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Home International Tribunals Archive for category "European Court of Human Rights" (Page 17)

‘Is torture ever justified?’: The European Court of Human Rights decision in Gäfgen v Germany

Published on June 15, 2010        Author: 

Natasha Simonsen is a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. Previously, she worked as a consultant for UNICEF and has interned with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan.

Earlier this month, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights handed down its decision in Gäfgen v Germany. The case raised the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario that features in moral philosophy seminars the world over, forcing the Court to confront the question: is torture is ever justified? Although the Court’s rhetoric emphasised the absolute nature of the prohibition on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, that was not borne out in the result, with the majority finding that the admission of evidence obtained as a direct result of inhuman and degrading treatment did not compromise the fairness of the applicant’s trial.

The tragic facts of the case are as follows. The applicant lured a 12 year old boy to his Frankfurt apartment and suffocated him, disposing of the body beside a lake and issuing a ransom demand to the boy’s parents. Gäfgen collected the ransom, and was arrested attempting to flee from Frankfurt airport later that afternoon. He told police that the boy was alive and being held by two other (fictional) kidnappers in a hut by a lake, but repeatedly refused to disclose the location.

 Believing the boy’s life to be in grave danger, and in the face of the applicant’s continued resistance to police questioning, the next morning the Deputy Chief of the Frankfurt police authorised Officer E to threaten Gäfgen with considerable pain, and to inflict that pain if necessary. The infliction of pain on the applicant was to occur under medical supervision by a specially trained police officer who was en route to Frankfurt in a helicopter at the time. The authorisation was fully documented in the police file, and was taken in defiance of explicit orders to the contrary by superiors. Gäfgen also alleged that he was pushed in the chest several times, shaken so that his head hit the wall, and that he was threatened with sexual abuse. The Grand Chamber did not find these additional facts to be established beyond a reasonable doubt, although they did accept that threats to inflict considerable pain on the applicant had been made and that officer E had the intention to carry them out. A mere ten minutes after the threat, Gäfgen made a full confession and admitted the boy was dead.  He agreed to take police to the lake where he had hidden the  body (on the condition that officer E was not present). He reiterated his confession on several subsequent occasions. Read the rest of this entry…

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Grand Chamber Hearings and Preview of Al-Skeini and Al-Jedda

Published on June 9, 2010        Author: 

Today the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held joint hearings in  Al-Skeini and others v. UK (no. 55721/07) and Al-Jedda v. UK (no. 27021/08) – webcast available here, statements of facts available here. It would be no exaggeration to say that these are some of the most important cases to come before the Court in recent years, with possibly wide-ranging implications, on matters ranging from the extraterritorial application of the ECHR and the use of force generally, to occupation and targeted killings, up to the responsibility of international organizations, the relationship between the ECHR regime and the UN Security Council under Article 103 of the Charter. The Court will probably deliver its judgments by the end of the year.

Let me now try to provide a preview of some of the most important issues – particularly threshold issues – that that the two cases raise, and of the possible ways in which the Court might rule.

(Again, apologies for a long post!)

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Was Nuremberg a Violation of the Principle of Legality?

Published on May 18, 2010        Author: 

This is, remarkably, the question raised by yesterday’s judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Kononov v. Latvia, App. No. 36376/04. In short, the applicant was a former Soviet partisan convicted by a Latvian court for war crimes, because during World War II he and the unit under his command killed a group of Latvian villagers who collaborated with the Germans. The case raised many issues of the law of armed conflict/IHL, such as combatant and civilian status – but importantly, how the law applied inter-temporally, i.e. what the law was in 1944, when the alleged crime was committed.

The Chamber 4:3 judgment in favour of Kononov was much criticized for various methodological reasons, and not just for its ultimate result. The Grand Chamber reversed the Chamber’s judgment, finding in favour of Latvia by 14:3, and is technically of significantly better quality. The ultimate result of the case and some nitpicking I would have with certain elements of the Grand Chamber’s reasoning aside, what interests me the most is its basic approach, and the broader implications that it might have.

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Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi Merits Judgment

Published on March 2, 2010        Author: 

The Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi v. United Kingdom (no. 61498/08) judgment by a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is now out (HUDOC). For our previous coverage, with links and background, see here and here. The shortest possible summary – the applicants won, and the Chamber judgment is a valuable contribution to human rights jurisprudence. Now for more detail.

Readers will recall that the basic question raised by the case is whether the transfer by the UK of the applicants who were in the custody of UK troops in Iraq to Iraqi authorities for trial violated the applicants ECHR rights, specifically the non-refoulement principle established by the Court in Soering v. UK, inter alia because there was serious risk of them being subjected to the death penalty. In Soering itself the issue was the surrender of the applicant to the US, where there was serious risk of him being subjected to the death penalty. However, the death penalty was at the time still not outlawed with respect to the UK by Protocols 6 and 13, and so the actual issue was inhuman treatment that the applicant would suffer as a consequence of the death row phenomenon. Likewise, without the two protocols, Article 2(1) ECHR specifically contemplates the death penalty, and it as such could not be held to be contrary to other provisions of the Convention, namely Article 3 prohibiting all forms of ill-treatment.

Now in Al-Saadoon we have the first merits judgment dealing specifically only with the death penalty and non-refoulement. The Court started its analysis by considering the developments in both treaty action and in its case law with regard to the death penalty since Soering:

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ECtHR Al-Saadoon Judgment Forthcoming on 2 March

Published on February 27, 2010        Author: 

A Chamber of the European Court will deliver its merits judgment in Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi v. United Kingdom (no. 61498/08), the case dealing with detention and non-refoulement in Iraq, on Tuesday 2 March (press release here). For our previous coverage, see here and here. For more in-depth analysis of the various issues in Al-Saadoon, such as norm conflict and the UK government’s decision to disregard interim measures ordered by Strasbourg, see here. See also this article by Nehal in the JICJ, and this note in the ICLQ by Sarah Williams and Matthew Cross.

This as hot a case as it gets, and we’ll see what the Chamber does with it. It certainly moved very quickly, since it pronounced on admissibility only in July last year. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that the case will also be referred to the Grand Chamber. Analysis and commentary will follow!

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Grand Chamber Judgment in Sejdic and Finci v. Bosnia

Published on December 22, 2009        Author: 

Update 6 September 2010 – see also this post.

Appropriately enough in light of our recent discussions of international constitutionalism, today the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment in the case of Sejdic and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina (application nos. 27996/06 and 34836/06) (our previous coverage here; judgment here, but the HUDOC link might not be permanent). The case is by any definition a landmark for Strasbourg, not to mention Sarajevo.

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Who Uses the European Court of Human Rights, and Who Wins? Evidence from New Studies

Published on July 27, 2009        Author: 

Gabriel Swain is Research Associate, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent.  Previously, he worked as a researcher for the Council of State Governments, a US-based public policy think tank, where he wrote on topics including climate change, natural resource policy, energy policy and federalism.

The margin of appreciation doctrine of European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) gives states flexibility in their interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). States also have the freedom to decide how they implement judgments finding violations against them. This means that individuals in each Council of Europe (CoE) member state experience rights protection and abuse in often quite different ways. The JURISTRAS project, which began in 2006 with a grant from the EU Sixth Framework Programme, has sought to shed light on that variation by analyzing the various relationships between the ECTHR and domestic human rights actors (both governmental and non) in CoE member states.

 Our research initially focused on the protection of the core civil liberties (i.e. ECtHR Articles 8-11 & 14: right to private and family life; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression; freedom of association; freedom from discrimination), but was expanded to include any situation in which an individual’s inclusion in a minority or vulnerable group caused her rights to be infringed. Research questions that drove the initial research design included:  How are judgments that find a country in violation of the Convention implemented in that country? What factors influence the effectiveness and speed of judgment implementation? Which groups have experienced rights abuses in the most direct ways? Which groups, if any, have been able to use the ECtHR as a tool, and have litigated strategically in order to bring about policy reform?

 A number of interesting issues arose with an analysis of the United Kingdom’s protection of the rights of minority and other vulnerable groups. Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which various groups are (or are not) successful in winning cases, which factors contribute to that success, and which groups are likely to see violations translated into policy reforms that favour their group’s interests, and why. There is a substantial variation in the answers to those questions, and to highlight the difference and help explain the reasons behind it, we can first look at cases brought against the UK by homosexuals and transsexuals, who have managed to use the Court to change discriminatory policies that directly affect them. We can then turn our attention to victims of wrongful death and illegal imprisonment in Northern Ireland and gypsies in the UK as examples of groups that have been largely unsuccessful at utilizing the Court to their advantage. Read the rest of this entry…

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The European Court’s Admissibility Decision in Al-Saadoon

Published on July 3, 2009        Author: 

Today a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights made public its admissibility decision in Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi v. United Kingdom, App. No. 61498/08, a very important case. In brief, the facts are these: the applicants were detained by UK forces in Iraq, and first complained to English courts, and then to the European Court, that their requested transfer to Iraqi authorities would violate the non-refoulement obligations of the UK, inter alia under Art. 2 ECHR, as there was a serious risk that they would be subjected to the death penalty. The first issue to be decided in the case is whether the ECHR applies extraterritorially to the applicants, i.e. whether the applicants could be said to fall within the UK’s jurisdiction within the meaning of Art. 1 ECHR. The Chamber found that the applicants were within the UK’s jurisdiction, and declared the application admissible. But first, some background.

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The European Court on Domestic Violence

Published on June 9, 2009        Author: 

Today the European Court of Human Rights delivered an important judgment dealing with domestic violence in Turkey. The case is Opuz v. Turkey, Application no. 33401/02, 9 June 2009. The Court found violations of Articles 2 and 3 ECHR, because Turkey failed to fulfill its due diligence obligations to do all that it could have reasonably done to prevent the abuse of the applicant by her ex-husband, who also eventually murdered the applicant’s mother, despite being aware of his violent behavior. Bolder still, the Court found a violation of the prohibition of discrimination in Article 14 ECHR, as it established that domestic violence in Turkey was gender-based, and the Turkish authorities failed to suppress an atmosphere conducive of such violence, even if they had no intent to discriminate themselves. The Court awarded the applicant 30.000 euros in damages, a very significant sum in Strasbourg terms, which will hopefully serve as an incentive to Turkey and other states in Europe with similar systemic problems with domestic violence to work on improving their record.

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Peacemaking or Discrimination: Bosnia’s Dayton Constitution before the European Court of Human Rights

Published on June 1, 2009        Author: 

A hearing will be held this Wednesday before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Sejdic and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina (application nos. 27996/06 and 34836/06) (press release here). A Venice Commission amicus brief is available here. A webcast of the hearing will be available here on Wednesday afternoon.

The applicants are Bosnian nationals, who are respectively Roma and Jewish by their ethnicity. They complain because, despite possessing experience comparable to the highest elected officials, they are prevented by the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina from being candidates for the Presidency and the House of Peoples of the Parliamentary Assembly solely on the ground of their ethnic origins. They invoke, inter alia, Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention (right to free elections) and Article 1 of Protocol No. 12 to the Convention (general prohibition of discrimination).

In brief, the Dayton settlement of the Bosnian conflict divided some of the institutions of the state government by ethnicity, so that the three member Presidency must be comprised of one each ethnic Serb, Croat and Bosniak/Bosnian Muslim. Further, one chamber of the Bosnian parliament, the House of Peoples, is comprised of 15 members, 5 of whom have to be from each of the three ‘constitutive’ peoples. The two applicants thus complain that, being Roma and Jewish respectively, they cannot stand for election for either the Presidency or the House of Peoples. In their view, this is clearly prohibited discrimination on grounds of ethnicity.

It is very likely that this will be the first case that the European Court will decide on the merits on the basis of Protocol 12, which introduced a general prohibition of discrimination into the ECHR system. Prior to that, the prohibition of discrimination in Article 14 was only of accessory character, meaning that the legal right or interest in respect of which discrimination was being alleged had to fall within the scope of one of the ECHR provisions. The relevance of this limitation is apparent from the instant case – Art. 3 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR only guarantees the right to vote and to stand for election for a legislature – but the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a legislature. Art. 14 could thus not be invoked in this regard, but Protocol 12 could be, because it sets out a general prohibition of discrimination, in respect of any right set forth by (domestic) law.

As far as the merits of the discrimination claim are concerned, the Court has in its Article 14 jurisprudence established that discrimination constitutes (1) a difference in treatment of persons or groups who are in a similar situation, (2) that has no objective and reasonable justification. In order for there to be such a justification, the treatment concerned must (a) be implemented for the pursuance of a legitimate aim, and (b) must be proportionate to that aim. Further, some grounds of distinction, such as ethnicity, race or gender, are by their very nature suspect, and particularly weighty reasons would have to be adduced by a state to justify them.

If we applied the Court’s test to the present case, there would undoubtedly be a difference in treatment on grounds of ethnicity (1). When it comes to the question whether there is a justification for such differential treatment, there would again undoubtedly be a legitimate aim for it (2(a)) – the establishment and maintenance of peace in post-conflict Bosnia. The question to be decided by the Court, therefore, is whether this distinction is proportionate to that aim (2(b)).

How the Court is going to answer this question is anyone’s guess. Aside from the general problem of commensurability that is inherent in all balancing tests, the proportionality inquiry in the present case clearly requires a value judgment. On the one hand, every liberal atom of one’s being cries out against discrimination based on ethnicity. On the other, there is the indisputable fact that Bosnian society is still markedly divided on ethnic lines (which, of course, measures like the ones above serve to both control and perpetuate). Then there is the whole question of whether an international court sitting in Strasbourg is best called upon to make this value judgment, or whether that judgment should still, for the time being at least, be the province of (what goes for) democratic political process in Bosnia.

At any rate, this is a case to watch.

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