Irish judge Síofra O’Leary has been elected President of the European Court of Human Rights, the first woman to hold the position.
The Dubliner, who has been vice-president of the court since January, will take up the three-year role in November. She succeeds Iceland’s Robert Spano in the position.
Speaking to The Irish Times in an interview this summer, Judge O’Leary said the court was at a “watershed moment” due to the invasion of Ukraine, as the human rights abuses of the war served as a reminder of why “this organisation, the court and the convention system is so important”.
“The raison d’être of the court is to ensure that Europe doesn’t relive the horrors of the past,” she said.
‘You cannot teach where I teach, and be in my classroom and not feel uplifted, or have hope for the future’
Judge O’Leary studied civil law at University College Dublin until 1989 before completing a PhD at the European University Institute of Florence, Italy.
She then taught in universities around Europe including at the University of Cádiz, University of Cambridge, and University College Dublin before joining the Cabinet of a judge at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
She was proposed as Ireland’s judge at the European Court of Human Rights and elected for a nine-year term in 2015.
Judge O’Leary takes up the position at a time when the court is facing challenges, including the non-implementation of judgments by member states, and tensions with the United Kingdom where the ruling Conservative Party has bridled at some of the court’s rulings.
New British Prime Minister Liz Truss told a hustings event during her campaign to lead the Conservative Party that she was “prepared” to withdraw from the court’s establishing text, the European Convention on Human Rights, if proposed reforms aimed to reduce the court’s power in Britain were unsuccessful.
A separate institution that predates the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights was established in the 1950s with the aim of preventing a repeat of the abuses of the second World War.
Its influential judgments regarding Ireland over the years include the 1979 Airey v Ireland case, taken by a Cork woman who could not afford a lawyer to separate from her abusive husband, which led to the establishment of a civil legal aid programme.
It also issued landmark rulings on abortion that led to evolutions in Irish law, and is known for the 1988 case taken by now-Senator David Norris that argued Ireland’s criminalisation of homosexual acts was contrary to the right to privacy.
A series of judgments found inadequate investigation into deaths in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s involving state agents, a live issue as Britain has come under pressure this year from the court’s overarching body the Council of Europe for a failure to implement the rulings and ensure adequate investigations.
In a first, the Council of Europe voted to expel Russia as a member earlier this year following the invasion of Ukraine.