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Inter-State Applications under the European Convention on Human Rights: Strengths and Challenges

Published on January 24, 2020        Author:  and


This post provides, in broad strokes, an overview of human rights litigation via the inter-State application procedure under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as well as its strengths and challenges. In the last seven decades, States have referred 24 situations to the former Commission and to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Certainly, compared to some 750,000 individual applications, the number looks small. However, the inter-State applications have had an impact for a large number of individuals. Many of the cases also had important political ramifications and shaped the present supervisory architecture of the Convention.

The ECtHR full list of inter-State cases reveals a considerable rise of applications, with currently eight pending sets of proceedings: the 2008 armed conflict between Georgia and the Russian Federation is before the Court in Georgia v Russia II. The case has reached the merits stage, the admissibility decision was taken back in 2011. Georgia v Russia (IV) was lodged in 2018 and is pending at the admissibility stage. It relates to the alleged deterioration of the human rights situation along the boundary between Georgian-controlled territory and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ukraine has, since 2014, lodged a total of eight inter-State application against Russia before the ECHR, five of which are currently pending in Strasbourg. In those cases, no formal admissibility decision has been rendered yet. In the case of Ukraine v Russia(re Crimea) the Court had a hearing on the admissibility in September 2019. Slovenia brought a case against Croatia in 2016 that concerns the consequences of the breakup of Former Yugoslavia. In that case, the Court will render an admissibility decision after it held a hearing in June 2019, as anticipated on this blog by Igor Popović. Notably, two of the sets of cases involve Russia and human rights in situations of sovereignty disputes and armed conflict. Overall, the thrust of work in these inter-State proceedings still lies ahead of the Court.

State-to-State litigation based on human rights treaties is on the upswing also in the framework of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is currently dealing with three inter-State communications, as David Keane reported on this blog. In the most recent December session, the Committee decided that it has jurisdiction regarding the inter-State communication submitted by the State of Palestine against Israel.

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How International Law Restricts the Use of Military Force in Hormuz

Published on August 27, 2019        Author: 

We await whether an allied action will protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, and whether it will be led by the USA or by European states. The UK’s new government will support US action, while at least some other European states are reluctant to be seen as supporters of US aggressive policy towards Iran. Political arguments aside, there are important international law concerns with participation in such action, whether American or European-led (see also this recent post by Hartwig).

Absence of a Security Council mandate

The first concern is that such an action would not have a UN mandate. The Security Council can authorize military actions to ensure peace and security, even setting aside other rules of international law. Admittedly, protection of shipping might not fall under the Security Council’s competencies to maintain peace and security. Regardless, a mandate for a military action in the Persian Gulf is in any case politically unlikely.

The law of the sea

Without a mandate from the Security Council, there are strong arguments against the legality of such action. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: Law of the Sea, Self Defence
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Copenhagen – much ado about little?

Published on April 14, 2018        Author:  and

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.  Read the rest of this entry…


The Draft Copenhagen Declaration: Whose Responsibility and Dialogue?

Published on February 22, 2018        Author:  and

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. Read the rest of this entry…


Constitutionalization: What is the value added?

Published on July 19, 2010        Author: 

First of all: thanks for the thoughtful comments by Daniel Bodansky, and Jeffrey Dunoff and Joel Trachtmann. As I read them, they are not rejecting constitutionalization as a useful approach to the study of international law. This does not, however, mean that they subscribe to everything that is said in The Constitutionalization of International Law. I will take up some of their main concerns and objections – which does not commit my co-authors.

I have emphasized the public law character of international constitutionalization, i.e. that empowered international institutions should be under constitutional control, in the form of democratic guarantees, rule of law, and protection of human rights. Our book is a thought experiment in asking how a constitutionalized world could look like. There is an underlying assumption that the world is becoming more constitutionalized. But the book does not represent an empirical study of this process and its causes. It is more concerned with the normative issues: what kind of constitutional guarantees should balance the increasing empowerment of international institutions?

This does not mean that we are fully occupied with enjoying the Lotus garden at the expense of hard work, as Dunoff and Trachtman suggest. First, the development of a constitutional perspective and its possible consequences represent in itself hard work. This is what we have tried to do in the book. But, second, although we have not undertaken an empirical study in this book, this does not mean that we dismiss the value of such studies. On the contrary, empirical studies are welcome and necessary. It is important to examine how different institutions, including international courts, are organized and function from a constitutional perspective. Such studies should form the basis for any concrete normative proposals. Read the rest of this entry…

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Empowerment and Constitutional Control

Published on July 14, 2010        Author: 

Professor Geir Ulfstein is Professor in the Department of Public and International Law, University of Oslo

International institutions exercise more and more power. This is not limited to foreign policy issues, such as international security or trade, but increasingly also to issues traditionally under exclusive domestic control, such as the relationship between states and their citizens. Furthermore, the distinction between what should be considered international and domestic is becoming irrelevant.

International lawyers have traditionally focused on the need for effective international institutions. This is no less important today. But with increased international powers comes the need for control. The original consent in the form of ratification to treaties establishing international institutions is seen as insufficient to justify their power. A constitutional approach emphasizes the relationship between empowerment and control.

This is not to say that treaties are formal constitutions. Treaties, including those establishing international institutions, are agreements, and states are free to choose whether to become parties or not. But states may in practice have little choice if they want to influence policy-making in the institutions, to reap the benefits of membership, or to be regarded as an actor of good standing in the international society. Neither should the claim to superiority be seen as a necessary part of a constitutional order. Furthermore, the focus should not only be upon formalized rules in the form of treaties. Also legal practice forms part of a legal order.

A fundamental question relates to ‘translation’: To what extent is it useful to apply constitutional principles developed for domestic legal orders to international institutions? A response would be that since such institutions exercise powers comparable to, and partly at the expense of, national constitutional organs, they should be subject to comparable control. This does not mean that the constitutional principles should be imported whole cloth. But certain fundamental principles such as democratic control, rule of law and the protection of human rights are also relevant for the international institutional order. It is of course possible to examine the way in which international institutions respect each of these requirements separately. Such an approach misses, however, the need to see the inter-action between the principles.

Constitutionalism can be of a descriptive and normative character. It can be used to legitimize international institutions that do not deserve it. More important is, however, the critical potential of constitutionalism. A constitutional approach can be used to hold international institutions to account in requiring that they fulfil certain basic requirement when they exercise their powers. In the following, international organizations and courts will be examined from a constitutional perspective (chapters 2 and 4 of  The Constitutionalization of International Law). Read the rest of this entry…

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