Friday, February 6, 2009

60 Years of the Council of Europe and 50 Years of the European Court of Human Rights

Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe is an international organization whose core objective is the preservation and promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Its founding Treaty, i.e. the Treaty of London, was originally signed by 10 states: Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The Council now brings together 47 Member States and embraces therefore more countries than the EU (27 Member States so far).

Its major legal contribution to a better world is known as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which was signed in 1950.  Commonly known as the European Convention on Human Rights, it was the first international legal instrument safeguarding human rights. Since then, more than 200 treaties have been drawn up under the auspices of the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe should also be praised for setting up effective mechanisms to guarantee compliance with the obligations entered into by the Contracting States. The establishment of the European Court of Human Rights (located in Strasbourg) in 1959 proved particularly important.

To mark the start of the Strasbourg Court’s 50th anniversary year, a special seminar was organized last week. The speech delivered on that occasion by the President of the Court is available here and is worth reading. Non experts are likely to be surprised in particular by the number of judgments the Court has issued since its creation: close to 10,000 judgments on the merits, 9,000 of which have been issued in the last 10 years. The Court has become, in a way, a victim of its own success and the number of cases pending keeps growing (97,000 at the end of 2008).

The speech of H.E. Judge Rosalyn Higgins, the President of the International Court of Justice, is similarly both instructive and stimulating (available here). It focuses on the contemporary legal issues faced by both Courts and suggests that “the best way to avoid fragmentation of international law is for us all to keep ourselves well-informed of each other’s decisions, to have open channels of communication, and to build on the cordial relationships that already exist among the courts in The Hague, Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Arusha and so on.”

For those interested to learn more about the European Convention on Human Rights, see the very good introduction offered by Steven Greer, The European Convention on Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Laurent Pech

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