Last week a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights decided Gray v. Germany, no. 49278/09. The applicants were the sons of a British man who died in the UK after a doctor gave him the wrong drugs on a house visit. The doctor was German, and was hired by the UK National Health Service to provide out-of-hours home service to NHS patients. The doctor returned to Germany after the applicants’ father’s death. After a criminal malpractice investigation was conducted in the UK, Germany refused to extradite the doctor on the basis that criminal proceedings would ex officio take place in Germany. Those proceedings were later summarily completed, with the doctor sentenced to a fine, without notifying the applicants that the case would be disposed of summarily. The applicants claimed that this violated the procedural limb of Article 2 ECHR, read jointly with the overarching Article 1 obligation to secure human rights.
For various reasons, the Court rejected the applicants’ claim on the merits. But what makes this case interesting is that neither the German government, nor the Court sua sponte, thought that there was any Article 1 jurisdiction issue in saying that Germany had the positive obligation to investigate an unintentional death that took place in the United Kingdom, and at that at the hands of a private individual. Look at just how broad this position is – broader, indeed, than what I have argued for, since in my view a positive obligation would only apply if the death took place in an area controlled by the state or with state involvement.
Again, neither the Court nor the German government apparently thought that any Article 1 problem arose, presumably because the doctor was on German territory even though the applicant’s father had been in the UK. This well shows how in the small, politically unimportant cases people just tend to follow the universalist impulse and are oblivious to the existence of threshold applicability problems. Note, however, that the Court must ex officio confirm that the Convention applies and accordingly mind that it has subject-matter jurisdiction. If the issue was raised perhaps the Court would have decided it differently, but even so the case stands for the proposition that ECHR states parties have the duty to investigate even accidental deaths that took place outside any area under their control if the alleged perpetrator is located in such an area.
Stated in these terms, the implications of such an expansive approach are I think clear. Remember Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in London, ostensibly at the hands of Russian agents? His family took a case against Russia to Strasbourg, which (I’ve been told) is on standby while issues around possible inquiry proceedings are being resolved in the UK. Suddenly that case becomes much easier for the applicants – regardless of whether the radioactive poison was administered by a Russian agent, if the alleged perpetrator is in Russia then Russia would have an Article 2 obligation to investigate. Similarly, if say a British tourist killed somebody in Thailand but then managed to escape back to the UK, the family of the deceased person in Thailand would have Article 2 rights vis-à-vis the UK and the UK would have to investigate the death, at least if it refused extradition. And this approach would a fortiori apply to cases where there is state involvement, e.g. when a soldier kills a civilian in an area not under the state’s effective control, but later returns to the state’s own territory.
In short, the Court seems to have actually created a comprehensive aut dedere, aut judicare principle under the ECHR, that applies even to unintentional taking of life, and probably did so unwittingly. Obviously we’ll have to wait and see whether Gray will have such an impact, or whether the Court will somehow manage to reverse course.