- The European Convention on Human Rights protects people from discrimination – including discrimination based on ethnicity, gender or sexuality.
- Judgments from the European court have provided justice for the victims of discrimination. They have also led countries to change their laws and practices, to protect all members of society equally.
- Examples include making sure that the police investigate attacks against ethnic minorities, properly protecting women from domestic violence and making sure that homosexuality is not a crime anywhere in Europe.
David Norris suffered from anxiety attacks and depression after realising that any open expression of his homosexuality could lead to a criminal prosecution. The Strasbourg court ruled that the criminalisation of his sexuality breached his basic rights. In 1993, this led to the full legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults under Irish law.
Loreta Valiulienė told the authorities that she had been attacked by her partner. However, the public prosecutor repeatedly failed to investigate properly, until the case became time-barred and the partner never faced justice. The European court ruled that these failures had violated Ms Valiulienė’s basic rights. A series of reforms were carried out to combat domestic violence in Lithuania.
For decades, Cypriot law criminalised homosexual relationships between men. Alecos Modinos suffered from strain, apprehension and fear of prosecution due to his relationship with another man. The European court ruled that the criminalisation of Alecos’ sexuality violated his basic rights to a private life. In 1998, Cyprus decriminalised homosexual relationships.
Man persecuted for his sexuality wins landmark judgment – transforming the law in Northern Ireland and beyond
Since the age of 14, Jeffrey Dudgeon experienced fear, suffering, and psychological distress because his sexuality was regarded as a crime. His house was raided by police and he was interrogated for hours. In a test case, the European court ruled that law violated the right to private life. In 1982, Northern Ireland legalised homosexual relationships – followed by many other European countries.
Bruised and beaten, Angelica Bălșan suffered eight assaults from her husband and sustained injuries that required up to ten days of medical care. She made many complaints to the authorities, but they took no proper steps to protect her. The European court held that Ms Bălșan had been inadequately protected against the abuse – leading to ongoing reforms to combat domestic violence in Romania.
Two 21-year-olds absconded from military service and went to see their grandmother. When military police arrived, the men were unarmed and non-violent - and tried to run away. Nevertheless, they were shot dead. The Strasbourg court ruled that the military police had used grossly excessive force. This case, and others, led to changes in the rules on the authorities’ use of firearms.
All of the Roma inhabitants of a village had their houses burnt down by other locals. The authorities were warned, but refused to intervene. After the attack, the authorities did not investigate properly and the courts failed to give the victims a fair trial. Their application to Strasbourg led to compensation and local programmes to combat discrimination and exclusion.
When João Salgueiro da Silva Mouta got divorced, the Court of Appeal granted his wife custody of their daughter. A decisive reason was the fact that Mr Salgueiro da Silva Mouta was gay. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had been discriminatory, and without proper justification – leading to a change in Portuguese court practices.
Horst Zaunegger had a daughter and separated from the child’s mother. German law limited his chances to obtain joint custody, because he and the mother had never been married. After he won his case in Strasbourg, the law was changed to give fathers such as Mr Zaunegger more rights.
Iakovos Thlimmenos was a Jehovah’s Witness. He refused to do military service on religious grounds, and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Upon his release, he was also prevented from working as an accountant. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had been unreasonable and unjustified - amounting to discrimination based on religion. Laws were changed as a result.
Under Austrian law, custody of a child born out of marriage was automatically given to the mother, with few exceptions. Meanwhile, custody of children born within marriage was decided according to the child’s best interests. At the Strasbourg court, Mr Sporer successfully argued that this was unfair – leading to a change in Austrian law.
One night in the village of Gánovce-Filice, Roma villagers were beaten with baseball bats and iron bars by other locals. The Strasbourg court ruled that the authorities failed to properly investigate, or punish those responsible. The case was re-opened and legal changes were made to help the authorities’ tackle racist crimes.
An NGO organised a series of demonstrations in Warsaw, to highlight discrimination against women and minorities. The gatherings were banned, after the city’s mayor said that he was against them because they included support for homosexual rights. The Strasbourg court ruled that the ban violated the right to public assembly. This led to changes to Polish law to protect the right to protest.
Miss B was registered as a man at birth. Later she adopted female behaviour, underwent feminising hormone therapy, and had genital surgery. However, the authorities refused to register her as a woman – causing her daily problems. The Strasbourg court ruled that her fundamental rights had been violated. French law was changed to properly recognise the identity of post-operative transgender.
Legal aid system introduced after woman suffering from domestic violence was unable to access the courts
Mrs Airey wanted to be legally separated from her husband, who was allegedly a violent alcoholic. However, there was no legal aid and she could not afford the lawyers’ fees. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the lack of legal aid effectively denied Mrs Airey access to a court, breaching her basic rights. Legal aid for such cases was introduced in Ireland in the following year.
Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:
Domestic violence PDF (280 Ko)
Gender equality PDF (420 Ko)
Gender identity PDF (230 Ko)
Criminalisation of homosexuality PDF (170 Ko)
Roma and Travellers PDF (540 Ko)
Sexual orientation issues PDF (465 Ko)
Violence against women PDF (380 Ko)
Handbook on European non-discrimination law PDF (2,820 Mo)