A good year for European justice | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 25.01.2013
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A good year for European justice

Last year was a remarkably good year for the European Court of Human Rights, Dean Spielmann, its president says. The court's 2012 statistics show that the number of complaints went down for the first time.

On Thursday (24.01.2013), European Court of Human Rights President Dean Spielmann presented the court's statistics for 2012.

"The activity of the court in 2012 was actually extraordinarily high," he said during the presentation.

The European Court's job is to check whether the 47 member states of the European Council are adhering to the European Convention on Human Rights. Any citizen from one of these countries who feels that his or her human rights have been violated by a member state can take a case to the court. For the first time, the number of cases went down – there were 128,000 cases at the end of 2012, down from 151,000 a year earlier. But the court's 47 justices still have a lot of work to do, because it often takes years before a ruling can be reached.

Still, Spielmann is pleased. "This very positive result is the fruit of the enormous work at the court. It is the result of the newly formed section, which reviews the cases," he said.

It was established two and a half years ago, after Russia ended its opposition to the proposition for the creation of the section, in exchange for a guarantee that Russian judges would be involved in reviewing complaints against their country.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg

Hundreds of thousands take their cases to the Court in Strasbourg

Notorious for human rights violations

But despite the positive changes, the countries where most of the complaints originate remain the same.

"Four countries make up for more than 50 percent of the pending cases – Russia, Turkey, Italy and Ukraine," Spielmann said.

More than 28,000 complaints came from Russia alone, according to the European Court's statistics. Despite some progress in that country, it continues to have serious cases of human rights violations, Spielmann explained. Like all the other countries, Russia has to implement the European Convention on Human Rights to reduce the number of complaints, he added.

Dialogue with Russia

The Kremlin in Moscow. (Copyright: Irina Fischer/Fotolia)

There were more than 28,000 complaints from Russia in 2012

The initial responsibility to implement the convention lies with the member countries, Spielmann told DW in an interview in December at the beginning of his tenure as European Court president.

"If they do that, it is logical that the number of cases will decrease," he said.

Russia's constitutional court plays a big role in the implementation of the convention and is currently in dialogue with the European Court, Spielmann added, pointing to bilaterial visits, which had taken place in a free and open environment.

Progress in Turkey

Visits between the highest courts and constitutional courts of member countries as well as the chief judges of the European Court take place very often. Turkish judges are currently on a visit to Strasbourg, Spielmann said, and the type of complaints from that country have changed.

"10, 15 years ago, they were mostly violations of the ban on torture, while we are now dealing with long procedures, or questions related to property ownership. So, there is a remarkable development. And I believe that Turkey has made big efforts in undertaking the ban on torture. That doesn't mean that there are no problems. But there is progress," he added.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (L) makes her final speech during the Kiev Pecherskyi District Court session in Kiev, Ukraine. (ALEKSANDR PROKOPENKO/EPA)

People are anxiously waiting for a decision on Tymoschenko

A decision on the Tymoshenko case soon

One of the most exciting cases being handled by the court in Strasbourg is the case of Ukraine opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. The former government leader was convicted for abuse of office and is now in prison. Critics believe that the case against her is politically motivated. A complaint by Tymoshenko now awaits the court's decision. But Spielmann wouldn't say when the decision will be made public, and whether the European Court has decided that Tymoshenko's human rights have been violated. Still, he added that a decision would be made soon.

The reform process of the European Court is on a good track, according to European law expert Andreas Zimmermann, who also serves as an ad hoc chief judge, replacing Germany's Angelia Nussberger, when needed. But the member countries need more money and staff to cope with the existing case load, he said.

Support and criticism

The president of the European Court of Human Rights, judge Dean Spielmann. (MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

Dean Spielmann began his term as ECtHR President in December

Some of the member states had allowed the court to get more financial support last year. Spielmann read a long list with their names and expressly thanked them.

But not all the member countries support the European Court. There is criticism against it from Britain, for example. The main complaint is that its influence is too broad. Last year, the British government even acknowledged that it wanted to limit the powers of the European Court. Spielmann pointed to a few cases in the UK and said that the British authorities should be asking themselves whether the relationship with Strasbourg has improved, and whether they see the European Court differently.

"I believe that (Britain's) criticism of the court is unfounded," he added.

Time and again, we read that the European Court is a victim of its own success because it is drowning in a flood of complaints, Spielmann said, noting that that this was no longer the case. "The court is a success, and no longer a victim," he added happily.

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