traditionally been a strong supporter of human rights. Yet the Danish Government has announced that the chief priority of its chairmanship will be the reform of the European human rights system. This announcement may come as a surprise to the readership of this blog. This post therefore summarises the vicissitudes that have led to the Danish Government’s initiative, and provides some early reflections on its expected impact.

Why does Denmark want a reform?

Immigration has long been a dominant theme in Danish politics. In the late 1990s, the Danish People’s Party (DPP) began to denounce immigration, multiculturalism and Islam as alien to Danish society and values. Since 2001, the DPP has supported various minority coalition governments and gained extensive influence on Denmark’s immigration policy, which is now one of the most restrictive in Europe.

Critique of the ECHR is not new in Denmark, where much debate has focused on the influence of the Convention on the deportation of the foreign criminals. (more…)

The Paris Agreement: A Rejoinder

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In his analysis of the recently adopted Paris Agreement, Professor Jorge Viñuales shed light on the main features of this new treaty. He concludes that, while the Agreement is not perfect, it is certainly ‘more than many of those who have followed the climate negotiations over the years realistically expected.’ I cannot but agree with this assessment: the Paris Agreement is probably the best that could be achieved at this place and time and, given the premises, its adoption as a treaty last December was almost miraculous. This post expands upon a couple of points raised in his analysis, focusing on the legal form of the Paris Agreement, its relationship with the UNFCCC and on the nature of obligations concerning the review of parties’ commitments.

(more…)