Category Archives: Human Rights

The UK and the right to life: Some preliminary remarks on the UK Government’s observations on the Draft General Comment no 36

In July 2017 the UN Human Rights Committee finalised the first reading of its Draft General Comment no 36 on article 6 (right to life) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). All stakeholders, including Member States, other UN and regional human rights mechanisms, National Human Rights Institutions, NGOs, research institutions, and academics were invited to provide their observations by 6 October 2017.  In November 2017, the UN Human rights Committee started the second reading of its Draft General Comment. This post aims to provide some preliminary remarks on the UK Government submissions, which should be interpreted while bearing in mind a significant difference between the UK position and the Draft Comment: according to the former, indeed, there is no hierarchical relationship among rights, and the right to life is not the ‘supreme’ right among all others, as it is, conversely, for the latter.[1] This post will focus on three specific areas of concern for the UK: the desirability of an international treaty banning any Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), the relationship between the regimes of international human rights and international humanitarian law, the linkage between the right to life and any act of aggression.

 

On the ban of any Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS)

 

Starting from the assumption that in the development of new kind of weapons Sates should always consider the possible implications of such weapons for the right to life, the UN Human Rights Committee, at paragraph 12 of its Draft General Comment, holds that ‘the development for use in military operations of new lethal autonomous robotics lacking in human compassion and judgement, raises difficult legal and ethical questions concerning the right to life, including questions relating to legal responsibility for their use’. The Committee therefore concludes that this kind of weapons should not be developed or put in operation; neither in time of war or peace. The UK Government, on the contrary, considers that since it is unclear whether these weapons would ever be developed, it would be pointless to have an international agreement banning them pre-emptively.[2] Thus, the UK ‘strongly urges’ to delete the part relating to the need to avoid the development and/or ban of any LAWS. Yet, this conclusion seems to lie more on the non-existence of such weapons, which furthermore still lack of a definition, than on their legality under international law. In this respect, the UK aligns its positions to the other EU member states. As Veronique Caruana has pointed out, however, in the future we might witness «the continued development of a “class of systems capable of selecting targets and initiating the use of potentially lethal force without the deliberate and specific consideration of humans”». Considering that the issue has been broadly debated among governments, scholars,[3] and NGOs, the prospect of developing such weapons seems in fact to be a concrete possibility.

 

On the relationship between International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law

According to paragraph 67 of the Draft General Comment, the Covenant as a whole continues to apply in time of armed conflict,[4] as the two regimes of Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. The UN Human Rights Committee concludes that during an armed conflict States have therefore an obligation to disclose, inter alia, ‘whether non-lethal alternatives for attaining the same military objective were considered. They must also investigate allegations of violations of article 6 in situations of armed conflict in accordance with the relevant international standards.’[5] In respect of both these points the UK Government submits that International Humanitarian Law is lex specialis applicable during an armed conflict,[6] and under this regime there is no rule imposing upon states an obligation to consider whether a non-lethal means was available.[7] Moreover, while it is admitted that States have an obligation to investigate breaches of IHL in accordance to international legal standards, they reject the submission that in time of an armed conflict such obligation to investigate would also apply to any violation of article 6 ICCPR.[8] This would be somehow equal to interpret the two regimes of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law as mutually exclusive, and might have serious implications when it comes to the implementation of the principles of proportionality and necessity, which are much more stringent within the context of the International Human Rights regime.[9] This would also place the UK far from the interpretation given by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) of the positive procedural obligations stemming from article 2 (Right to life) of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).[10] The ECtHR has indeed ‘held that the procedural obligation under Article 2 continues to apply in difficult security conditions, including in a context of armed conflict’.[11] In the opinion of the Strasbourg Court these obligations include a duty to carry out an effective investigation,[12] which might comprise criminal procedures, but also inquiries on state responsibility. [13] This might apply to cases of death of civilians as well as soldiers,[14] and can also require the investigators to ‘establish basic facts about the use of indiscriminate weapons’, when the former were ‘crucial for the assessment of the causal link between their use and the casualties’.[15] The Court has in fact found that the ‘use of explosive and indiscriminate weapons, with the attendant risk for human life, cannot be regarded as absolutely necessary’. [16]

 

 

On the implications for the right to life as a result of acts of aggression

 

The last two paragraphs of the Draft Comment no 36 are dedicated to the implications for the right to life in case of war, and even more specifically, in the event of the commission of any act of aggression contrary to the UN Charter. Paragraph 71, notably provides as follows: ‘States parties engaged in acts of aggression contrary to the United Nations Charter violate ipso facto article 6 of the Covenant. Moreover, States parties that fail to take all reasonable measures to settle their international disputes by peaceful means so as to avoid resort to the use of force do not comply in full with their positive obligation to ensure the right to life.’

The UK, at paragraph 34 of its observations, comments by stating: ‘We are rather surprised at the inclusion of paragraphs 70 and 71; these appear to be better suited to an aspirational document rather than a General Comment. We do not consider that the content is helpful, nor that it is within the Committee’s mandate.’ Thus, in the UK Government’s opinion the loss of lives resulting from the usage of an unlawful means, that is, in this specific case, an illegal war or an act of aggression, would not fall within the jurisdiction of the UN Human Rights Committee. It is however unclear where this limitation should be inferred from. In Europe, the Strasbourg Court has kept holding that article 2 ECHR (right to life) cannot be subject to any derogation, under article 15 ECHR, if not with regard to ‘lawful acts of war’.[17] A contrario, one might argue that all other means should be considered as unlawful and cannot find any justification under the ECHR. Moreover, it rests to be shown how, under which circumstances and towards whom such paragraphs might ever end up being in any way ‘unhelpful’.

 

Conclusion

 

The UN Human Rights Committee is currently at its second reading of the Draft General Comment no 36 on article 6 ICCPR (right to life). Between its first and second reading, the Committee invited all stakeholders to submit their observations. This post focused on the UK position on article 6 ICCPR, which significantly departs from the Draft Comment in many aspects. First, the UK while aligning itself with the position taken by all other EU member states, differs from the UN Committee’s Draft General Comment, when the Government considers it pointless to ban or refrain from developing any LAWS. In the opinion of the UK Government, in fact, these weapons have not been developed yet and a significant amount of uncertainty surrounds their future characteristics, effects and even definition. Second, while the UN Human Rights Committee considers the Covenant to apply during an armed conflict, the UK sees the regime of International Humanitarian Law as lex specialis and deems there exists no positive obligation to investigate any violation of article 6 ICCPR. Nor do they think they have any obligation to disclose whether any non-lethal means was available. This might have huge implications on the implementation of the principles of necessity and proportionality, which refer to different standards, depending on which regime, i.e., Human Rights Law or International Humanitarian Law, is indeed applicable. In this respect, the UK would put itself far from the stance of the ECtHR’s case law. Third, the UK considers the UN Human Rights Committee went beyond its jurisdictions, when it inserted paragraphs 70-71 in the Draft General Comment. These paragraphs concern the casual relation between any unlawful armed conflicts, or more specifically any acts of aggression contrary to the UN Charter, and an automatic violation of article 6 ICCPR. However, when it comes to any possible implications for the right to life, it is unclear where the UK could infer any limitation of the UN Human Rights Committee’s ratione materiae jurisdiction. Moreover, it rests to be shown how, and especially under which circumstances and towards whom, such paragraphs could be in any way ‘unhelpful’. In sum, the UK position on the right to life differs significantly from the UN Committee, and in many occasions this would be equal to a less comprehensive protection of the individuals’ right to life. This might find an explanation in the UK vision of human rights, which according to the Government’s observations relating to the Draft General Comment no 36, would not have any hierarchical relationship, so that the right to life would not be seen as ‘the supreme’ among all other rights any more.

[1] UK Governments, Comments on the UN Human Rights Committee’s Draft General Comment No 36, the right to life (6 October 2017) at 5. Cf Human Rights Committee, ‘General comment No. 36 on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the right to life’ (Revised draft prepared by the Rapporteur) available at < http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CCPR/GCArticle6/GCArticle6_EN.pdf> visited on 5 December 2017. Cf Case of TagayevaaAnd Others v. Russia App no 26562/07  (ECHR, 13 April 2017) at 599.

[2] UK Governments, Comments on the UN Human Rights Committee’s Draft General Comment No 36, the right to life (6 October 2017) at 12.

[3] See, e.g., Nehal Bhuta, Claus Kreβ, Autonomous Weapons Systems: Law, Ethics, Policy (CUP 2016).

[4] Cf The relevant ECtHR’s case law. See William Schabas, The European Convention on Human Rights. A Commentary (OUP 2015) 154-55.

[5] UK Governments, ‘Comments on the UN Human Rights Committee’s Draft General Comment No 36, the right to life’ (6 October 2017) at 67. Cf William Schabas, The European Convention on Human Rights. A Commentary (OUP 2015) 156-58.

[6] Cf Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Advisory Opinion) ICJ Reports (2004) 136, para. 106. See also Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Uganda) ICJ Reports (2005) 168, para. 216.

[7] UK Governments, ‘Comments on the UN Human Rights Committee’s Draft General Comment No 36, the right to life’ (6 October 2017) at 33.

[8] Ibid.

[9] As for the ‘absolute necessity’ requirement according to the ECtHR, see Case of McCann and Others v. The United Kingdom App no 18984/91 (ECHR, 27 September 1995) at 149; Case of Andreou v. Turkey App no 45653/99 (ECHR, 27 October 2009) at 55; Case of Putintseva v. Russia App no 33498/04 (ECHR, 10 May 2012) at 69. As for the proportionality requirement as developed by the ECtHR, see Case of Wasilewska and Kałucka v. Poland App nos 28975/04 and 33406/04 (ECHR, 23 February 2010) at 56-57; Case of Finogenov and Others v. Russia App nos 18299/03 and 27311/03 (ECHR, 4 June 2012) at 236. See also Conor Foley, UN Peacekeeping Operations and the Protection of Civilians: Saving Succeeding Generations (CUP 2017) 183.

[10] William Schabas, The European Convention on Human Rights. A Commentary (OUP 2015) 139. Cf Case of the “Mapiripán Massacre” v. Colombia (Inter-American Court of Human Rights, 15 September 2005) at 238.

[11] Case of Al-Skeini and others v. The United Kingdom App no 55721/07 (ECHR, 7 July 2011) at 164;Case of Mocanu and Others v. Romania App nos 10865/09, 45886/07 and 32431/08 (ECHR, 17 September 2014) at 319. See also Case of Benzer and Others v. Turkey App no 23502/06 (ECHR, 12 November 2013) at 184.

[12] See, for instance, See also Case of Benzer and Others v. Turkey App no 23502/06 (ECHR, 12 November 2013) at 198.

[13] Case of Al-Skeini and others v. The United Kingdom App no 55721/07 (ECHR, 7 July 2011) at 174.

[14] Smith v Secretary of State for Defence [2010] UKSC 29, at 70-72.

[15] Case of TagayevaaAnd Others v. Russia App no 26562/07  (ECHR, 13 April 2017) at 527.

[16] ibid at 609.

[17] Case of Al-Skeini and others v. The United Kingdom App no 55721/07 (ECHR, 7 July 2011) at 162.

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The Criminality of the Catalan Independence Referendum

Michelle Coleman, PhD Student in International Law at Middlesex University (London)

 

On 1 October 2017 a referendum vote in the Catalan region of Spain devolved into violence when police officers deployed by the national government attempted to prevent people from voting. According to some reports almost 900 people, including voters and potential voters, were injured. While recognising that there are disputed versions, this post follows the critics of the Spanish police’s actions, as described by the main NGOs and other academic bloggers.

 

This referendum asked the people of Catalonia whether they wanted the region to gain independence from Spain. This blog post explores the potential criminality that has arisen from participating in the referendum by organisers, voters and potential voters. Specifically, it will argue that participating in the referendum was not a per se criminal act. Participants could be investigated for crimes that occurred in the course of their participation, but not for the participation itself. Moreover, the police should not have targeted potential voters, using disproportionate force, because this violated the freedom of expression and did not fulfil the police’s duties of crime prevention or investigation.

 

Referendum’s Background and Constitutional Court Decision

 

Catalonia is an autonomous region in Northeastern Spain. The region’s quest for independence has a long history that has become more active in recent years. In January 2016, Carles Puigdemont was sworn in as the President of the Government of Catalonia. A staunch supporter of independence, he ran his campaign on the platform that he would hold a referendum on whether the region should become independent. The Spanish government has always opposed Catalan independence and the Constitutional Court found a previous move for Catalan independence to be unconstitutional in 2010.

 

On 19 September 2017 the Spanish Constitutional Court declared the proposed referendum unconstitutional on the grounds that there is no legal mechanism within Spanish law to allow a region to secede. They also held that the public prosecutor could investigate the leaders of the Catalan Parliament, as organisers of the referendum, for any potential crimes committed by organising the referendum.

 

Participating in an Unconstitutional Referendum is Not a Per Se Criminal Act

 

The Constitutional Court’s decision that the referendum was unconstitutional does not make participating in the referendum a criminal act. The decision merely means that the question that the referendum was asking was unconstitutional because there is no constitutional provision that allows for succession by referendum. As provided by the nullum crimen sine lege principle, an action is not a crime without a law criminally prohibiting that action at the time the action was committed. In Spain, there is no criminal law specifically prohibiting unconstitutional referendums, and because it is a civil law country, this law cannot be created by the Constitutional Court. Thus, the act of participating in the unconstitutional referendum is not a per se criminal act.

 

Just because there is no specific criminal law prohibiting unconstitutional referendums, does not mean that the act of holding or participating in such a referendum cannot result in a criminal charge. Holding or participating in the referendum may evidence a violation of an already existing criminal law. This is why the Constitutional Court stated that the public prosecutor could investigate the leaders of the Catalan Parliament; organising and holding the referendum may be evidence of treason, sedition, civil disobedience, misuse of public funds, and other crimes which already exist within Spanish criminal law. This is different however, from organising the referendum automatically becoming a criminal activity because the referendum’s topic has been held to be unconstitutional.

 

What About Voters or Potential Voters?

 

As explained above participating in the referendum itself is not a criminal offence. Further, while there is no fundamental right to vote in referendums, voting in a referendum is not in itself a criminal act, even if the referendum was held unconstitutional. Thus, voters and potential voters cannot be prosecuted for voting or attempting to vote in the referendum.

 

The situation for voters and potential voters is different from that of the organisers and Catalan leaders. Even without a right to vote in a referendum, voting itself is not a criminal act, it is merely an expression of opinion. Basically a referendum is someone is asking a question and someone else (a voter) providing their answer or opinion. This activity is protected under the right to freedom of expression. The fact that the referendum was declared unconstitutional does not change this; individual voters are still allowed to express their opinion on whether Catalonia should secede from Spain. Unlike organizing the referendum which could be evidence of crimes such as sedition, voting in the referendum does not have the same effect. Expressing an opinion against the Spanish government is not illiegal or criminal — people have been doing it for years. Thus, voters and potential voters merely participating in the referendum by stating their opinion are not committing a criminal act or providing evidence of a crime. They are exercising their right to express their opinions.

 

Of course, there can be some laws that were violated during the course of casting a vote. Among those crimes might be trespassing. Potential voters did not have proper permission to be on the property where the polling places were located. For example, many schools owned by the Spanish government. The Spanish government did not give permission for the public to use the school for holding an illegal referendum. Without proper permission, anyone entering the school for the referendum would be trespassing and could suffer criminal penalties. Whether trespassing occurred however was highly dependent on the situation. It would not occur in locations where the rightful owner of the property gave permission for the property to be opened to the public for the purpose of the referendum. Rightful owners have the ability to give permission for anyone to enter their property for any purpose they choose.

 

The Police Should Not Have Targeted Potential Voters

 

In an attempt to prevent the referendum from taking place, Spain’s paramilitary Civil Guard took charge of Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan police force). There were two ways for the police to prevent illegal elections from occurring: to focus on stopping the organisers and closing or preventing entry to any polling places or focus on potential voters and prevent them from entering a polling place or casting their vote. The first method focuses inward, on the referendum itself, while the second focuses outward on the general public. The police used both methods.

 

From the perspective of the Spanish government, closing or preventing entry to polling places may be a justified police action. The police are preventing crime by preventing an unconstitutional referendum, stopping individuals from trespassing in the polling locations, and perhaps even gathering evidence against organisers who may be liable. It is common to prevent property crime (such as trespassing) from occurring by protecting the property itself. This can be a legitimate method of suppressing an illegal action provided the police act within their normal powers. This can be done without focusing on potential voters outside of polling stations.

 

Police actions against voters and potential voters, who are not illegally inside polling locations, are not justified. Directing police actions toward potential voters wrongfully targets individuals who have not committed crimes. It punishes individuals by restraining them and restricting their movements and, at times, using violence against them. Essentially, targeting potential voters in the streets treats them in the same manner as those who are suspected of crimes. The result is not crime prevention or investigation but a stifling of freedom of expression. Yet, police officers may use force to restore public order. In that case, however, they should always comply with the necessity and proportionality requirements.

 

By focusing on the potential voters outside the occupied public buildings, the police acted as though they were the targets of crime prevention. The police took their crime prevention duties too far by targeting those whose actions were not criminal. In so doing the police exceeded the scope of their powers and reacted violently towards thousands of individuals who were merely expressing their fundamental right to freedom of expression. vote catalonia

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Gard and Others v. UK. Passive euthanasia of a minor patient and the limits to parental authority

Introduction

The case of Charles Gard (better known as “Charlie”) originates in the unfortunate conditions of a baby boy suffering from an incurable disease, whose life-sustaining treatment have been withdrawn on 28 July 2017 in accordance with UK law, notwithstanding his parents’ contrary will and after a legal dispute conducted before UK Courts and at European level.

The last stage of the dispute has been the decision issued by the European Court of Human Rights, First Section (“ECtRH”, or “Court”) on 27 June 2017, declaring inadmissible the application lodged against the United Kingdom by Charles’s parents, also on behalf of their son, for alleged violations of Articles 2 (right to life), 5 (right to liberty and security), 6 (right to fair trial) and 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”, or “Convention”).

The Court’s declaration of inadmissibility forms part of the developing body of European decisions on end-of-life situations. The present post describes the facts of the case and the ECtHR’s assessment on the complaints raised under Article 2 and 8 ECHR, focusing on two aspects of the decision: the use of the criteria developed in the recent Lambert judgment to assess whether domestic law regulating passive euthanasia is compatible with the Convention; the choice of expressly dealing with the issue of limits to parental authority in end-of-life choices concerning minors – issue which is likely to animate future debates on end-of-life situations.

 The case

Charles Gard was a baby boy suffering from a very rare and severe disease determining a progressive deterioration of his health since the age of two months and severely affecting his brain, muscles and ability to breath, so to require, inter alia, artificial ventilation.

In January 2017, the possibility of treating Charles with a form of therapy previously used on patients with a similar disease was being evaluated. In the meanwhile, the baby suffered from a severe epileptic crisis. In the light of the irreversible damages suffered by Charles’ brain, clinicians agreed that the therapy would be futile and that it would only prolong the baby’s suffering. They informed Charles’ parents of this conclusion and applied the UK High Court for an order stating that it would be lawful, and in the patient’s best interests, for artificial ventilation to be withdrawn and palliative care provided.

The High Court, noting the medical experts’ consensus on the fact that the treatment would have been futile and potentially painful for the patient, declared it lawful and in the patient’s best interest for artificial ventilation to be withdrawn.

Charles’ parents appealed on several grounds. Among them, it is worth recalling their argument according to which the ‘best interest of the child‘ criterion may be used only in cases whereby parents opposing a course of treatment do not have a viable alternative therapeutic option.[1]

The Court of Appeal dismissed this and the other arguments. Subsequently, the Supreme Court rejected the applicants’ request for permission to appeal on point of law. Charles’ parents applied the European Court of Human Rights, complaining, inter alia:

– on Charles’ behalf and on their own, of a violation of Article 2 ECHR (right to life), arguing that the hospital was blocking life-sustaining treatments and, thus, state authorities were violating their positive obligations to protect life;

– on their own behalf, of a violation of Article 8 ECHR (private and family life), alleging that there had been a disproportionate interference with their parental rights.

 The Court’s assessment on the complaints under Articles 2 and 8 ECHR.

Article 2 ECHR (right to life)

When analysing whether the applicants had locus standi on behalf of their son, the Court took the opportunity to point out that in end-of-life situations involving minors the parents’ role ‘is […] arguably to be accorded greater weight’ than in cases (such as Lambert) whereby the unconscious patient had had the opportunity to lead an adult life and express his views on end-of-life situations.

As to the substantive issue raised under Article 2, the Court examined not only the applicants’ complaint that the hospital was blocking access to life-sustaining treatment, but also the complaint (raised only at domestic level) that Charles’ right to life would be violated if treating clinicians were to withdraw artificial ventilation against his parents’ will.

With reference to the first complaint, the Court recalled its previous case-law, according to which positive obligations under Article 2 may include the duty for the State to put in place an appropriate legal framework to deal with access to experimental treatment; However, this cannot be interpreted as requiring access to unauthorised medicinal products for the terminally ill to be regulated in a particular way (Hristozov and Others v Bulgaria 2012). As the United Kingdom has a regulatory framework to deal with access to experimental treatment, which ‘is derived from the relevant European Directives’, the Court concluded that the applicants’ complaint under this head was manifestly ill founded.

As to the complaint concerning the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment (or ‘passive euthanasia’), the Court made use of the criteria elaborated by the Grand Chamber in Lambert and Others v France (GC 2015), according to which it should be assessed whether:

– A regulatory framework compatible with the requirements of Article 2 exists in domestic law and practice;

– The patient’s previously expressed wishes were considered, together with those of the persons close to him and the opinions of other medical personnel;

– There is the possibility to approach the courts in the event of doubts as to the best decision to be taken in the patient’s interests.

The Court concluded that the second complaint under Article 2 was also manifestly ill founded, considering the following reasons:

– The regulatory framework in place in the UK to deal with passive euthanasia is compatible with the requirements of Article 2 (as assessed in Glass v UK (dec) 2003, first case involving, inter alia, the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment in a minor patient whose parents oppose the treating clinicians’ choices);

– A guardian had been appointed expressly for ensuring that Charles’ wishes were taken into account, and the opinions of all medical personnel and parties involved (including the parents) had been adequately considered;

– UK domestic rules do impose a duty on clinicians to apply to courts in the event of doubts.

Article 8 ECHR (right to respect for private and family life)

Under Article 8, the applicants complained that the alleged lack of respect for their parental will constituted a violation of their right to private and family life.

The Court acknowledged that there had been an interference with the applicants’ rights under Article 8. However, this would not constitute a violation of Article 8 if: it was “in accordance with the law”, it pursued a legitimate aim (or aims), and it could be regarded as “necessary in a democratic society”.

With regard to the first two criteria, the Court found that the interference was lawful and that it pursued a legitimate aim (i.e. the protection of “health and morals” and “rights and freedoms” of a minor). As for the necessity test, the Court recalled the applicants’ argument that interference with their parental rights based on the ‘best interest of the child‘ test was unnecessary. In response to that, on the one hand,the Court pointed out that ‘there is a broad consensus – including in international law- in support of the idea that in all decisions concerning children, their best interest must be paramount‘; on the other hand, it clarified that, according to its case law, the necessity test requires ‘consideration of whether, in the light of the case as a whole, the reasons adduced to justify the measures are “relevant and sufficient”’. Also in consideration of the margin of appreciation doctrine (according to which, the less consensus among the Member States, the wider their margin of appreciation) the Court concluded that the decisions taken by the domestic courts did not show any element of arbitrariness and dismissed the complaint as manifestly ill-founded.

Final remarks

This is the first occasion in which the Court has applied the criteria developed in Lambert v. France to evaluate the compatibility of domestic laws regulating passive euthanasia with the Convention.

The body of Court’s decisions on end-of-life situations cannot be considered, yet, as case law. Still, the choice of applying to the Gard case the conclusions reached in Lambert can be regarded as a wilful development in that direction. In fact, the Court analysed the complaint relating to the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment even though this had been raised by Charles’ parents only before UK Courts: The choice of expressly dealing with this argument can be considered as an opportunity to apply the Lambert conclusions to a new case, thus reinforcing their ‘general criteria’ nature. Thanks to this choice, in future decisions on passive euthanasia cases the Lambert criteria might gain a more authoritative dimension.

In the Gard decision, the Court also considered the issue of limits to parental authority in end-of-life choices concerning minors. In analysing the applicants’ locus standi to raise a complaint under Article 2 on their son’s behalf, the ECtHR clarified that, in cases involving minors, the very early age of the patient is a factor that can be taken into consideration when determining the weight to be attributed to parents’ choices. At the same time, in analysing the complaint raised under Article 8, the Court pointed out that the ‘best interest of the child‘ criterion must always be paramount.

These clarifications are particularly welcome, if one considers that in the only previous comparable case (Glass v UK 2004) the Court had not explicitly confronted the issue of limits to parental authority in end-of-life choices concerning minors. Quite understandably, in the light of the context (i.e., a decision of admissibility, and not a judgment) the issue was approached with caution in Gard: however, it is now more likely that, in the future, other cases of this kind will be brought to the attention of the Court, when arguments concerning the limits to parental authority could play an even more relevant role.

[1] See par. 58 of the Court of Appeal decision

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The Government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: How the exception relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union will impact on the protection of Human Rights in UK

Introduction

 

On 13 July 2017 the Government of the UK published the long-awaited European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, a single legislative measure which is planned to enter into force in March 2019, when the two-year Brexit negotiation process comes to an end. In brief, the bill will revoke the European Communities Act of 1972 and transpose European Union (EU) law, ‘wherever practical’, into UK law. Any European Court of Justice’s case law issued until March 2019 will also acquire the legal strength and authority of a UK Supreme Court’s decision.

Although Parliament will be able to vote on it no sooner than next autumn, the publication of the Bill has already resulted in a great amount of criticisms, above all, on the exclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (hereafter, ‘the Charter’) from the application of the Bill, pursuant to its section 5 (4). This post first argues that the Charter, as many EU laws, is currently part of UK domestic law, thanks to section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972; which contradicts the Government’s stance in this respect; then, it argues that after Brexit, and with regard to those cases currently governed by EU law, the exclusion of the Charter would diminish the level of protection of human rights in the UK. This notwithstanding the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), incorporated in UK law via the 1998 Human Rights Act will still be enforced, but it argues that the ECHR will not grant the same human rights protection.

 

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Convention of Human Rights

 

In 2000, at the Nice European Council, the EU Members States adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which in some respects is broader than the ECHR in that it enlists, in addition to civil and political rights, economic and social and societal rights. In 2009, the Charter became binding pursuant to article 6(1) of the Treaty of Lisbon, which assigned to the Charter ‘the same legal value as the Treaties.’ EU Member States have a duty to observe it only in application of the EU law, namely: when a national legislation transposes an EU directive; 
a public authority applies EU law; or a national court applies or interprets EU law.

 

The Treaty of Lisbon, under article 6 (2), provides that the EU “shall accede” to the ECHR. While the accession has not taken place yet, all EU institutions and Member States are in any case obliged to interpret the Charter in light of existing jurisprudence of the ECtHR. Under Article 52(3) of the Charter, States have a legal obligation to give the same meaning and scope to the rights of the two instruments, insofar as they correspond.

 

On the applicability of the Charter to the UK

 

In Lisbon, Protocol 30 to the treaty related to the application of the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union to Poland and to the United Kingdom was adopted. This Protocol generated a significant confusion with respect to the legal effects on the UK. Some have argued that this implied a sort of opting out, so that the Charter has no legal value in the UK. Others embraced an opposite view, so that the Charter could have created new justiciable rights. To sort out this controversy, in 2014 the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons published a report with the evocative title of ‘The application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in the UK: a state of confusion’. The Committee concluded that the Protocol had reaffirmed that the Charter has legal strength in so far as all national authorities had to apply and interpret EU law, but it did not create new independent rights. In this respect, the Charter is directly effective in the UK, by virtue of Section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972 which in its relevant parts reads as follows:

 

‘All such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions from time to time created or arising by or under the Treaties, and all such remedies and procedures from time to time provided for by or under the Treaties, as in accordance with the Treaties are without further enactment to be given legal effect or used in the United Kingdom shall be recognised and available in law, and be enforced, allowed and followed accordingly'[emphasis added].

 

The Committee indeed recommended that, in order to disapply the Charter from the UK, ‘primary legislation be introduced by way of an amendment to the European Communities Act 1972’. Therefore, since the Charter has the same legal value as the Treaties, with respect of any EU law, it is automatically part of the UK domestic law, pursuant to the 1972 Act of Parliament. In fact UK Courts have often made reference to the Charter and checked its compatibility with the EU law as implemented in UK.[1] Furthermore, in 2013 the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the EU held:

 

‘where a court of a Member State is called upon to review whether fundamental rights are complied with by a national provision or measure which, in a situation where action of the Member States is not entirely determined by European Union law, implements the latter for the purposes of Article 51(1) of the Charter, national authorities and courts remain free to apply national standards of protection of fundamental rights, provided that the level of protection provided for by the Charter, as interpreted by the Court, and the primacy, unity and effectiveness of European Union law are not thereby compromised’ [emphasis added].

 

Consequently, it is surprising that under Section 5(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, ‘[t]he Charter of Fundamental Rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit’ [emphasis added].

 

On the protection of fundamental rights provided by the Charter and the ECHR

 

After Brexit, as provided by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, any public authority or national court in the UK could keep on applying or interpreting what was originally EU law, as this would become, ‘wherever practical’, UK law. However, so far, the relevant EU law has been interpreted in the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU in light of the Charter. If the Charter were not applicable to the UK any more, this might result in then-former EU law being significantly different from its ‘original’ version at the moment of its transposition; furthermore, its interpretation would be left to decisions to be taken on a case-by-case basis. These two factors taken together might have serious consequences in respect to the certainty of the law.

Concerning the application of the law, as far as the rights overlapping with the ECHR are concerned, this would result in a different kind of protection. Indeed, those civil and political rights provided by the Charter, in compliance with one of the most fundamental principles of the EU law, have a direct effect in the UK as many EU laws do. But if the Charter had no effect in the UK after Brexit, victims of human rights violations could only rely on the ECHR. Yet, under section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, while ‘[i]t is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right’, this does not apply to an act if

 

—(a) as the result of one or more provisions of primary legislation, the authority could not have acted differently; or (b) in the case of one or more provisions of, or made under, primary legislation which cannot be read or given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights, the authority was acting so as to give effect to or enforce those provisions.

 

Thus, the kind of protection provided by the ECHR is not comparable to what people in the UK currently have in the application of EU law, thanks to the Charter and the European Communities Act 1972.

The same kind of reasoning would a fortiori apply to all those rights that are not protected by the Human Rights Act, including many economic and social rights, when they already are justiciable rights in the UK and in the application of EU law. Indeed, while it is true that the Charter did not add any new justiciable right, it is currently relevant when it comes to verify whether any EU law is compatible with it; to the contrary, domestic law (as all former EU legislation will become after the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is adopted) granting the same rights will not prevail over conflicting statutes.

 

Conclusion

 

On 13 July 2017 the Government of the UK published the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is going to be discussed in Parliament no sooner than next autumn. Section 5(2) of the Bill, which is meant to enter into force when the UK actually leaves the EU, provides for the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU not to be considered domestic law in the UK at the moment of Brexit, nor after it. This post has shown how the Charter is currently part of UK domestic law, thanks to Section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972. It has also been argued that, should the Bill enter into force as it stands at the moment, there may arise a problem in terms of the certainty of the law because, lacking the possibility of making reference to the Charter when interpreting and applying it, former EU law would already miss something at the moment of its transposition and national authorities would be left with the burden of filling the gaps it would leave. As for the protection of fundamental rights in the UK, this might be subjected to a considerable change too. Indeed, concerning those civil and political rights that are also provided by the ECHR, national authorities are bound not to give priority to the Human Rights Act, incorporating the ECHR in the UK system, when this is in conflict with national legislation. Thus, the protection of these rights, when violated in application of a norm incorporated by the then former EU law, will be left to a different, less incisive, kind of remedy than that offered by the Charter (and many EU laws!) at present. This would be a fortiori true with regard to those rights, including economic and social rights, which are not protected by the Human Rights Act.

[1] See, for instance, [2017] EWCA Civ 431, [2017] EWCA Civ 397 at 74; [2017] EWHC 1174 (Admin) at 100-101; [2017] EWHC 931 (Admin) at 59; [2017] EWHC 577 (Admin) at 38; [2017] EWCA Civ 35; [2017] EWCA Civ 41 at 136; [2017] EWCA Civ 243 at 1; [2017] EWHC 331 (Admin) at 17; [2017] EWHC 827 (Admin) at 30; [2016] QB 1003 at [99]; [2017] CAT 9 at 80; [2017] UKUT 125 (IAC) at 34; [2017] UKFTT 167 (TC) at 435; on the Charter not conferring new rights nor expanding those rights stemming from EU law, see, e.g., [2017] EWHC 695 (QB) at 13-16; on the disapplication of a national measures conflicting with the Charter see, e.g., [2017] EWCA Civ 121 at 60; [2015] EWCA Civ 311, [2015] 3 WLR 409. Interestingly, the First Section of the ECtHR has recently reaffirmed the legally binding nature of the Charter in a case against the UK.May

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trump’s Travel Bans and Extreme Vetting: How They Violate Basic Human Rights

Caleb Wheeler, PhD Student in International Law, Middlesex University, London

One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president of the United States was to issue an Executive Order banning the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for a period of 90 days. He justified the ban on the grounds that it would be detrimental to the United States if citizens of those states were permitted to enter the country while a review was being conducted of the existing screening and vetting procedures utilized to determine whether a person should be issued an entry visa. The implementation of the ban was halted by the issuance of temporary restraining orders by multiple federal district courts, and on 9 February, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay enforcement of those temporary restraining orders. Unperturbed, President Trump issued a second executive order on 6 March in which he sought to ban citizens from six of the seven countries identified in the first ban (having removed Iraq from the original list) from entering the United States. That executive order was also challenged in Court, and federal district courts in Hawai’i and Maryland again prevented its implementation through the issuance of restraining orders. While much of the attention given to the travel bans focuses on the discriminatory effects they have on Muslims from certain countries, considerably less consideration has been given to the types of screening and vetting procedures the administration wishes to impose and the potential effects these new measures would have on the rights of all travelers to the United States. This blog post will demonstrate that policies requiring foreign travelers to reveal private electronic data are impermissible under United States’ domestic law and international law and should be avoided.

 

Both bans are titled ‘Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’ and have the stated purpose of improving “the screening and vetting protocols and procedures associated with the visa-issuance process”. The goal of these improvements is to identify those individuals seeking to fraudulently enter the United States, and those that support terrorism, violent extremism, acts of violence towards any group of people within the United States or who prevent a risk of causing harm following entry. A number of specific techniques have been suggested to promote the proper identification of individuals falling into these categories, including: in-person interviews, the creation of a database of identity documents and amending application forms so as to better identify fraudulent answers. More general methods have also been proposed involving the development of mechanisms to determine whether applicants are not misrepresenting their identities, whether they may commit, aid or support violent terrorist acts after entering the United States and a catch-all category permitting the government to use “any other appropriate means for ensuring the proper collection of all information necessary for a rigorous evaluation of all grounds of inadmissibility”.

 

It is these latter, more general, categories that cause consternation, particularly in light of recent media reports suggesting that the new screening and vetting requirements could require foreign visitors to reveal their mobile phone contacts, social media passwords and financial data before gaining entry to the country. According to a senior Department of Homeland Security official, the goal of collecting mobile phone contact information is to learn the identities of those individuals who potential visitors are communicating with. Additionally, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security previously stated that the purpose of demanding that people reveal their passwords is to allow the United States government to “see what they do on the internet.”

 

These proposals raise significant national and international right to privacy concerns. Domestically, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the unreasonable search and seizure of a person’s property and requires that search warrants be supported by probable cause. In 2014, the United States Supreme Court held in Riley v California that the police need a warrant to search the information contained on a mobile phone confiscated during a lawful arrest. That decision was based on a finding that mobile phone owners have a privacy interest in the data contained therein that can only be intruded upon through a valid warrant. Recently introduced bills in the Senate and House of Representatives seek to extend the warrant requirement set out in Riley v. California to searches of “electronic equipment and online accounts” occurring at the United States’ borders. The bills specifically state that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy about a persons’ digital content of their electronic information and online accounts and that it is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to permit border agents to access electronic equipment without a warrant. The bills do explicitly limit that right to privacy to “United States Persons” as described in 50 U.S. Code § 1801, a designation which encompasses citizens of the United States, lawful aliens with permanent residence and corporations incorporated in the United States. Despite this limitation, the general proposition remains that the right to privacy limits access to information contained on mobile devices. Further, the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution entitles non-citizens to equal protection under the law and the Supreme Court has specifically granted non-citizens the right to challenge government actions infringing on rights delineated in the Constitution. Therefore, any measures requiring individuals to produce that information would be unlawful.

 

International law also invalidates any argument that the right to privacy only extends to American citizens and other lawful residents. Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, or ‘the Covenant’), which the United States ratified in 1992, explicitly forbids the arbitrary or unlawful interference with an individual’s privacy. When delineating what sort of information States Parties must put in their reports to the Human Rights Committee, interference was described as unlawful when it does not comply with the laws of the State seeking to interfere with an individual’s privacy, and it is arbitrary when it does comply with the State’s laws, but where those laws are not in accord with the provisions, aims and objectives of the Covenant. The Committee goes on to find that interference with the right to privacy must be reasonable under the particular circumstances and should only be authorised to the extent that it is essential to the interests of society that such information is disclosed. This is a high bar to clear, and requires a case-by-case inquiry into each situation. Therefore, even if it could be shown that the information sought is essential to the interests of the United States, that it is reasonable to infringe on the right to privacy and that the right to privacy as it is understood in the United States does not prevent access to the information, a blanket demand that all foreign visitors provide contact, password and financial information will fail as it will not comply with the required fact specific inquiry.

 

In a 2013 resolution, the General Assembly of the United Nations clarified the parameters of the right to privacy as it pertains to digital information. The General Assembly specifically indicated that it was “deeply concerned” about the collection of personal data and its impact on the exercise and enjoyment of civil rights and emphasised that the unlawful or arbitrary collection of personal information is a highly intrusive act that violates the right to privacy. It called upon all states to respect the right to privacy and to establish measures meant to implement their human rights obligations. Although non-binding, this resolution indicates a rejection by the world community of the sort of measures the Trump administration hopes to impose. The General Assembly resolution also requested that the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights submit a report addressing the right to privacy in the digital age. Although the resulting report primarily focused on information accumulated through mass surveillance programmes, it did clarify that, in addition to the requirements set out by the Human Rights Committee, any limitation on the right to privacy has to comply with other human rights and must not render the right meaningless. Limitations failing to meet these criteria are considered unlawful and/or arbitrary.

 

Therefore, it is important to examine whether limitations to the right to privacy also impact other human rights. In this instance, the proposed new screening and vetting requirements could act as an infringement on the First Amendment right to free speech. The First Amendment prevents the government from abridging the freedom of speech and allows people to make political statements critical of the government without fear of punishment, unless such statements are meant to incite imminent lawless action or constitute a legitimate threat to the president’s life. Knowing that their private statements could be subject to scrutiny by the United States’ government, and possibly act as a barrier to their entry into the country, could prevent individuals from speaking freely out of fear of the possible repercussions. This is particularly true where, as here, a person can enter the United States is left to the discretion of an individual Customs and Border Protection officer, and entry can be denied even if the traveler possesses a valid visa.

 

The ICCPR also forbids the infringement of free speech, although it characterizes it as two rights: the freedom of expression and the freedom of opinion. The freedom of opinion, as set out in Article 19, is not subject to any exception or restriction, meaning the government is not permitted to infringe upon it in any way. By comparison, the freedom of expression, which includes any type of dissemination of ideas, can be limited for national security reasons. Therefore, the proposed screening and vetting cannot limit a person’s ability to hold an opinion but they can limit whether the person can express that opinion. However, the standard for implementing such a restriction is high and they will only be found lawful if they are necessary to protect national security and are not overbroad so as to exceed their protective function.

 

Screening and vetting procedures that require foreign visitors to disclose private digital information raise First Amendment and Fourth Amendment concerns and are of dubious constitutionality. Further, even if these significant Constitutional issues can be overcome, such measures are also impermissible under international law. That is unlikely to act as much of a impediment on President Trump’s attempts to implement these procedures as he has demonstrated hostility towards international human rights law during his presidency. The best hope to avoid this proposed widespread violation of the Constitution is for the Federal Courts to continue to play their important role in upholding the rights of individuals.

*Picture courtesy of usa.gov

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The 2016 Rojava Social Contract: a Democratic Experiment of Civil and Social Rights in Northern Syria

The region of Rojava, in the north of Syria, also known as Syrian Kurdistan, received international attention for its innovative system of autonomous administration, which was self-proclaimed in January 2014. Through an original Constitution, the so-called Social Contract, the de facto authorities proposed a pioneering political system based on participatory democracy, gender equality, minority rights, ecology and secularism.

After a brief introduction on the region, this post will present the main point of interest from a human rights perspective: the Constitution of Rojava, whose last version, designated as the Social Contract of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava, was presented in July 2016. This analysis will then attempt to put the legal instrument in context, presenting its cultural origins. It will, finally, reflect upon the potential impact and broader political and cultural relevance of the political experiment.

The Self-Proclaimed Autonomous Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava

Following years of hostilities with governmental forces, in the context of the Syrian conflict which broke out in 2011, Rojava proclaimed its autonomy from the Syrian Government in January 2014. The Kurdish “Democratic Union Party” (PYD, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat‎) led the self-proclaimed autonomous region to elections and to the adoption of its first Constitution: the “Charter of the Social Contract”. The Charter promoted the democratic participation and human rights of minorities within the multicultural region of Rojava, by means of a polity system called “democratic confederalism”. This theory aims to foster coexistence in multicultural societies by transcending the notion of the nation state. The region implemented its autonomous administration without claiming independence, but by choosing to remain part of a united Syria. In May 2014, Daesh started carrying out attacks in the region. The most notable success of the local army, the People’s Protection Unit, YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎), was their resistance in the siege of Kobane, one of the three Cantons of Rojava, which lasted from September 2014 to March 2015. The resistance to the siege is considered a turning point in the war against Daesh.

Beyond the military aspect, the most remarkable feature of the region is its innovative system of governance. The system, formalised as the “Charter of Social Contract of Rojava”, was approved in January 2014. The Charter was reformed in July 2016 as the “Social Contract of Rojava – Northern Syria Democratic Federal System” (hereinafter, the Social Contract). The provisions of the reformed version, which is expected to become the definitive Constitution after popular consultation, are examined below.

The Social Contract of Rojava – Northern Syria Democratic Federal System

The first notable element that emerges in the analysis of the grundgesetz of Rojava is that, since its first version in 2014, it has been designated as a “Social Contract” instead of a “Constitution”. The wording refers directly to natural law theory. The expression “Social Contract” implies the idea of an agreement among people aimed to regulate the essential aspects of their coexistence. The name itself distinguishes it from a Constitution, which generally defines the ground norm of States. The notion of the State, and of the nation-state in particular, is presented in the Preamble of the Social Contract as the root of the crises and problems of the people of Rojava. The administration accordingly does not aim to self-proclaim an independent state. At the same time, it does not enter into conflict with the Syrian State but recognizes its territorial integrity and maintains a “tacit alliance” with the government. Article 7 of the Social Contract reiterates that the region does not aim to build a new State. Other rebel groups have criticised the PYD administration for this ambiguous relationship with Assad’s Government.

The Preamble of the 2016 Social Contract lays down a non-exhaustive list of different geographical, ethnic and religious identities living in the community[1]. This marks an improvement from the 2014 version, which listed a closed number of identities solely on an ethnic basis[2]. The Preamble also defines the cultural and spiritual roots of the Rojava society, with a specific reference to the “culture of Mother Goddess”, in addition to apostles, prophets and other spiritual roots, as a means of underlining respect for all spiritual beliefs. Making explicit reference to specific divinities in the constitutional document might be counter-productive for the purpose of building a secular political system, in which different faiths and beliefs coexist. The 2014 Preamble was silent about religious roots and it only called for the construction of a “society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs”.

The first 10 articles of the contract establish the basis of the coexistence between different identities within the autonomous region. Articles 10 to 13 concern ecology, protection of the environment and sustainable development. Articles 14 to 17 establish gender equality and the promotion of women participation in all areas of life: in the family as well as in political, social and cultural life. Article 18 specifically covers the promotion of the role of youth in the democratic life of the society. Articles 20 to 40 deal with civil and political rights, including the prohibition of the death penalty and of torture, the right to self-determination, and the principle of non-discrimination, against women and youth in particular. Articles 40 to 54 concern economic and social rights, from free education to specific care for people with special needs. The last part of the Social Contract regulates the institutional side of democratic confederalism: the organization of the democratic participation of people, from the local communities to the Northern Syria Federation.

Participation to the democratic process is guaranteed by a multi-level representation system. The structure consists of Communes, a Neighborhood People’s Council, a District People’s Council, and the Rojava People’s Council. Each level elects co-presidents (the plurality of presidents encourages gender equality and representation of cultural minorities) for decisions pertaining to the local community, and elects delegates which represent them at the higher administrative level. The entire system is grounded on the principles of popular participation and federalism.

Cultural Origins of the Rojava Social Contract

The Social Contract appears to be particularly innovative for the most advanced democratic standards, and more so when compared to its neighboring systems. Kurdish sources insist that the outcome of their political theory and constitutionalism is the result of a shared legislative process, which saw the participation of different parts of the society. It is important, however, not to neglect the role of the Kurdish charismatic leader Abdullah Ocalan as a theorist of the Rojava administration.

Ocalan is among the founders of PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) the Kurdish political force that fought for the independence of Kurdistan from Turkey. The PKK was included by many countries, including the European Union, on their lists of terrorist organizations for their armed attacks which targeted, amongst others, civilians. Ocalan has been detained since 1999 in an isolated Turkish facility. During his detention, Ocalan experienced a deep change in his political thought. Influenced by authors such as Bookchin, Foucault, Wallerstein, and Braudel, he abandoned the Marxist-Leninist ideology that characterized PKK, in order to promote democratic confederalism as the ideal political system to administer multicultural societies. Ocalan authored several books on the matter. In 2006, he rejected the use of violence and proposed the start of peaceful negotiations with Turkey on the Kurdish issue. The crucial novelty in the political struggle, besides the choice of nonviolence, consisted in abandoning the request to establish a Kurdish nation state.

As a former military and political leader, Ocalan maintained a strong charismatic authority on Kurdish people of Rojava, who accepted his nonviolent approach and his democratic confederalist proposal. Despite the participatory processes that characterises institution building in Rojava, the contribution of Ocalan as a political theorist remains decisive to the introduction of principles such as sustainable development, restorative justice, secularism and feminism.

Potential Broader Impact of the Political Experiment

In the midst of the armed conflict in Syria, it is difficult to foresee possible developments in the political system in Rojava. On the one hand, the local administration achieved a certain degree of stability in the region, first gaining autonomy from the central government, then defeating the attacks of Daesh.

On the other hand, the de facto authorities are seeking to improve their legitimacy in the eyes of other Syria rebel forces (which are skeptical of the ambiguous relation between Rojava and the central Government) and also those of the Rojava population, where elections shall take place in 2017.

The main challenge to the potential of the Rojava experience, however, is exclusion from representation at the negotiating table at the Geneva Peace talks, last held in February 2016 and currently suspended. The talks constitute the main international forum where the parties to the conflict in Syria (among which the Syrian government, Turkey, and various rebel groups, but not Daesh) can dialogue and negotiate. UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has accepted the request of Turkey, as well as of other Syrian opposition groups, to exclude the de facto Rojava authorities from the talks. An inclusion to the international forum would have strengthened the Rojava administration, in terms of both its stability in the field and its visibility as an ambitious model, for the international community, to administer a multicultural society.

Conclusions

The Social Contract of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava represents an innovative legal system, under an international law perspective, for the Middle East region and for the entire international community. The political success of the Rojava system highly depends on the developments on the field of the Syrian armed conflict. From a cultural and theoretical point of view, however, it already constitutes a model to be followed as an example to administer a democratic and multicultural society.

[1]“We, the people of Rojava: Northern Syria, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, Chechens, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and various others”.

[2]“We, the people of the Democratic Autonomous Regions of Afrin, Jazira and Kobane, a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens”.

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The European Court’s Grand Chamber decision in Biao v. Denmark: A case of indirect discrimination against nationals of non-Danish ethnic origins

Introduction

Within the context of the on-going EU migration crisis, Denmark has been subjected to huge criticisms with regard to a recent bill that is considered to violate asylum seekers’ fundamental rights. More recently, on 24 May 2016 the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued its decision in the case Biao v. Denmark, regarding matters of family reunification and held that Denmark had unjustifiably violated the prohibition of non-discrimination towards some of its nationals.[1] The Court found, by twelve votes to five, that there has been a violation of Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) read in conjunction with Article 8 of the Convention.[2] The Government had indeed failed to show that there were compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin to justify the indirect discrimination to which the applicants had been subjected arising from the relevant national legislation.[3] Notably, this decision came after the Chamber, in 2014, had found that the Danish authorities had struck ‘a fair balance between the public interest in ensuring effective immigration control and the applicants’ need to be granted family reunion in Denmark and concluded that there had been no violation of Article 8 taken alone.[4]

In order to reach its conclusions, and consistently with its practice, the Grand Chamber considered ‘instructive’ to interpret the Danish legislation on family reunification in the light of the relevant EU law, including the Court of Justice of the European Union’s case law in the matter.[5] This post aims at examining the Grand Chamber’s decision in light of the recent developments in the relationship between the Courts of Strasbourg and Luxembourg. It will be concluded that the decision in Biao v. Denmark is perfectly consistent with the ECtHR’s practice of not only making reference to EU law and the case law of the Court of Luxembourg, but also verifying the compatibility of national legislations or practice with the ECHR, trying to look at the former through the lens of the relevant EU law or case law. Some comments on the political value of this decision when it comes to Denmark and migration issues are also included among the conclusions.

 

The facts

 

The case of Biao v. Denmark concerns the applicants’ complaint about the Danish authorities’ refusal to grant them family reunification in Denmark. Mr Biao is a Danish national of Togolese origin who is married to Asia Adamo Biao, a Ghanaian national. They live in Sweden and have a son who got Danish citizenship due to his father’s nationality. Their application for residence permit in Denmark and, therefore, their family reunification got refused in 2003 and 2004. The Danish Supreme Court upheld such a refusal in January 2010.

Before the ECtHR the applicants claimed to have been subjected to indirect discrimination in the application of the attachment requirement provided by the Danish Aliens Act as amended in December 2003, which introduced the so-called 28-year rule.[6] Pursuant to such a rule, in order for a Danish national, who has not acquired his/her nationality from the moment he/she was born and that is married to a third country national, to enjoy the privileges associated to citizenship in matters regarding family reunification, he/she needs to prove that he/she has got stronger ties with Denmark than with any other country by residing in Denmark for at least 28 consecutive years. The 28-year rule thus resulted in a differential treatment between Danish-born citizens and other nationals, as Danish nationals who had acquired nationality from the moment they were born were exempted from such a requirement.[7] This treatment was also an indirect discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin because persons acquiring Danish nationality later in life ‘would overwhelmingly be of different ethnic origins, that is other than Danish’.[8]

The conclusions of the Court

Having recalled that ‘a difference in treatment may take the form of disproportionately prejudicial effects of a general policy or measure which, though couched in neutral terms, discriminates against a group’,[9] and that indirect discrimination does not necessarily require a discriminatory intent,[10] the Grand Chamber considered it to be a reasonable assumption that people, who have acquired a Danish nationality later in life, would be more likely to be of non-Danish ethnic origins and that, to the contrary, Danish-born people were more likely to belong to the Danish ethnic group.[11]

According to the Court, the burden of proof was then on the Government to show that the difference in the impact of the legislation pursued a legitimate aim and was the result of objective factors unrelated to ethnic origin. Indeed,

‘no difference in treatment based exclusively or to a decisive extent on a person’s ethnic origin is capable of being justified in a contemporary democratic society and a difference in treatment based exclusively on the ground of nationality is allowed only on the basis of compelling or very weighty reasons.’[12]

Although the Court noted that Article 8 ECHR when taken alone ‘cannot be considered to impose on a State a general obligation to respect a married couple’s choice of country for their matrimonial residence or to authorise family reunification on its territory’,[13] it also held that it could apply to the present case what had been concluded in Konstantin Markin v. Russia with regard to difference in treatment on the ground of sex. That is, that ‘general biased assumptions or prevailing social prejudice in a particular country do not provide sufficient justification’.[14] The Court found that similar reasoning should apply to discrimination against naturalised nationals and therefore excluded that the problems relating to integration could be sufficient justification for the 28-year rule.

The Court also affirmed that thanks to Article 5 (2) of the European Convention on Nationality, which has been ratified by 20 states, including Denmark, there was a trend towards a European standard aiming to eliminate the discriminatory application of rules in matters of nationality between nationals from birth and other nationals.[15]

Hence, it concluded that, ‘having regard to the very narrow margin of appreciation in the present case’,[16] the Government had ‘failed to show that there were compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin to justify the indirect discriminatory effect of the 28-year rule’.[17]This rule indeed has ‘a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of ethnic origins other than Danish.’[18]

EU Law and the ECtHR

It is well known that the two legal regimes pertaining to the EU and the ECHR are quite different when it comes to the principle of non-discrimination.[19] Moreover, although the Treaty of Lisbon, under article 6 (2), provides for the possibility for the EU to accede to the ECHR, in December 2014 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued a negative opinion in this respect. Furthermore, in its recent practice the Court of Luxembourg has increasingly avoided making explicit reference to the ECtHR’s case law.[20] As for the European Convention, according to the CJEU,

‘[i]t must be borne in mind that, in accordance with Article 6(3) TEU, fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the ECHR, constitute general principles of the EU’s law. However, as the EU has not acceded to the ECHR, the latter does not constitute a legal instrument which has been formally incorporated into the legal order of the EU.’[21]

The Strasbourg Court, on its side, has been constantly referring to both EU law and the case law of the CJEU. For instance, in its recent case Arlewin v. Sweden,[22] the Court has pronounced itself on the compatibility of the Swedish courts’ practice in application of Brussels I Regulation (44/2001) with the ECHR. In this respect, it has been observed that:

‘[t]he Court of Strasbourg relies upon the findings of the Luxembourg Court and reaffirms the existence of a direct dialogue between the two jurisdictions, with the first affirming the findings of the second in a noteworthy manifestation of its endeavour to choose –whenever possible- an interpretation of the ECHR that facilitates the proper application of EU law by national authorities.’

Consistently with this view, in Biao v. Denmark the Grand Chamber also took into consideration the relevant EU law and CJEU’s case law. Indeed, although, ‘[t]he rules for family reunification under EU law did not apply to the applicants’ case in August 2004’, the ECtHR noted that:

‘it is instructive to view the contested Danish legislation in the light of relevant EU law. Given that the first applicant has moved to Sweden, by virtue of Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the member States, and in the light of the CJEU’s judgment of 25 July 2008 in Metock v. Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (…), the applicants and their child now have a prospect of success in applying from Sweden for a residence permit in Denmark.’[23]

Conclusions

Different legal issues arise from migration, as it is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon. Apart from the current EU migration crisis, which mostly relates to non-EU nationals, some national policies regulating issues concerning migrants can have an impact on the rights of EU nationals. If it is true that the non-discrimination prohibition contained in Article 14 ECHR has not acquired a perfectly overlapping application with the EU non-discrimination legislation, it is also worth noticing that the Strasbourg Court has examined the relevant Danish legislation in the light of the relevant EU law and affirmed that the applicants’ new applications could now possibly have ‘a prospect of success in applying from Sweden for a residence permit in Denmark’.

This decision will probably lead Danish authorities to amend their Aliens Act and abolish the 28-year rule. It is however striking that at a time when ‘no difference in treatment based exclusively or to a decisive extent on a person’s ethnic origin is capable of being justified in a contemporary democratic society’, a national legislation of both an EU member and CoE state has been considered to have indirect discriminatory effects on the sole ground of race/ethnicity.

[1]Case of Biao v. DenmarkApp no. 38590/10 (ECHR, 24 May 2016).

[2]Ibid. at 154.

[3]Ibid. at 138 [emphasis added].

[4]Ibid. at 64.

[5]Ibid. at 135.

[6]Ibid. at 35.

[7]Case of Biao v. DenmarkApp no. 38590/10 (ECHR, 24 May 2016) at 25.

[8]Ibid. at 102.

[9]Ibid. at 103.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid. at 112.

[12]Ibid. at 114 [emphasis added].

[13]Ibid. at 117.

[14]Ibid. at 126.

[15]Ibid. at 132.

[16]Ibid. at 138.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19] See, e.g., See also European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Handbook on European non-discrimination law (Publication Office of the European Union 2011).

[20]OddnýMjöllArnardóttir and Antoine Buyse, Shifting Centres of Gravity in Human Rights Protection: Rethinking Relations Between the ECHR, EU, and National Legal Orders(Routledge 2016) 19-24.

[21] Opinion 2/13, Delivered on 18 December 2014 (full court), at 179.

[22]Case of Arlewin v. Sweden App no 22302/10 (ECHR, 1 March 2016).

[23]Ibid. at 135 [emphasis added]. See also European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Handbook on European non-discrimination law (Publication Office of the European Union 2011) 58-59.European-Court-of-Human-Rights.jpg

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The Hutchinson and Hammerton cases. The Human Rights Act within the case law of the European Court of Human Rights

Introduction.

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) is a piece of legislation incorporating the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. The Act allows individuals to challenge a decision of a public authority within UK Courts, on the grounds that it violates their rights under the ECHR. It places upon domestic courts the duty to interpret all existing legislation in a manner that it is compatible with the ECHR. Whenever this is not possible, the Act allows for a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ to be issued by the UK Supreme Court; however, this declaration does not affect the validity of the legislation contested. This remains exclusive competence of the Parliarment.

The Act was passed into law in 1998 with overwhelming cross-party support and the backing of the then Conservative Party leadership. However, today, the same Act is at the centre of a hot debate originating in the Conservative Party’s intention to repeal this piece of legislation. The Conservative Manifesto 2015 promised to “scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights” and statements have been made by Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May to the effect that the Act constitutes an unbearable intrusion by a foreign Court into UK politics and affairs. Furthermore, Prime Minister David Cameron has declared that the UK may even consider withdrawing from the European Convention system. The upcoming referendum on ‘Brexit’, althought formally unrelated, will probably revive the debate on both issues.

The present post wishes to contribute to the debate on the possibility of repealing the Human Rights Act by discussing its role in relation to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (EctHR), with specific reference to two recent judgments in which the HRA has played a substantial role.

Hutchinson and Hammerton

Only a very small percentage of the applications lodged against the UK before the ECtHR passes the initial threshold of admissibility: between 1999 and 2010, the estimated number was around three per cent.1 Among inadmissibility decisions, many are motivated by the non-exhaustion of domestic remedies. The exhaustion rule, set forth in Article 35 of the European Convention, expresses a general principle of international law2 and is grounded in the principle of subsidiarity, according to the notion that “it falls, firstly, to the national authorities to redress any violation of the Convention.”3 The rationale behind the rule is to grant national authorities the opportunity to prevent or put right the alleged violations of the Convention.4 Thus, the ECtHR declares inadmissible applications which are not preceded by the activation of available and effective domestic remedies designed to redress the violation(s) contested.

The case law of the ECtHR demonstrates that non-exhaustion of remedies provided by the Human Rights Act often constitutes the ground for the inadmissibility of complaints lodged against the UK.5 Whenever claimants lodge an application against the UK, they must have relied, at least in substance, on the Human Rights Act before British courts in order for their application to be admissible. Accordingly, the Human Rights Act represents an important “filter”, which is capable of preventing the European Court of Human Rights from finding against the UK. British courts, well-aware of the importance of this filter, make use of their powers to interpret domestic law in accordance with the Human Rights Act so as to prevent the possibility that a certain piece of legislation gives rise to a violation of the European Convention.

This happened, for instance, in the recent Hutchinson case, whereby the European Court of Human Rights found no violation of the Convention thanks to the interpretative developments achieved at the domestic level by the Court of Appeal.6 The issue at stake was the indefinite duration of life sentences which, according to the European Court of Human Rights’ case law, is compatible with Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatments) only where there is both a prospect of release and a possibility of review.7 In the UK, the Secretary of State has the discretion to release a whole-life prisoner under Section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. However, chapter 12 of the so-called Lifer Manual provides that release can be only ordered if a prisoner is terminally ill or physically incapacitated.8 This restrictive provision has been at the centre of a debate between UK Courts and the European Court of Human Rights.9 Eventually, in R v. Newell; R v. McLoughlin, the Court of Appeal supported a wide interpretation of Section 30, allowing the Secretary of State to exercise his power of release outside the strict limits of the Lifer Manual.10 Acknowledging the importance of such an interpretation, the European Court of Human Rights concluded, in Hutchinson, that “the power to release under section 30 of the 2003 Act, exercised in the manner delineated in the Court of Appeal’s judgments in Bieber and Oakes, and now R. v. Newell; R v. McLoughlin, is sufficient to comply with the requirements of Article 3”.11

The case law of the ECtHR also demonstrates that flaws in the system delineated by the Human Rights Act may result in adverse judgments against the UK. An example can be found in the recent Hammerton case, which originated in a violation of the due process of law: the applicant had been sentenced for contempt of court after a committal hearing where he had not benefitted from the assistance of a lawyer.12 The Court of Appeal acknowledged that the lack of legal representation constituted a violation of the right to legal assistance set out in Article 6 § 3 c ECHR. However, the High Court dismissed the applicant’s claims for damages under common law, noting the lack of malice of the County Court. Furthermore, it refused the applicant’s claim for damages under the Human Rights Act 1998, noting that section 9(3) precludes damages in respect of a judicial act done in good faith, with the exception of damages required by Article 5 § 5 of the Convention, which was deemed not to be applicable in the applicant’s case because the irregularity was not so gross or obvious as to be not in accordance with the law.13 Thus, the applicant had not been afforded appropriate redress, nor it was possible for him to argue that the relevant legislation ought to be read in a manner compatible with Article 13 ECHR (right to an effective remedy) or to seek a declaration of incompatibility, because the Human Rights Act excludes from the scope of “Convention rights” the right guaranteed by Article 13 ECHR. Because of this lacuna in the British system of protection for human rights, the ECtHR dismissed the Government’s objection as to non-exhaustion of domestic remedies and eventually found a violation of Article 6 ECHR (fair trial), because “the domestic remedies available to the applicant in relation to his complaint under Article 6 were not fully “effective” for the purposes of Article 13, since they were not capable of affording adequate redress for the prejudice suffered by him in the form of the lengthened deprivation of liberty”.14

The Human Rights Act and the case law of the ECtHR.

The above mentioned decisions demonstrate the by the Human Rights Act: on the one hand, it represents a valuable tool for adjusting the British legal system to the values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, thereby avoiding adverse judgments by the European Court; on the other hand, it encourages domestic authorities to step in to protect citizens where a lacuna in the domestic law endangers their rights.

A recent study has underlined that the number of adverse judgments against the UK has shown a slight downward trend since 2005, possibly motivated by the entry into force of the Human Rights Act.15 Even though the same study warns that the annual figures are so low that it is not possible to discern a clear trend pre- and post- Human Rights Act, the figures for the years following the release of this study appear to confirm the existence of such a trend. Indeed, in 2011, only eight adverse judgments were released, against 1,553 applications allocated to a judicial formation; in 2012, there were ten adverse judgments against 1,732 allocated applications; in 2013, eight adverse judgments against 912 allocated applications; in 2014 four adverse judgments against 720 allocated applications; and in 2015, four adverse judgments against 575 allocated applications. These numbers confirm the downward trend noted by the study, and also a slight downward trend in the number of allocated applications. It would be beyond the limits of the present contribution to investigate elements such as the number of inadmissibility decisions grounded on the presence of an effective remedy provided by the Human Rights Act: however, the two judgements analysed above clearly demonstrate the relevance that the Act plays in the determinations reached by the European Court of Human Rights.

On a general note, it is worth reiterating that the Human Rights Act was adopted by the UK Parliaments with an overwhelming cross-party majority and that the same European Convention on Human Rights has been the result of the work of prominent British lawyers, such as Sir David Patrick Maxwell Fyfe, a Conservative politician who was the Chair of the Committee on Legal and Administrative Questions of the Council of Europe’s Consultative Assembly from 1949 to 1952. Repealing the Human Rights Act might risk not only increasing the number of adverse judgments by the ECtHR, but also undermining the prominent position established by the UK within the Council of Europe and taint its international reputation as a pioneer in the protection of human rights. Using the words of human rights lawyer Jonathan Cooper, “there is nothing more British than the Human Rights Act. And through it, our values are being woven into human rights law across the globe.

1

A. Donald, J. Gordon, P. Leach, The UK and the European Court of Human Rights,Equality and Human Rights Commission Research report 83, 2012, p 34

2

ICJ, Interhandel (Switzerland v Unted States) Judgment of 21 March 1959; Article 41(1)(c) ICCPR; Article 46 American Convention on Human Rights; Articles 50 and 56(5) African Charter of Human and People’s Rights

3

Gafgen v Germany (GC), App no 22978/05, 1 June 2010; Siliadin v France, App no 73316/01, 26 July 2005

5

Amongst many others, see: Peacock v UK (Decision), App no 52335/12, 5 January 2016; Bahmanzadeh v UK (Decision), App no 35752/13, 5 January 2016; Roberts v UK (Decision), App no 59703/13, 5 January 2016

6

Hutchinson v. UK, App no 57592/08, 3 February 2015

7

Kafkaris v Cyprus [GC] Application no. 21906/04, 12 February 2008

8

Indeterminate Sentence Manual (the Lifer Manual), issued as Prison Service Order 4700

9

R v Bieber [2009] 1 WLR 223; R v David Oakes and others [2012] EWCA Crim 2435, [2013] 2 Cr App R (S) 22; Vinter and others v UK [GC], Apps nos 66069/09, 130/10, 3896/10, 9 July 2013

11

Hutchinson v. UK, App no 57592/08, 3 February 2015

12

Hammerton v UK, App no 6287/10, 17 March 2016, paras 6-15

13

Hammerton v UK, paras 26-35

14

Hammerton v UK, paras 146-147

15

A. Donald, J. Gordon, P. Leach, The UK and the European Court of Human Rights, Equality and Human Rights Commission Research report 83, 2012, p 36

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The European Court of Human Rights decision in Nasr and Ghali v. Italy: Impunity for Enforced Disappearance in Milan

Introduction

On 23 February 2016 the Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR, the Court) issued a judgment in the case of Nasr and Ghali v. Italy. The Court unanimously found Italy responsible for violations of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment), Article 8 ECHR (right to respect for private and family life), Article 13 ECHR (right to an effective remedy) with respect to both applicants, and of Article 5 (right to liberty and security) with respect to Mr Nasr.

The Egyptian national Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, aka Abu Omar, was granted asylum in Italy and settled in Milan, where he married Ms Ghali. On 17 February 2003 he was kidnapped by a team of agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, with the cooperation of Italian agents. Leaving from the Aviano U.S. air base, he was transferred, through the Ramstein US air base in Germany, to Egypt, where he was secretly detained and tortured for over 12 months. He was released on 19 April 2004, when he contacted his wife and stated his version of the events. The details of the abduction were later confirmed by proceedings before Italian courts. The Italian judiciary was able to establish the facts, but not to fully dispense justice and prosecute those responsible, because of the shield of state secrecy imposed by the Italian Government. Mr Nasr’s kidnapping is an example of the post-9/11 counter-terrorism practice of “extraordinary renditions”, which, as argued below, can be characterized as enforced disappearances.

This analysis aims to contextualise Nasr and Ghali v. Italy in the broader jurisprudence of the extraordinary renditions cases examined before the ECtHR, while focusing on the findings of the case at stake concerning the responsibility of Italian institutions (namely, the Government, Chief of State and Constitutional Court) in providing impunity to those responsible. Furthermore, it will examine the practice of extraordinary renditions in international law, to establish whether the case can fit the definition of enforced disappearance, and how this could enhance the protection of renditions victims.

Extraordinary Renditions Before the ECtHR

“Extraordinary rendition” refers to the illegal arrests and secret transfers of alleged terrorists from the countries of arrest to black sites, where detainees are subjected to interrogations which include torture or inhuman or degrading treatments. The U.S. carry out extraordinary renditions with the cooperation of several states, with the aim to question “high value detainees” through “enhanced interrogation techniques” that could not be performed on U.S. soil. The practice is secret and, notwithstanding documentation by NGOs and institutions,[1] its details remain largely unknown. It apparently started in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 and was limited, but not abolished, by the Obama Administration with the “Ensuring Lawful Interrogations” Executive Order of 22 January 2009. Within the context of the current electoral debate, Presidential candidates express various and inconsistent opinions about such practice.

Before Nasr and Ghali, the ECtHR had handed down two decisions relating to extraordinary renditions. First, in the 2012 case of El-Masri v. “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, which concerned a German citizen, Khaled El Masri, who was arrested by CIA agents the night of 1 January 2004. He was detained in secret, in a Skopje hotel, for 3 weeks and then transferred to Kabul. He was released after 4 months of interrogations. The El Masri case is possibly the most blatant example of an erroneous rendition: the agents mistakenly believed to have arrested and questioned Khalid Al Masri, a person allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks. The Grand Chamber held that such extraordinary rendition violated a combination of Articles of the European Convention: namely, Articles 3, 5, 8 and 13.

The second decision was issued in the case of Al Nashiri v. Poland and Husayn (Abu Zubaydah) v. Poland and concerned a black site on European territory: Stare Kiejkuty facility. In addition to the violations of Articles 3, 5, 8 and 13 ECHR found in El Masri, the decision referred to Poland’s failure to cooperate with the Court in violation of its obligation under Article 38 ECHR. After the detention in Poland, furthermore, Al Nashiri was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he risked facing the death penalty, entailing the violation of Articles 2 (right to life) and 6 (right to a fair trial) of the European Convention, along with Article 1 (abolition of the death penalty) of Protocol No. 6 to the ECHR.

In the most recent Nasr and Ghali, Mr Nasr’s extraordinary rendition has been defined as “the most disturbing case” and “the most grotesque rendition”[2] because of the amount of evidence left by the agents involved.[3] A reporter defined the mission, which involved luxurious restaurants and hotels in Venice and Florence, as “La Dolce Vita War on Terror”. Since details of the operation were available to the prosecutor, and generally to the public, the Court (para 254) found that State secrecy was not relied on to genuinely protect sensitive information, but rather to grant impunity to those responsible. Differently from El Masri and Al Nashiri, the ECtHR (para 265) found that, in this case, domestic proceedings had already taken place, establishing the truth, identifying the persons responsible and securing their convictions (the 4 November 2009, the District Milano Court convicted 22 CIA agents in absentia). However, due the intervention of the executive, the judgments have not been enforced.

Various institutions have hindered judicial proceedings. First, the Italian Government, under successive Presidents, imposed State secrecy over the acts committed by the Italian intelligence agency (SISMI), shielding the agents involved in Nasr’s rendition. In addition, the ECtHR affirmed (para 270) that US agents never sought extraditions. Second, the Chiefs of State (namely, Presidents Napolitano and Mattarella) granted pardons to three US agents involved. Third, the Constitutional Court affirmed the supremacy of State secrecy over any other constitutional concern in two separate decisions (that is, decisions no. 106/2009 and no. 24/2014). In addition to the violations identified in earlier cases, the Court further held that the rendition constituted a treatment towards Ms Ghali, Mr Nasr’s wife, that violated Articles 3 and 8 ECHR.

Extraordinary Rendition in International Law: Possible Characterisation as Enforced Disappearance

Extraordinary rendition as such does not constitute a specific crime in international law. It can however fall within the legal definition of enforced disappearance. Enforced disappearances are defined by Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) relating to crimes against humanity. A broader definition is provided by Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED), entered into force in 2010, which reads as follows: “For the purposes of this Convention, ‘enforced disappearance’ is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law”. The United States, primary responsible for the practice, are not party to the ICC Statute and have not ratified the CED. Still, extraordinary renditions are perpetrated by nationals, and on the territory, of States that have ratified both instruments, which is the case of Italy.

As described above, extraordinary rendition entails the cumulative violation of a number of rights, in the course of a single, if complex, pattern of conduct. In the ECtHR case law, violated rights include the right to personal liberty and security, the respect for private and family life, the right to access effective remedy, and in certain cases, the right to life. Extraordinary rendition, furthermore, generally involves the perpetration of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment, which is not a necessary element of the crime of enforced disappearance.

In Al Nashiri (para 520), the Court affirmed that “the rationale behind the program was specifically to remove those persons from any legal protection against torture and enforced disappearance”. In El Masri (par. 240),the Grand Chamber held that “the applicant abduction and detention amounted to ‘enforced disappearance’ as defined in international law”. In El Masri, the Court furthermore found another feature pertaining to enforced disappearances: the right to truth, which should not be obstructed by the concept of State secrecy (par. 191) and has both a private and public dimension.

The characterization of extraordinary renditions as enforced disappearances has various advantages in enhancing the protection of the victims. First, it provides a clear definition of an otherwise complex criminal conduct, which involves a combination of human rights violations; second, it excludes any possible derogation, including cases relating to national security, regularly alleged in these types of counter-terrorism operations; third, when it is contextualized as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, it envisages the potential to define the practice as a crime against humanity. 

Conclusion

The decision of the Chamber in Nasr and Ghali v. Italy marked a remarkable step in addressing the issue of extraordinary renditions in Europe. The decision finds state secrecy, which had notably be confirmed by two judgements of the Italian Constitutional Court, not to be compatible with the rights protected by the European Convention. Finally, the possible characterisation of the conduct as enforced disappearance opens new avenues for a stronger protection of the victims of extraordinary renditions.

[1]              Council of Europe, Committee for Legal Affairs and Human Rights, “Secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers involving Council of Europe member states, 2007;  European Commission for Democracy Through Law; “Opinion on the International  Legal Obligation of Council of Europe Member States in Respect of Secret Detention Facilities and Inter-State Transport of Prisoners”, 2006.  European Parliament, Temporary Committee on the alleged use of European countries by the CIA for the transport and illegal detention of prisoners, 2007; Amnesty International, Below The Radar, Secret flights to torture and ‘disappearance’, 2006; Human Rights Watch, The United States’ “Disappeared” The CIA’s Long-Term “Ghost Detainees”, 2004.

[2] “La più grottesca extraordinary rendition”, Claudio Fava, “Quei bravi ragazzi”, Sperling, 2007.

[3]Tullio Scovazzi, “Tortura e formalismi giuridici di basso profilo” in Rivista di diritto internazionale, 4, 2006.

 

European court of human rights

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Time and definitions in the interpretation of the ECHR. ‘Private life’ and the legal recognition of post-operative transsexuals

Introduction

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has jurisdiction over all matters concerning the interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and its Protocols,1 but neither the ECHR nor its Protocols give any indication as to the appropriate interpretative techniques. In principle, being an international treaty, the ECHR should be interpreted in accordance with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969 (VCLT).2 However, it has been rightly pointed out that the ECtHR pays only ‘lip-service’ to the interpretative tools of the VCLT.3 The reason lies in the peculiar nature of the European Convention of Human Rights, a law-making, human rights treaty,4 that can hardly be interpreted with the traditional tools of International Law (mainly borrowed by the private law of contracts).5 Therefore, the Court has autonomously developed its own interpretative methodology.

Within this methodology, a central role is played by the principle of evolutive interpretation, according to which ‘the Convention is a living instrument which … must be interpreted in the light of present-day conditions’.6 For this reason, the Court’s evaluation of the infringement of human rights develops in accordance with the changes occurring in the domestic law of the member States and in society.7 The present contribution aims at providing a better understanding of how time significantly impacts evolutive interpretation, and how the latter relates to other interpretative principles.

The analysis focuses on the extension of the notion of ‘private life’ (Article 8 ECHR) to cover certain rights pertaining not only to sexuality, but also to the legal recognition of post-operative transsexualism. The ECtHR’s case law on this topic is an interesting example of evolutive interpretation, because the inclusion of the rights of transsexuals came as a result of a progressive shift in the European judges’ attitude. Furthermore, the extension has been facilitated by the peculiar notion of ‘private life’, thus demonstrating the connection of evolutive interpretation with the autonomous notion principle.

Private life and sexuality

Article 8 ECHR protects the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence. Each element of the right has an autonomous meaning under the ECtHR’s case law, because the definition of the legal terms within the European Convention is held to be independent from that in use among State Parties (‘autonomous notions’ principle).8

With regard to the notion of ‘private life’, the ECtHR has established that this concept ‘is a broad term not susceptible to exhaustive definition”.9 Furthermore, it has held that ‘it would be too restrictive to limit the notion to an “inner circle” in which the individual may live his own personal life as he chooses’, and that ‘respect for private life must also comprise to a certain degree the right to establish and develop relationships with other human beings.’10 Accordingly, the Court acknowledges that ‘private life’ is a notion encompassing not only rights relating to the personal identity of individuals (e.g.: name, honour, reputation)11 but also those pertaining to their social identity. On this basis, the Court recognised the rights associated with the free manifestation of sexual orientation relatively early.12 On the other hand, the extension of ‘private life’ to include the legal recognition of post-operative transsexualism occurred at a much later stage.

Rights of post-operative transsexuals

One of the very first cases in which the Court was faced with a request to protect the rights of transsexuals was the 1986 case concerning Rees, a British citizen who had undergone a female-to-male operation.13 He complained that no provision under British law allowed transsexuals to obtain a modification of their birth certificate in accordance with their new sex. This had certain implications e.g., on their right to marry and on their pension rights. Therefore, in the applicant’s opinion, the lacuna in the British law had infringed upon his right to respect for private life, protected by Article 8 ECHR.

The Court pointed out that the notion of ‘respect’ for private life was not ‘clear-cut’ and that there was little common ground among the Contracting States with regard to the rights of transsexuals, since the domestic law of most States was still ‘in a transitional stage’.14 As a consequence, the Court held that Article 8 ECHR could not be extended so far as to require the United Kingdom to adopt ‘detailed legislation as to the effects of the change in various contexts and as to the circumstances in which secrecy should yield to the public interest’, at least ‘for the time being’.15 At the same time, the Court pointed out that the Convention ‘has always to be interpreted and applied in the light of current circumstances’. On this basis, the Court declared that appropriate legal measures should ‘be kept under review, having regard particularly to scientific and societal developments’.16

In the subsequent case of Cossey (a male-to-female transsexual, complaining about the same lacuna in British law) in 1990, the Court noted that there had been no significant developments since the Rees case. There was still the same ‘diversity of practice’ among Member States, and a departure from the Court’s earlier decision was not justified since there was no change in the ‘present-day conditions’.17 This conclusion, however, was coupled with many dissenting opinions which pointed out the ‘clear developments’ in the law of some Member States, or expressed a desire for a stronger activism by the Court.18

In the 1998 Sheffield & Horshman case, the Court recognized an increased social acceptance of transsexualism, and an increased recognition of the problems which postoperative transsexuals encounter.19 However, the majority of the Court’s judges were still not convinced that the legislative European trends were sufficient to establish the existence of any common European approach to the recognition, at law, of postoperative gender status.20 The rejection of the applicants’ claims was accompanied, again, by dissenting opinions.

The slow, but evident, evolution in the Court’s attitude towards the rights of transsexuals culminated in 2002, with its judgement in the Goodwin case.21 Here, the Court recognized ‘the clear and uncontested evidence of a continuing international trend in favour not only of increased social acceptance of transsexuals but of legal recognition of the new sexual identity of postoperative transsexuals’. The consequence was that the unsatisfactory situation in which postoperative transsexuals lived was considered to be ‘no longer sustainable’, and a violation of Article 8 ECHR was finally declared.22

Conclusion

The right to legal recognition of post-operative transsexualism took twenty years to be established. It is worth noting that the extension of the protection afforded by Article 8 ECHR has been favoured by the ‘undefined’ nature of the notion of private life. Indeed, the evolutive interpretation of the Convention is more easily achieved when legal concepts lack a clear definition. From this point of view, it can well be said that the autonomous notion principle allows the Court to retain a power of non-definition of certain notions, facilitating the extension of those notions to the changing needs of society. Accordingly, one should never look at the developments of the Court’s case law without examining, first, the extent to which the Convention notions are (un)defined; the principle of evolutive interpretation should always be considered together with the autonomous notions principle.

To conclude, time manifests the limits of a historically determined text such as the European Convention of Human Rights. The ECtHR reacts to these limitations by adapting the text to the changing needs of society. The result is assisted by the margin of discretion retained by the Court on the limits of the Convention notions, which, in turn, is strengthened by the autonomous notion principle.

1 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights, as emended) (ECHR), Art 32

2 United Nations, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) 23 May 1969, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1155, p. 331

3 I SINCLAIR, The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (Manchester, 2nd ed, MUP 1984) 140

4 Wemhoff v Germany (1968) Series A no 7

5 LG LOUCAIDES, The European Convention on Human Rights. Collected Essays (Leiden, 2007) 10

6 Tyrer v United Kingdom (1978), Series A no 26, par 31; Marckx v Belgium (1979), Series A no 31, par 41

7 Dudgeon v United Kingdom (1981), Series A no 45, par 23

8 Marckx v Belgium (1979) Series A no 31, para 31; Engel And Others v The Netherlands (1976) Series A no 22, para 81. On this topic, see eg: G. Letsas, The Truth in Autonomous Concepts: how to interpret the ECHR, in European Journal of International Law, 15, 2004, p 279

9 Niemietz v Germany (1992) Series A no 251-B, par 29

10 Niemietz v Germany (1992) Series A no 251-B, par 29

11 Burghartz v Switzerland (1994), Serie A n 280-B; Sanchez Cardenas v Norway, App no 12148/03, ECHR 2007; Pfeiffer v Austria, App no 12556/03, ECHR 2007 ; Schussel v Austria (dec), App no 42409/98, ECHR 2002

12 Niemietz v Germany (1992) Series A no 251-B; Dudgeon v UK (1981) Series A no 45

13 Rees v United Kingdom (1986) Series A no 106

14 Rees, par 37

15 Rees, par 44

16 Rees, par 47

17 Cossey v United Kingdom (1990) Series A no 184, par 40

18 Cossey, (1990) Series A no 184 (Judges Macdonald & Spielmann) (Judge Martens)

19 Sheffield & Horshman v United Kingdom, ECHR 1998-V

20 Sheffield & Horshman, par 57-60

21 Goodwin v United Kingdom, ECHR 2002-VI

22 Goodwin, par 84-90

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