The European Court of Human Rights has recently published its annual report. In the light of this Euronews went to Strasbourg to interview the court’s newly appointed President, Frenchman Jean Paul Costa. He has only been in the job since January 19 but has firm ideas about his position and the role of the court. Among other things he says he is committed to improving its workings. Involved in more than 90,000 cases some say the court is becoming a victim of its own success.
Margherita Sforza, European Affairs EuroNews:
“With the publication of the court’s annual report are there clear indications where the number of complaints has gone up and where they’ve gone down?”
“ Fortunately there has been a reduction in the number of complaints concerning the most serious violations of human rights, for example, Article Two which relates to the respect of human life and Article Three which relates to the banning of the use of torture. On the other hand, there are more complaints concerning the freedom of expression, equal rights, and the law relating to ownership and property.
We had an interesting French example concerning the freedom of expression. It involved a journalist who was accused of slandering the Catholic Church. He’d said that if one looks at numerous critical remarks made by the Church over the centuries, one might understand modern day anti-semitism and even the concentration camps. The journalist was convicted by a French court but we said this was an infringement of his freedom of speech.
“Can you give an indication of which countries are making the most progress in upholding human rights?”
“ Looking at the greatest reduction in the number of complaints we can mention Italy and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom probably because their law has for many years incorporated the Convention on Human Rights as a basic right.
Italy, because cases were taking so long in coming before an internal court in the first instance, that the country introduced legislation known as the Pinto law ,to speed up procedures. Many cases are now resolved internally.
And then there is a country at the bottom of the table…Turkey. There were so many human rights violations, namley involving the Kurdish conflict, that Turkey has finally recognised it must address the problem.”
“And on the contrary which countries could we call bad students?”
“ I would not say bad students but there are some countries which are top of the league in provoking complaints against them. Russia for example, but also Ukraine, Romania, Poland and still Turkey.
And then you have countries where there are serious human rights violations. Russia, because of the Chechnya conflict and the general treatment of prisoners.
In Ukraine the legal system functions very badly. Often no judgement is handed down at all. And then there are countries whose performance depends on the year and the nature of the accusations.
“Sometimes the Ccurt has been criticised for the length of time it takes to resolve a case. Is it really necessary to take so long, can things be speeded up?”
“We aim to set an average time of not more than three years but this is of course an average and by the very nature of the issues they are very serious and complex . But we can act quickly – in the case of an elderly person in prison for example or in the Pretty case in the United Kingdom. That was where a terminally ill woman wanted the assistance of her husband to commit suicide. In this case the court gave a judgement in a matter of weeks.”
“Can you name instances where the law of a country has been changed following a judgement from your Court?”
“Fortunately there are quite a few -for example, England and France, they were obliged to change their laws on phone-tapping. And in France, a law dating back to the Napoleonic Civil Code had to be changed as it discriminated against children born outside marriage.
And there are some cases even where a country has had to change its constitution…. Turkey!
It’s court of National Security was not constituted properly – it had two civil judges and one military one. The military judge was not independent enough nor impartial. Following judgements from the European court the constitution of Turkey, which oversees the security court had to be changed.”
“ You’ve only recently taken up your position as the court’s president – what would you say are your priorities?
“I want to create a more slimline court – that is the aim of pending reforms. But also to maintain the high quality of the decisions and judgements made as they have consequences for all of Europe. And then of course I would like to to gather my colleagues, judges and personnel in the administration of the court (which is of a very high quality) and to continue to defend the 800 million people in Europe eligible to seek justice against any violation of their rights by their own country.”