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A Court that Dare Not Speak its Name: Human Rights at the Court of Justice

Published on May 7, 2018        Author: 

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Editor’s Comment: The adequacy of the ECJ jurisprudence in the area of human rights has been the subject of extensive critical comment in recent times, not least since its much commented upon decision in Opinion 2/13. I have invited one of the most authoritative, knowledgeable and sober voices in the EU law interpretative community, Daniel Sarmiento to contribute a Guest Editorial on this topic. We are honoured to publish it in this issue. 

‘We are not a human rights court.’ This phrase has been repeated over and again by judges and advocates general of the Court of Justice of the EU for many years. To the question of why does the Court not rely more on Strasbourg case law on human rights in the field of, say, competition, the reply was a classic: ‘we are not a human rights court’. If the Court was accused of ignoring international human rights instruments in cases with a strong tie with international law, the response sounded familiar: ‘we are not a human rights court’. If human rights were put aside or restricted in the name of free movement rules, the explanation was always ready to go: ‘we are not a human rights court’.

Indeed, the Court of Justice was not designed in its early days to be a human rights court, but its current role as the lead player of the European judicial landscape has put it in an unprecedented situation. There is no area of policy that escapes the scrutiny of the Court of Justice: the digital world has found in the Court an uncompromising upholder of private life that will not tolerate intrusions in the sphere of individuals’ privacy; the effectiveness of asylum policy depends on the Court’s readiness to interpret asylum rules as procedural or substantial guarantees in light of human rights; consumers throughout the continent rely on the Court’s judgments to rule on how banks, digital titans or retailers treat their clients; criminal procedures have come under the umbrella of EU harmonization instruments, putting the Court in a privileged position to set standards and guarantees of criminal procedure in all Member States.

These are only a few examples of how the Court has been transformed from a modest international jurisdiction into a supranational hegemon, whose decisions have a direct and significant impact on the rights and lives of millions of Europeans. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: Editorials, EJIL