A victim of its own success, the Council of Europe needs reform to speed its efficiency, writes JAMIE SMYTH, European Correspondent
EUROPEAN FOREIGN ministers gather in Madrid today for a meeting of the Council of Europe just a week after the human rights watchdog celebrated its 60th birthday.
Born in the bloody aftermath of the second World War, the organisation works to promote democracy, rule of law and human rights. It was founded in 1949 by 10 member states, one of which was Ireland, and has since grown to incorporate 47 while scoring considerable successes such as its high-profile campaign to outlaw the death penalty.
But there will be no time for back-slapping in Madrid as ministers attempt to overcome a four-year Russian block on a reform package for its court and to end a bitter dispute over the appointment of the organisation’s next secretary general.
“Everyone agrees the greatest achievement of the Council of Europe is the European Convention of Human Rights, which imposes a duty on member states to protect human rights and is backed up by the court in Strasbourg,” says Terry Davis, the council’s secretary general.
“But there is now such a backlog in applications to the court, with about 103,000 applications pending, that there is a lengthy delay in providing justice.”
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is often described by human rights activists as the “jewel in the crown” of the Council of Europe’s activities because its decisions are binding on its 47 member states. It guarantees 800 million European citizens a right to petition the court against violations of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the convention: among others, the right to life, not to be subjected to torture or inhumane treatment, to liberty, religious freedom and a fair hearing.
“The court has achieved a lot and plays a critical role in protecting human rights by providing compensation to victims of abuse and outlawing state activities that infringe human rights,” says Natasha Kazatchkine, legal officer at Amnesty International.
She highlights as examples a 2007 ruling against the Czech Republic, which found it discriminated against Roma children by routinely placing them in “special schools” reserved for children with learning difficulties, and a 2008 ruling in Saadi v Italy, in which the court ruled a ban on deporting people to states practising torture is “absolute”.
But the court has become a victim of its own success, and a process of enlargement which rapidly gained pace with the collapse of communism. The accession of Russia, Ukraine and Romania to the Council of Europe in the 1990s precipitated a flood of court applications. These states now account for 45 per cent of all pending applications and, at current levels, the backlog will grow to 300,000 applications within five years.
“The credibility of the court is now in question,” says Michael O’Boyle, deputy registrar at the ECHR, who notes it can take seven years for a ruling to be issued by the judges.
He says there simply aren’t enough judges, given the current court procedures which require a three-judge committee to rule on the admissibility of applications and a seven-judge panel to hear routine cases. “We can’t be held hostage by Russia,” he says.
To overcome this problem in 2004, the Council of Europe proposed a reform called Protocol 14, which would enable a single judge to decide on the admissibility of applications and a panel of three judges to rule on routine cases.
It would also enable a member state to be brought before the court by the committee of ministers if that state had refused to enforce a judgment against it.
All council members bar Russia have ratified Protocol 14 but the Duma is refusing, amid claims by deputies that the ECHR is targeting Moscow with political rulings. “The protocol is contrary to main principles of justice. Moreover, our voluminous membership fees are being used for attacks on our country by the Council of Europe,” said vice-speaker Sergey Baburin in 2006 when the Duma voted by 138 votes to 27 against the protocol.
A year later, former president Vladimir Putin warned that Russia was coming into “collision with a politicisation of judicial decisions” issued by the ECHR.
Several high-profile rulings against Russian actions in Chechnya and another involving the detention of three men in Transdniestria probably precipitated the Russia blockage, according to council diplomats.
Members states’ patience has finally been exhausted, however, and today a vote will be taken by foreign ministers in Madrid to implement the reforms to the court in spite of Russia’s continued failure to ratify Protocol 14.
A vote in favour of the reforms by all states except Moscow would create a two-tier system, whereby the new fast-track procedures outlined in Protocol 14 are applied to all applications from citizens from these countries. However, Russian applications to the court will still have to be considered using the existing procedures.
“It means Irish people will get justice more quickly than Russian people,” says Mr Davis, who is confident the motion will pass the committee of ministers.
The council’s committee of ministers will also consider today how to overcome a bitter stand-off with the parliamentary assembly over the choice of a new secretary general to take over from Mr Davis when his term runs out in August.
The committee of ministers is pushing to appoint more high-profile politicians to take on the role in an effort to raise the profile of the council, which remains relatively unknown to the general public.
It has shortlisted two candidates for the post – former Norwegian prime minister Thorbjorn Jagland and former Polish prime minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz. In the process, it has deleted from its shortlist two candidates who sit on the council’s parliamentary assembly, Belgian senator Luc Van den Brande and Hungarian parliamentarian Matyas Eorsi.
Diplomats say there is a real need to appoint a high-profile person to popularise the council. They compare the human rights body’s low-key 60th anniversary, which attracted very little coverage in the international media, to Nato’s recent 60th birthday bash in Strasbourg or the EU’s 50th high-profile anniversary celebrations last year.
But, until now, the secretary general post has been awarded to members of the parliamentary assembly, usually through behind-the-scenes negotiation by the political groups.
The assembly is now threatening not to elect a new secretary general at its June plenary meeting – a move that could prompt a crisis at the usually sleepy council.
All eyes will be on the foreign ministers today to see if they find a solution.
European Court of Human Rights
The Council of Europe has 47 members and five observer states (the Vatican, the US, Canada, Japan and Mexico). It has an annual budget of €205 million.
Ireland was one of its 10 founders in 1949.
The council's main institutions include the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the parliamentary assembly, and the committee of ministers.
It has a commissioner for human rights.
The first case to be heard by the ECHR was Lawless v Ireland, which stemmed from the introduction of detention without trial to counter terrorism. The Government won the case in 1961.
The first inter-state case at the ECHR was taken by Ireland against Britain. In 1978, the ECHR ruled certain interrogation techniques employed in Northern Ireland amounted to "inhuman and degrading treatment".
In 1988, the ECHR found Ireland's criminalisation of homosexual activity contrary to the convention's article on the right to a private life.
The court is currently deciding on the admissibility of a case taken by three Irish woman, who claim a prohibition on abortion has violated their human rights by forcing them to travel abroad for termination.