Strasbourg – ESI discussing reform of the European Court of Human Rights

28 October 2019
Photo: John Dalhuisen/ESI
Photo: John Dalhuisen/ESI

ESI Senior Fellow John Dalhuisen spent three days in Strasbourg between 28-30 October, discussing the state of the European Court of Human Rights with senior figures in the Court's Registry and the Council of Europe Secretariat. 

He met with Christos Giakoumopoulos, Director General of Human Rights and the Rule of Law; Roderick Liddell, Registrar of the European Court of Human Rights; Alfonso de Salas, Head of Human Rights Intergovernmental Cooperation Division; Frederick Sundberg, Head of the Department for the execution of judgments; Alexandre Guessel, Director of Political Affairs; and George Stafford, Director of the European Implementation Network, which works with NGOs and lawyers litigating in Strasbourg.

The European Court of Human Rights has undergone an extensive process of reform and innovation since a high-level conference on the future of the Court was held in Interlaken in 2010 in response to the Court's then burgeoning backlog of cases.  This peaked at 152,000 cases in 2011.  Ten years - and five further high-level conferences - later, the backlog stands at an almost manageable 56,000 applications. 

The mood in Strasbourg today is one of tired satisfaction.  There is little appetite for further reform, and little sense of any need.  The Steering Committee on Human Rights  (CDDH) – a body composed of government representatives that has led and monitored the reform process – recently concluded:

"The Interlaken reform process, backed by the effects of Protocol No. 14 which entered into force at the same time the process was launched, has been crucial for the system and has led to significant advances, which also bode well for the system's capacity to meet new challenges and to consolidate and further develop the progress made. The necessity of a new major revision of the system is therefore not apparent. In the light of subsequent developments, the CDDH sees no reason to depart from its assessment made in 2015 that the current challenges the Convention system is facing can be met within the existing framework".

The implementation of court judgments by states has also ostensibly improved.  The number of "unexecuted" cases – those for which the necessary individual remedies or structural reforms are still pending – decreased from around 11,000 in 2012 to around 6,000 by the end of 2018 – prompting the CDDH to express similar satisfaction:

"As regards the execution of the Court's judgments, the overview of measures adopted in the course of the Interlaken process above has pointed to considerable progress in ensuring both the full, effective and rapid execution of the Court's judgments at the domestic level and also more effective and transparent supervision thereof by the Committee of Ministers."

But what do these decreasing backlogs really mean?  And how have they been achieved? It appears that this has less to do with better implementation and more with how cases are categorised. It is far from obvious that the Convention system has got better at protecting fundamental rights in Europe. The most cursory survey of the human rights situation across Europe would point to a marked deterioration in many countries.  Can it really be claimed that the Convention is working?  ESI is trying to find out and will be writing more about this soon.

Photo: John Dalhuisen/ESI
Photo: John Dalhuisen/ESI