- 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.
A young family was unable to get maternity benefits because the mother was not Hungarian, even though her husband and twin boys had been born in Hungary. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that this was discrimination. Hungary then changed the law to cover every mother legally residing in the country, regardless of their nationality.
A woman at severe risk of domestic violence faced eviction from her specially-adapted home because cuts to housing benefits meant she could no longer afford the rent. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the woman was discriminated against because of her gender. The UK then changed the law to exempt women like her from changes to the benefit rules.
Fourteen Roma children said their schools had racially discriminated against them. The Croatian courts disagreed, so the children brought their case to the European court, which ruled that their placement in Roma-only classes had violated their human rights. Croatia then took steps to end discrimination against Roma children in primary education, including by abolishing segregated classes.
The European court ruled that Italy’s decision to stop victims from receiving inflation-adjusted compensation breached their human rights. Many relied on the payments to cover ongoing medical costs. The court’s ‘pilot judgment’ found that many others had potentially been affected by the decision, resulting in Italy making back payments totalling hundreds of millions of euros to victims.
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 gay rights. The European court ruled that the ban violated the right to public assembly. This led to changes to Polish law to protect the right to protest.
As a same-sex couple, Grigoris Vallianatos and Nikolaos Mylonas were prevented under Greek law from entering a civil partnership, which is a form of official union different to marriage. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that this was discriminatory. In response to the judgment, Greece passed a new law that gave same-sex couples the right to enter civil partnerships.
Jeanette Smith, Graeme Grady, Duncan Lustig-Prean and John Beckett were all investigated and dismissed from the armed forces because they were gay. The European court ruled that the UK was unable to justify this policy and that its actions against the service members had violated their rights. In response to the judgment, the UK lifted the ban on gay people serving in the military.
A Turkish court decided that Y.Y., a transgender man, was not allowed to have gender reassignment surgery because he was not infertile. The European court said this requirement was unnecessary. It found that Turkey had breached Y.Y.’s rights by denying him the chance to have surgery for many years. In response, Turkey removed the infertility requirement for gender reassignment surgery.
P.B. and J.S. wanted to be jointly covered by J.S.’s civil service health insurance scheme, but P.B.’s request was refused because he was a same-sex partner. The European court ruled that Austria had unfairly discriminated against P.B. and J.S., up to the point when the law on civil service insurance cover was changed to no longer distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
Elisaveta Talpis’s husband physically abused her for years. She complained to the police, but they took no action for months. One night Elisaveta’s husband attacked her with a knife, wounding her and killing her son when he tried to intervene. The European court condemned the police’s inaction, leading to reforms to address domestic violence in Italy.
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.
For twelve years, Mostar residents like Irma Baralija were unable to vote or stand in local elections because of a legal deadlock. Irma decided to take a case to the European court, which found that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s failure to enable a vote had violated her rights. Bosnia and Herzegovina reacted to the judgment by changing electoral law – bringing democracy back to Mostar.
David Norris suffered from anxiety attacks and depression after realising that any open expression of his homosexuality could lead to a criminal prosecution. The European 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 Loreta's 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’s sexuality violated his basic rights to a private life. In 1998, Cyprus decriminalised gay 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 and psychological distress because his sexuality was seen as a crime. His house was raided by police, and he was interrogated for hours. In a test case, the European court ruled that the law violated the right to private life. In 1982, Northern Ireland legalised gay 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 complained to the authorities, but they took no proper steps to protect her. The European court held that Angelica 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 European 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 the European court 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 João was gay. The European 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 at the European court, the law was changed to give fathers like Horst 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 European 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 European court, Gerald Sporer successfully argued that this was unfair – leading to a change in the law.
One night in the village of Gánovce-Filice, Roma villagers were beaten with baseball bats and iron bars by other locals. The European 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.
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)
Racial profiling PDF (139 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)