S.M. v Croatia

Grand Chamber judgment clarifies the definitional scope of Article 4 of ECHR

The case of S.M. v. Croatia (application no. 60561/14) concerns a Croatian woman who had lodged a criminal complaint against T.M., a former policeman, alleging that he had physically and psychologically forced her into prostitution within Croatia. The Court found that the relevant authorities had not fulfilled their procedural obligations of effective investigation under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The applicant’s personal situation undoubtedly suggested that she had belonged to a vulnerable group, while T.M.’s position and background suggested that he had been capable of assuming a dominant position over her and abusing her vulnerability. While the prosecuting authorities had reacted promptly to the applicant’s allegations, they had failed to follow some obvious lines of inquiry capable of elucidating the circumstances of the case and establishing the true nature of the relationship between both parties.

The Grand Chamber concluded that the criminal investigation by the domestic authorities and the subsequent criminal proceedings had ‘significant flaws’, thus violating the procedural obligation under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

GRETA made a third-party written submission to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S.M. v. Croatia, following its referral to the Grand Chamber of the Court on 3 December 2018. In its decision, the Grand Chamber draws on GRETA’s submission and the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in interpreting the positive obligations under Article 4 of the ECHR. The judgement highlights in paragraph 344 that “there may be different reasons why victims of human trafficking and different forms of sexual abuse may be reluctant to cooperate with the authorities and to disclose all the details of the case. Moreover, the possible impact of psychological trauma must be taken into account. There is thus a risk of overreliance on the victim’s testimony alone, which leads to the necessity to clarify and – if appropriate – support the victim’s statement by other evidence.”



The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings entered into force on 1 February 2008, following its 10th ratification. While building on existing international instruments, the Convention goes beyond the minimum standards agreed upon in them and strengthens the protection afforded to victims.

The Convention has a comprehensive scope of application, encompassing all forms of trafficking (whether national or transnational, linked or not linked to organised crime) and taking in all persons who are victims of trafficking (women, men or children). The forms of exploitation covered by the Convention are, at a minimum, sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude and the removal of organs.

The main added value of the Convention is its human rights perspective and focus on victim protection. Its Preamble defines trafficking in human beings as a violation of human rights and an offence to the dignity and integrity of the human being.



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