European Human Rights System

On 4 November 1950, the Council of Europe, headquartered in Strasbourg, France, agreed to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the substantive provisions of which are based on a draft of what is now the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Together with its eleven additional protocols, this convention, which entered into force on 3 September 1953, represents the most advanced and successful international experiment in the field to date. Over the years, the enforcement mechanisms created by the Convention--the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights, working with the Council's Committee of Ministers--may be seen to have developed a considerable body of case law on questions regulated by the Convention which typically the states parties to the Convention have honored and respected, due principally to the recognized juridical competence of the members of the Commission and Court, their relative freedom from outside political influence, and their consequent professionalism. In some European states, the provisions of the Convention are deemed to be part of domestic constitutional or statutory law. Where this is not the case, the states parties to the Convention have taken other measures to make their domestic laws conform with their obligations under the Convention.

Notwithstanding these successes, however, a significant streamlining of the European human rights regime took place on 1 November 1998, when Protocol No. 11 to the European Convention entered into force. Pursuant to the Protocol, the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights were merged so as to eliminate the Commission and reconstitute the Court in a more efficient mode and on a permanent basis. Where once individual as opposed to interstate "applications" or "petitions" (i.e., complaints) were "optional" (i.e., required prior governmental approval), this is no longer the case; and where once it was primarily for the Commission to receive and act upon applications alleging violations of the Convention, and for the Court to act primarily as an instrument of final appeal with regard to them, all of these and related new functions became, under Protocol 11, the province of the reconstituted Court exclusively.

The reconstituted Court, consisting of judges equal in number to the number of states parties to the European Convention and each acting in her or his individual expert capacity, will sit in Committees of three judges, in Chambers of seven judges, and in a Grand Chamber of seventeen judges, with authority to receive and/or act upon "inter-state applications" and "individual applications" submitted by "any person, non-governmental organisation, or group of individuals claiming to be the victim of a violation" by one of the states parties to the European Convention. (The Grand Chamber is granted, in addition, the authority to consider requests for advisory opinions.) The Committees, functioning in a preliminary screening capacity, are empowered to declare definitively inadmissible any individual application in cases where a decision can be reached unanimously and without further examination. When this is not possible, the issue of admissibility is resolved by one of the Chambers, whose obligation it is also, assuming a verdict favorable on admissibility, to decide on the merits of the case and, in addition, on the admissibility and merits of interstate applications. However, once having declared an application admissible, the reconstituted Court is required to place itself at the disposal of the parties with a view to securing a "friendly settlement." Also, where a case before a Chamber raises "a serious question affecting the interpretation of the Convention" or "a result inconsistent with a judgment previously delivered by the Court," a Chamber may, before rendering its judgment and subject to the approval of the parties before it, relinquish its jurisdiction in favor of the Grand Chamber, which then shall decide the case. Where a violation of the Convention or its protocols has been determined, and if the internal law of the violating state party allows only partial reparation to be made, the injured party is authorized "just satisfaction." The decisions of the Chambers and the Grand Chamber are final. They also are binding on the states parties to the European Convention.

A companion instrument to the European Convention, similar to, but preceding, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, is the European Social Charter (1961). In contrast to the adjudicatory enforcement procedures of the European Convention, its provisions are implemented through an elaborate system of control based on the sending of progress reports to, and the appraisal of these reports by, the various committees and organs of the Council of Europe.

Encyclopedia Britannica