Non-Governmental Organisations


Address by the President of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organisations of the Council of Europe, Jean-Marie Heydt, at the High-Level Conference on the Future of the European Court of Human Rights, Interlaken, 18 and 19 February 2010

The Court: a true guarantor of rights with a human dimension

Chair of the Committee of Ministers,
Secretary General,
President of the Court,
President of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Commissioner for Human Rights,
Vice-President of the European Commission,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I should like to begin by underlining the great importance which civil society, which is very broadly represented in the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations of the Council of Europe, attaches to the invitation extended by the Swiss Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers.

At the end of 2009, the Permanent Delegation of the Swiss Confederation asked the Conference of INGOs, which forms the fourth pillar of the Council of Europe alongside the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress, to consider the various issues and provide input for the crucially important debate concerning the future of the European Court of Human Rights and hence also of democracy in Europe, which brings us together here in Interlaken today.

I should like to thank you for showing confidence in the Conference of INGOs and civil society in general in this way. We are most grateful for your invitation.

While INGOs are clearly not all specialists in law and still less in procedures, all the INGOs holding participatory status with the Council of Europe share a common concern to which they are deeply committed: the defence of fundamental freedoms and human rights, without which, as we all know, there would be no liberty. At our preparatory meetings for the Interlaken conference, we shared the same findings, experiences and observations from grassroots level, where our INGOs operate on a daily basis.

With no exceptions, all our organisations tell us that the European Court of Human Rights is, above all, a great source of hope for European citizens and, very often, the last hope for many applicants. And because the Court is such a great source of hope it sometimes unintentionally generates a considerable degree of disillusionment, disappointment and anxiety when it proves unable to meet all expectations. There are several factors at play here:

    - applications which are declared inadmissible because of procedures which ordinary citizens sometimes do not understand;
    - proceedings which take much too long for applicants;
    - the very late execution of judgments;
    - and, worse still, failures to execute judgments.

Yet it has to be repeated loud and clear that Europeans believe in the virtues of this Court, which has constantly advanced the cause of human rights from the outset and gradually extended its influence in the 47 Council of Europe member states, especially now in all the new democracies, where this need for civil society to express itself is being reflected, perhaps more so than elsewhere, in the hundreds of thousands of NGOs that are being set up almost everywhere.

The Conference of INGOs does, however, recognise that the hopes placed in the Court and which assure it of the success we are all familiar with must not prevent it from retaining a human dimension and remaining within the reach of all individuals. What would be the point of a court system that was highly efficient in applying the law but became ossified by its own cumbersome procedures?

It would end up being intrinsically incompatible with the very values it was based on, those values which we defend, namely the values of human rights.

The Conference of INGOs and all European citizens are aware of the backlog of cases affecting the Court. There can be no question of exposing it to the risk of being condemned to the realm of history books or fairy tales (with no magic wand to save it).

The Conference of INGOs and civil society as a whole would nevertheless like to make a number of specific requests so that the hope they place in the future of the Court is preserved:

    All member states must do everything in their power to honour in full the obligations entered into under international conventions, starting by scrupulously incorporating in domestic law the commitments they made upon ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights. That alone would probably lead to a significant reduction in the number of applications;

    Clearer guidance for applicants, which was recognised by the relevant authorities, would undoubtedly make for increased awareness, a proactive approach and more effective preventive efforts. That, too, would probably lead to a significant reduction in the number of applications.

In this respect, I should like to express our surprise and disappointment that the Conference of INGOs is not mentioned in the draft final declaration of this conference, even though we are willing to make a real contribution in terms of providing assistance, advice or indeed legal representation for those who wish to lodge applications with the Court, either as individuals or as groups. As the voice of organised civil society, the Conference of INGOs had even made a commitment to that effect.

    This commitment is reflected in the role which the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe plays, through its vast network of member organisations, in working to improve the promotion and protection of human rights so as to prevent violations before they happen and take part in the supervision of the execution of the judgments of the Court. The Conference of INGOs therefore already plays an active and tangible role and intends continuing to do so;

    Our work together in the discussions prior to Interlaken has led us to support the idea of establishing a permanent system to enable all national courts to apply directly to the European Court of Human Rights for advisory opinions on legal issues and, in particular, the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights. There again, work done beforehand could play a part in reducing the number of applications.

The latter have now reached a huge level and it would be suicidal not to take part in the vital efforts to bring about a reform designed to enable confidence in the institution to be preserved. This should not be at any price, however.

Regarding all the proposals which have been studied in depth by the various parties and brought to our attention to date, I have been instructed to inform you that, while the Conference of INGOs welcomes the reassertion of the importance of the right of individual petition, it is nevertheless opposed to three proposals which place unacceptable restrictions on access by applicants to the Court and would accordingly be an intolerable source of discrimination:

    We cannot accept the proposal that applicants should be required to bear the costs of proceedings, even for the sake of keeping the Court’s budget on an even keel;

    We also cannot accept the principle of the compulsory representation of applicants by a lawyer from the start of the proceedings, with no possibility of access to free legal aid;

    Lastly, we cannot accept the requirement to use one of the Council of Europe’s two official languages at all stages in the proceedings.

In the opinion of the Conference of INGOs, these three proposals would place unacceptable restrictions on equal, non-discriminatory access by all citizens to the European Court of Human Rights.

Access to the Court would become equally discriminatory if people were denied the right of lodging individual applications.
The Conference of INGOs would place particular emphasis on this absolute imperative, given the need for equal access to justice, regardless of the level concerned. The remedies for the backlog at the Court must not come at the expense of any possibility of individual petition, as that would entail a risk of an artificial barrier being erected between the institution and ordinary citizens and courts at domestic level.

The Conference of INGOs remains concerned, however, along with other parties who will probably make the point much more clearly than I am able to, as the reforms needed in the Court will not be possible without a substantial increase in material and financial resources: that is a vital and urgent need.

And our particular concern lies in the fact that these financial resources must not under any circumstances be provided at the expense of the Council of Europe’s other activities. Responsibility for the future of the Court is in the hands of the Council of Europe member states. The 47 member states have signed and ratified a convention guaranteeing human rights. In honouring their commitments, the 47 member states have a duty, in particular through their respective contributions, to ensure the harmonious development of the Court without undermining the outstanding work done elsewhere in the Council of Europe.

Yes, we do realise how lucky we have been since the aftermath of the war in having an invaluable legal mechanism which now unites 47 states in the defence of the fundamental values of all citizens; a unique mechanism directly linked to the European Convention on Human Rights, with the whole system covering a geographical area where civil society can count on rights which are afforded to it not in empty declarations but in provisions which are that many values given practical effect in daily life.

Those are our concerns today.

Will we be able, will you be bold enough, to send out here and now the strong signal which Europeans are expecting and tell them that all our states are now committed to ensuring that effective human rights safeguards are really implemented through a court which responds effectively to their expectations and hopes, including their last hopes?

Because all of us here, whether ministers, representatives, lawyers, judges, delegates or senior officials, all of us, including the INGOs, have the same objectives, the same desire and the same expectations, namely that a sound future be ensured for the European Court of Human Rights as the guarantor on a daily basis of the rights and freedoms of all individuals.

While thanking you again for honouring me with the invitation to speak here today and also for your kind attention, I can therefore assure you, on behalf of the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe, that we will make sure that we honour the commitments we entered into when we were granted participatory status. The Conference of INGOs will do everything it can to find the solutions needed for implementing the Interlaken Conference Action Plan – you can count on us!