International Law

European Court of Human Rights and the Rule of Law

What is the future of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in applying the rule of law? Is the ECHR a necessary vehicle for protecting human rights or an inefficient mechanism that improperly interferes with the sovereignty and rule of national law among the 47 Council of Europe participants?

The United Kingdom leads the ECHR's critics, extracting reform concessions at the Brighton conference earlier this year. It remains to be seen the nature of the reforms and to what extent such changes will be made.

Whether one believes the court serves its purpose or not, a backlog of more than 150,000 cases indicates that something must give. The trivial many must be handled differently than the comparatively few major human rights cases filed.

A case involving mass violation of fundamental human rights should be expedited and take a higher priority over one where a convict files a frivolous complaint as a means to harass those who have incarcerated him. On the other hand, what safeguards are in place to ensure protection of individual human rights? Are the rights of an individual victim due any less protection by the rule of law than the rights of a group of victims?

Issues of national sovereignty versus human rights come into play where a legal issue adjudicated by a nation's judiciary is revisited via a complaint filed with the ECHR. If due process was afforded at the national level, should the ECHR have to review the matter and perhaps render a conflicting opinion?  On the other hand, local and national courts can be unduly influenced by national political concerns and turn a blind eye to the behavior of local rights violators.  If the ECHR is relegated to being a court of last resort, victims awaiting the national process to run its course so they can appeal may expire prior to the ECHR's appellate review.

Equally troubling is the ECHR's funding issues. It appears that the court is now willing to expedite cases involving countries that donate to the court. For example, if the United Kingdom contributes additional funds, the ECHR is willing to apply those funds to work on the backlog of cases involving the United Kingdom without regard to the seriousness of pending complaints that do not involve the United Kingdom. In essence, the court becomes "pay to play," rendering freelance justice for its patrons.

Clearly issues of case priority, national sovereignty, and protection of fundamental human rights must be addressed and balanced so that the impartial rule of law can be meted out by the court.

Recommended Reading

European Court of Human Rights website

European Convention on Human Rights (PDF file)

Profile: European Court of Human Rights, BBC News (Feb. 7, 2012)

Q&A: Reforming European Court of Human Rights, BBC News (Apr. 23, 2012)

European Court of Human Rights 'gets out begging bowl', UK Telegraph (June 21, 2012)

Post-Brighton: the future of the European Court of Human Rights, Public Service Europe (Apr. 23, 2012)