European Court of Human Rights

Les 7 pétrifiésOur final stop on our trip, from a pure “no longer hauling our luggage to the train station” perspective, was Karlsruhe. However, we took off for Strasbourg, France the morning after we checked into our hotel.

Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament, where I and my wife and a large number of her professional peers were once trapped on one of the most horrific tours any of us had ever been on. Our guide did not speak English as well as he thought he did, and also he fancied himself quite the expert on European affairs. So, after a brief walk around the building, he brought us to one of the parliament’s conference rooms to sit down, and then he proceeded to lecture us for about 45 minutes on such issues facing the E.U. as Turkey and the former Yugloslavia republics.

Finally, he opened it up for questions, and you could hear people groan when someone raised his hand. This person asked, “What about Russia?” Our guide thought for a moment, then responded, “Well, the problem with Russia is it’s sooooo beeeeeeeg.” The crowd burst into laughter, which forced our guide to laugh, mainly because I don’t think he understood what was so funny, but didn’t want to feel left out.

Afterwards, we all went out to eat and, more specifically, to drink, and I almost killed myself trying to match the Finns in our group drink to drink. Otherwise, I absolutely love visiting Strasbourg and was thrilled to have another chance.

We began our day trip by visiting the European Court of Human Rights, located near the European Parliament. Our guide was the court’s head librarian Nora Binder, assisted by the deputy librarian Genevieve Woods.

The front of the court

The court is a part of the Council of Europe, which was founded in 1949 to protect human rights in post-World War II Europe. The European Convention on Human Rights was ratified by 12 countries in 1950, and has been enforced since 1953.

The court was created in 1959 to hear cases involving torture and the inhumane treatment of prisoners. The most common complaint to the court is the denial of the right to a fair hearing. The vast number of cases brought to the court are brought by individuals, but not all applications to the court will be heard. Anyone living in a country that have ratified the convention can petition the court. An application must be submitted within six months of the final hearing on one’s case in one’s home country, and all other legal options must be exhausted first. Events that occurred before a particular country ratified the convention are not covered.

Judgments are binding for any country that has ratified the convention, and these countries sometimes need to pass new legislation to prevent future offenses. A committee of ministers from the Council of Europe enforces judgments, and expulsion from the council is the ultimate punishment for violations.

HUDOC is the council’s database of judgments. The court defines the keywords utilized in the cases, while a committee of attorneys determine the importance of each case. A case can be rated from one to three, with one being a key, precedent setting case. The importance rating does not change.

Using the database can be a bit tricky because of how cases are translated. Cases are available in both French and English and even something as simple as a person’s name can require different spellings depending on the language.

Strasbourgh architectureHUDOC is updated daily, as soon after a judgment is rendered as possible. It has cases going back to the 1970s, but older cases are currently being retroactively added to the databases, with cases rated one being scanned in first. Earlier cases can be purchased through the court’s archive, who will scan in and email them to requesters. HUDOC documents are admissible in court.

The library is small, with not a lot of room for the expansion of the collection. In addition to space issues, budget constraints limit the access to more expensive databases. Half of the materials used at the court are borrowed through ILL, although the library itself does not send out materials through ILL. The materials in the in-house collection include human rights treatises and laws from 47 countries. There are presently two permanent librarians and four contractors.

The library is open to the public on an appointment basis. There is also a great deal of material available to the public on the library’s website. This includes a new acquisitions bulletin and scans of the covers of the latest periodicals. Manuals are also available, but for a fee. They also have full-text internal working papers on the convention, which is good for planning for trials by serving as a sort of legislative history.

After our tour, and lunch at the court’s cafeteria (where I totally got to speak in French, and didn’t even get accosted for doing so!), we took a boat tour of the city, then spent some time hanging out in the square around Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg.