In The Bowels of Europe’s Conscience

Article published on May 6, 2014
Article published on May 6, 2014

Any one of 820m people can apply to the European Court of Human Rights without a lawyer and without a fee. It is extremely democratic but it is a victim of its own openness, receiving 60, 000 applications a year. Who are these people and how does this colossal judicial creature function? I met Kurds and cut-throats and a man reporting a murderous Japanese robot

“He will con­tribute to peace and democ­racy, so we’ve started a cam­paign for his re­lease,” says Adem, a Kurd cam­paign­ing against the im­pris­on­ment of Ab­dul­lah Öcalan, leader of the Kur­dis­tan Worker’s Party. In March 2014, the Eu­ro­pean Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had vi­o­lated Öcalan’s rights by keep­ing him in “in­hu­man” con­di­tions; ten years soli­tary con­fine­ment in an iso­lated is­land prison.

Adem and four other Kurds are gath­ered around posters of Öcalan on this leafy river­side av­enue op­po­site the Stras­bourg Court. They’re in high spir­its after the rul­ing in Öcalan’s favour. Rather than look­ing back bit­terly at a con­flict with Turkey that claimed 40,000 lives, thanks to the ECHR, they are look­ing to the fu­ture with op­ti­mism. “We al­ready have one mil­lion [sig­na­tures] and we’ve been here for two years,” Adem tells me proudly, “we’ll con­tinue like peo­ple did the same for Man­dela.”

In­side Eu­rope’s Con­science

The ECHR con­sists of two colos­sal steel cylin­ders which shine brightly against the clear April sky. The build­ing has an epic aura, like twin leviathans float­ing in the blue. They are con­nected by a web of glass and gird­ers. Jus­tice may be an an­cient ideal, but “Eu­rope’s con­science” feels like some­thing from the fu­ture. The glass walls feel non-ex­is­tent; you see through every­thing and noth­ing is hid­den. Tracey Turner-Tretz, the Reg­istry press of­fi­cer, tells me the con­struc­tion is sym­bolic of the trans­parency the court seeks to dif­fuse.

I meet Clare Ovey, Head of the UK Reg­istry Di­vi­sion in a per­fectly cir­cu­lar con­fer­ence room. It is the width of one whole cylin­der. A deep blue car­pet with the EU stars em­broi­dered in gold gives the im­pres­sion that this court is not just in Eu­rope, it is Eu­rope, a cor­po­real em­bod­i­ment of the val­ues Eu­rope was built on. The whole wall is a win­dow, so Clare and I are bathed in a cu­ri­ously bal­anced light. There are no shad­ows, only light.

“The con­ven­tion sys­tem is there to pro­tect mi­nori­ties,” ex­plains Ovey, “be­cause you can as­sume in any sort of democ­racy that the ma­jor­ity can look after them­selves, be­cause they’ve got ac­cess to power- so it’s the mi­nor­ity in­ter­ests that need rights.” She speaks quickly and with con­vic­tion, smil­ing be­hind her black rimmed spec­ta­cles.

Stand­ing up to States

The Court has a his­tory of pro­tect­ing mi­nor­ity rights against pow­er­ful states. It made Rus­sia pay over one mil­lion euros to the fam­i­lies of Chechens killed by the Russ­ian army. The Court obliged Cyprus to prop­erly pro­tect vic­tims of sex traf­fick­ing. It has forced the UK, Bul­garia, Switzer­land and oth­ers to care bet­ter for the men­tally ill. “Here you feel like your work is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence,” says Ovey.

But not every­one agrees. UK Jus­tice Sec­re­tary Chris Grayling said the ECHR does not “make this coun­try a bet­ter place.” When the Court ruled Britain’s blan­ket ban on pris­oner vot­ing vi­o­lated the Con­ven­tion, David Cameron said the thought of pris­on­ers vot­ing makes him “phys­i­cally ill”. UK Home Sec­re­tary Theresa May has threat­ened to cut ties with the “in­ter­fer­ing” ECHR.

What does the Court make of this back­lash? Ovey spreads her hands in a ges­ture of gen­tle frus­tra­tion. She par­tially blames the press, “That judge­ment has been re­ported as this court say­ing mur­der­ers and rapists should get the vote and that’s def­i­nitely not what it said.” But Ovey also at­trib­utes this re­cent vit­riol to op­por­tunis­tic but mis­di­rected eu­roscep­ti­cism, “We’re com­ing up to the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions and the way that the par­ties have di­vided them­selves and pre­sented them­selves is turn­ing on Eu­rope,” she ex­plains. “This court, even though we’re sep­a­rate from the EU, we’re seen as part of that, and that’s why politi­cians and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters like to at­tack us.”

In any case, the ex­tent of the Court’s in­ter­ven­tion is ex­ag­ger­ated. A few judge­ments steal the head­lines, but the Court rarely rules against mem­ber states. In 2013, out of 909 ap­pli­ca­tions from the UK, only 13 were deemed a vi­o­la­tion, yet the To­ries claim the Court is se­ri­ously im­ping­ing on British sov­er­eignity. Propos­ing an in­de­pen­dent British human rights bill sug­gests human rights are not uni­ver­sal and can be ap­plied se­lec­tively. Ovey says British foot-drag­ging is harm­ful for every­one; “The Ukrain­ian pres­i­dent ba­si­cally said 'why should we bother en­forc­ing our judge­ments when some­one like the UK doesn’t?'”

How Does it Work?

Whereas na­tional courts apply fixed ju­di­cial frame­works; “guilty or not guilty”, the ECHR’s job is to probe and im­prove these na­tional frame­works; it’s more a ques­tion of “what is jus­tice?” It's the only way an in­di­vid­ual can chal­lenge a state. Since any­one can apply with no fee and no lawyer, the Court re­ceives 60, 000 ap­pli­ca­tions a year and has 99, 000 pend­ing. These fig­ures sound huge, but what do they look like?

In the cav­ernous mail room, an army of fil­ing cab­i­nets stand to at­ten­tion in neat rows. The ten ad­min­is­tra­tors here speak 28 lan­guages be­tween them and they deal with 1,600 let­ters a day. I de­scend an­other level to the bow­els of Eu­rope’s con­science. These bow­els are filled with valu­able trea­sure; 60 years of jus­tice. Jus­tice as an ideal may be un­quan­tifi­able, but in prac­tice it can be counted; as 5.2 km of archived doc­u­ments to be pre­cise. “That’s 36 times higher than the Stras­bourg cathe­dral,” says Eliza, who works in the archives.

Plu­ral­ity in Prac­tice

Out­side the Court, an en­camp­ment of pro­tes­tors liv­ing in tents sprawls along the bank of the river Ill. Clas­si­cal music drifts across the en­camp­ment. The pro­tes­tors are not ex­actly what I was ex­pect­ing. I meet Maimouna El Ma­zougui, a 73 year old Mo­roc­can. She al­leges that the French and Is­raeli gov­ern­ments col­luded to plant a chip in her brain to con­trol her re­motely, mak­ing her vi­brate and pre­vent­ing her from doing God’s work. She is sit­ting in her tent on a camp chair clutch­ing a lit­tle black radio. Crates of bot­tled water are stacked out­side her tent. She’s here for the long haul- years al­ready. “The planet is gov­erned by a global band of crim­i­nals, mur­der­ers and neo-Nazi Jews,” she tells me, “I’m wait­ing here for jus­tice.”

Later I meet Jonathan Simp­son, who shows me a long white scar on his neck, “The British se­cret ser­vices cut my throat,” he rages. He claims they have been wag­ing a cam­paign of ter­ror against him for decades. “I could write a whole book on den­tal abuse alone,” he tells me. “Look at that gum line. One set up after an­other. There was even a bogus den­tal prac­tice. The build­ing was ob­vi­ously hired for the pur­pose, no pa­tients, the min­i­mum of décor, ab­solutely off the scale.” An­other pro­tes­tor, Moustafa from Bul­garia, tells me he has trav­elled 48 hours on the bus to come here  and re­port a Japan­ese robot of Toy­ota make which killed his fam­ily with a laser. He un­zips his leather jacket to re­veal a tor­soe wrapped in plas­tic; home-made ar­mour.

Ev­i­dently some of these ap­pli­ca­tions will not be ac­cepted, but what mat­ters is they are al­lowed to apply. The Court treats every ap­pli­ca­tion with dig­nity and with­out pre­con­cep­tions. “I think it’s ac­tu­ally a very good sign,” says Iverna Mc­Gowan, Di­rec­tor of Pro­grams at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, “the Court’s val­ues are based on a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety, democ­racy, val­ues such as free­dom of ex­pres­sion. Who are we to judge prima facie if some­one has a valid case or not?"

This ar­ti­cle is part of a spe­cial se­ries de­voted to Stras­bourg. It's part of "EU-topia : Time To Vote", a pro­ject run by Cafébabel in part­ner­ship with the Hip­pocrène foun­da­tion, The Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion, the Min­istry of For­eign Af­faires and the EVENS foun­da­tion. The whole se­ries will soon be avail­able on the home­page.