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Drėlingas v. Lithuania (ECHR): Ethno-Political Genocide Confirmed?

Published on April 15, 2019        Author: 
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The European Court of Human Rights on 12th of March issued a judgment in the case of Drėlingas v. Lithuania (Application no. 28859/16). The case at the ECHR was considered under Article 7 and focused on the principle of nullum crimen sine lege. However, in broader terms this case dealt with the definition of genocide, and the protected group issue in particular. This judgement continues a series of judgements related to Soviet mass repressions in the Baltic States after they were occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union and “sovietised” in a most brutal way from 1940 up to Stalin’s death in 1953. In fact, this case is a continuation of the case Vasiliauskas v. Lithuania (Application no. 35343/05), discussed on this blog previously

The main facts of the Drėlingas case are as follows: Drėlingas was an operative of the soviet repression structures (MGB/KGB) and in 1956 he participated in the arrest of one of the most famous anti-soviet armed resistance (partisans) leaders – A. R. (nome de guerre “Vanagas”) and his wife B. M. “Vanda”. After being captured, Vanagas was horribly tortured, maimed, then tried by the Soviet court and eventually executed, his wife was deported to Siberia. These events happened after the active armed resistance was almost over, while Vanagas and his wife were still on the run. After restoring Lithuania’s independence in 1990, Drėlingas was put on trial in 2014 and sentenced for his participation in genocide, as an accessory to the crime.

The last sentence perhaps needs further explanation. Back in the 1990s, Lithuania was one of a handful of countries that adopted a broader definition of genocide in its national laws; it included political and social groups together with national, ethnic, racial and religious. The main aim of this was to address the historic Soviet crimes. However, it soon became clear that the direct inclusion of political and social groups in the genocide definition created a conflict with the internationally accepted definition of genocide. Another approach was needed, and it was tested in the case of Vasiliauskas (mentioned above). Read the rest of this entry…

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A Positive Take on the Legacy of the 1978 Judgment in Ireland v. United Kingdom

Published on February 7, 2019        Author: 
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In September 2018, a request by the Irish Government to refer the Ireland v. United Kingdom revision case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was refused, closing a door that had been reopened after forty years. The fact that the ECtHR arrived at a finding of inhuman and degrading treatment ‘only’ has been maligned. In this post, I’d like to highlight an alternative perspective and suggest that this judgment elevated the gravity of the ‘other’ forms of treatment and set in motion a pioneering approach to the interpretation of Article 3 ECHR.

Subsequent to the Chamber judgment in March 2018, there was much debate (including in this blog) about whether the ECtHR should have revised its 1978 finding of inhuman and degrading treatment in light of the additional evidence. Some have supported the ECtHR’s exercise of restraint in the use of its exceptional revision powers under Rule 80 of the Rules of Court, pointing out the need for legal certainty. Others have critiqued the Court’s approach to the new evidence or have lamented the Court’s failure to follow the European Commission on Human Rights’ finding of torture, opening the door to manipulation of the torture-versus-ill-treatment distinction. All have opined that the facts of the case would give rise to a finding of torture today.

A further commonality across the commentary is that all refer to the finding of inhuman and degrading treatment ‘only’. The 2018 judgment itself describes the applicant Government’s request for the Court to find that the ‘five techniques’ ‘amounted to a practice not merely of inhuman and degrading treatment but of torture within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention’ (para. 8). In the context of these debates, and the revision request itself, the distinction between torture and inhuman and degrading treatment ‘only’ has been amplified. That is, there is a pervasive and implicit sense that inhuman and degrading treatment is in some way not as bad as torture. In 2018, as was observed in 1978, the Court’s failure to arrive at a finding of torture overshadowed the finding of inhuman and degrading treatment. Read the rest of this entry…

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Liability of an Assisting Army for Detainee Abuse by Local Forces: The Danish High Court Judgment in Green Desert

Published on January 24, 2019        Author:  and
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This comment sets out to discuss the judgment of the Danish High Court (Eastern Division) in what is known as the Iraq or Green Desert Case (B344808J – HBJ). The judgment, delivered in June 2018 and available in Danish only, has received limited attention outside Denmark. It is significant in that it establishes liability for Danish forces for ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees by Iraqi security forces, in circumstances in which Danish forces were found not to have taken part in the arrests and subsequent abuse of detainees, nor to have exercised command over Iraqi forces. Danish forces had only ‘coordinating authority’ which did not permit the issuing of orders to Iraqi forces. Liability was nonetheless established on the basis that, at the time of the decision to take part in this joint military operation (‘Operation Green Desert’) in November 2004, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Defence Command or the Danish Battalion should have known that there was ‘a real risk that persons detained during the operation would be subject to inhuman treatment in Iraqi custody during the further investigation’ (810-11). The MoD has appealed the decision, but at the time of writing the Supreme Court was yet to schedule a hearing date.

The claimants had submitted that, in light of Article 3 ECHR, the MoD was obliged to conduct a new independent investigation, but the Court rejected the applicant’s request, arguing that such an investigation was not likely to bring about relevant new information.

Taking into account the nature of the abuses and the fact that these were not perpetrated by Danish forces, the Court found that the compensation should be set at 30,000 DKK (appr. 4,000 EUR) each for 18 of the 23 claimants (5 claimants were not awarded compensation).

Having set out key aspects of the judgment, we examine if the judgment is likely to have ramifications for how Denmark will approach joint military operations in Iraq and elsewhere in the future. We also highlight some parallels with civil proceedings in the UK arising from the Iraq War. Read the rest of this entry…

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The UN Human Rights Committee Disagrees with the European Court of Human Rights Again: The Right to Manifest Religion by Wearing a Burqa

Published on January 3, 2019        Author: 
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It is perhaps unsurprising to observers of the UN Human Rights Committee’s (HRC) jurisprudence that in the recent decisions of Yaker v France and Hebbadi v France, the HRC came to the opposite conclusion to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding the compatibility of the so-called ‘French burqa ban’ with the right to manifest religion. In SAS v France, the ECtHR had found that although 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’) interfered with the right to manifest religion, it did not constitute a violation of article 9 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as it pursued the legitimate aim of ‘living together’ and fell within the State’s margin of appreciation (see my earlier post on this case). In contrast, in Yaker and Hebaddi, the HRC found that the same law violated not only article 18, the right to thought, conscience and religion, but also article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the right to equality before the law.

The HRC’s freedom of religion or belief jurisprudence has consistently diverged from that of the ECtHR when the right to manifest religion by wearing religious clothing is at issue. Both bodies have heard directly analogous cases, but while the HRC has found that restrictions on religious clothing justified by reference to either secularism or public order violate article 18 ICCPR, the ECtHR has deferred to the State’s margin of appreciation and declined to find a violation (see my earlier post on this blog). As a result, the HRC’s decisions in Yaker and Hebbadi were not entirely unexpected, especially as in its Concluding Observations on the fifth periodic report of France in 2015, the HRC had expressed ‘the view that these laws [including the burqa ban] infringe the freedom to express one’s religion or belief and that they have a disproportionate impact on members of specific religions and on girls’ (para 22). However, its decision in these cases remains noteworthy as a result of: its consideration of ‘living together’ as a legitimate aim under the article 18(3) ICCPR limitations clause; the HRC’s recognition that the burqa ban constituted intersectional discrimination; and the nuanced approach adopted to the gender equality argument. The analysis here will focus on Yaker, although the HRC’s reasoning in both cases is identical. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Quick Holiday Update on Ukraine/Russia Litigation before the ECtHR

Published on December 24, 2018        Author: 
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Last week the European Court of Human Rights published a press release which is worth flagging for readers, with an update on litigation concerning various aspects of the conflict in Ukraine pending before it. As things stand, there are more than 4000 individual cases before the Court with a nexus to the conflict, whether in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea. There are currently five pending interstate cases between Ukraine and Russia, the latest one filed in November, concerning the Kerch Strait incident (see this prior post by James Kraska) and in which the Court has indicted interim measures. The Court has now decided to adjourn many of the individual cases, pending its decision in the interstate cases on the applicability of the Convention, specifically with regard to the Article 1 ECHR jurisdiction of both Ukraine and Russia; for a discussion of this issue, see my recent ICLQ article with Tatjana Papic on the applicability of the ECHR in contested territories.

The full press release is reproduced below.

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

Published on December 20, 2018        Author: 
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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. Read the rest of this entry…

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

Published on November 16, 2018        Author: 
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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). Read the rest of this entry…

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Legitimizing Blasphemy Laws Through the Backdoor: The European Court’s Judgment in E.S. v. Austria

Published on October 29, 2018        Author: 
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This past weekend Irish voters decided, by an overwhelming majority, to amend the Irish Constitution so as to decriminalize blasphemy. Just a few days before this referendum, however, a unanimous Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights gave its blessing to the criminalization of blasphemy, in all but name, in its judgment in E.S. v. Austria, no. 38450/12.

I have now read this judgment several times. Each time I read it I was left more disturbed. It applies the Court’s previous troubling precedents in this context – such as the notorious judgment in Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria – wholly uncritically, while even going beyond them in policing offensive speech. It unpersuasively tries to draw a distinction between blasphemy laws, which categorically impermissibly infringe on the freedom of speech, and the Austrian law at issue, as interpreted and applied by Austrian courts, which according to the Court strikes the right balance between the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. As I will explain, the Court’s distinctions are essentially meaningless and incapable of being applied in any non-arbitrary way, leading us not to a slippery slope of a further erosion of free speech, but to a cliff. Its reasoning lacks rigour and fetishizes the national margin of appreciation. Worst of all, the judgment will likely do nothing to promote religious tolerance in Europe, but will only help to further the narrative of Islamophobic closet neo-Nazis (who are, by the way, already in power in Austria, and not for the first time) that they are free speech martyrs , victimized in their own country by horrible minorities, elites and human rights lawyers.

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Intelligence Sharing and the Right to Privacy after the European Court Judgment in Big Brother Watch v. UK

Published on September 24, 2018        Author: 
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On 13 September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in three consolidated cases brought by 14 human rights organisations and 2 individuals against the UK government’s mass interception program and its access to the intelligence gathered by other governments, including the United States (Big Brother Watch v. UK, nos. 58170/13, 62322/14, 24960/15.)

As noted already by Marko Milanovic, these cases are nuanced, complex, and long. I intend to focus here on one aspect, namely the way the Court assessed the intelligence sharing claim brought by the applicants (paras 416-449.) This assessment is noteworthy as that claim presents an issue of first impression for the Court. As the judgment itself notes, “this is the first time that the Court has been asked to consider the Convention compliance of an intelligence sharing regime” (para 416). (It is worth noting, however, that the recent judgment in Centrum för Rättvisa v. Sweden no. 35252/08 also touches upon this issue.)

The applicants’ intelligence sharing claim centred on the revelations, contained in disclosures by Edward Snowden, that the UK government has access to information collected by other foreign intelligence agencies, and most notably the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). In particular, these revelations suggest that the UK government has direct and unfettered access to raw data intercepted by other governments, which it can then filter, store, analyse and further disseminate. They further suggest that the UK government has similarly broad access to information stored in databases by other governments.

From a human rights law perspective, the fundamental question raised in this case is the nature of the interference and therefore the applicable test to apply to such interference. Read the rest of this entry…

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ECtHR Judgment in Big Brother Watch v. UK

Published on September 17, 2018        Author: 
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Last week the European Court of Human Rights issued a highly anticipated blockbuster Chamber judgment in Big Brother Watch v. UK, nos. 58170/13, 62322/14, 24960/15.

This is the first mass electronic surveillance case to be decided against the UK after the Edward Snowden revelations, and it touches upon numerous issues. The judgment is nuanced, complex, and long. It addresses key questions such as the proportionality of bulk interception programmes much more directly and with greater sophistication than the recent judgment in Centrum för Rättvisa v. Sweden no. 35252/08, which was decided by a different Chamber while this case was being deliberated, and which also upheld a bulk surveillance programme (see here for Asaf Lubin’s take on Just Security).

The judgment is too rich to summarize easily, so I will only set out some key takeaways (for an extensive discussion on surveillance and privacy in the digital age, see my 2015 Harvard ILJ piece).

First, and most importantly, the judgment is a mixed bag for privacy activists: while the Court finds that the UK’s surveillance programme under the now-defunct Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was deficient in important respects and in violation of Article 8 and 10 of the Convention, it at the same time normalizes such mass surveillance programmes. In particular, the Court decided that bulk interception programmes are not categorically disproportionate, as privacy activists have argued. Second, in a similar vein, the Court finds that prior judicial authorization is not indispensable for the legality of bulk interception, again contrary to what privacy activists have argued, even if prior judicial authorization could be seen as best practice (note that under the new 2016 Investigatory Powers Act the UK has moved to a double-authorization system which involves both a minister and an independent quasi-judicial commissioner).

Here are the key paragraphs (warning – extracts from the judgment make this a lengthy post):

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