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The European Court of Human Rights
The court currently faces a docket crisisImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Final Arbiter

February 23, 2009

Feb. 23 marks the 50th anniversary of the European Court of Human Rights, the continent's foremost human-rights watchdog based in Strasbourg.


The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 to protect civil and political rights when the horrors of previous decades were still fresh in Europe's mind. The aim was to provide a basis of trust and solidarity to burgeoning European unification and provide a safeguard against any erosion of human beings' basic rights and dignity.

It proved so successful that since its inception, the court has seen its case load brought by individuals, organizations and nations grow to some 100,000 cases from 46 countries.

These days, in fact, the court faces a serious backlog. Critics argue that it has become a victim of its own success -- a result of the growing number of states subject to its jurisdiction, a good reputation, expansive interpretations of individual liberties, distrust of domestic judiciaries in some countries and entrenched human rights problems in others.

Theoretically, however, the court's success -- even the backlog -- should be welcomed.

"It's a very good sign," said Renate Jaeger, a judge from Germany. "Obviously one negative effect is that we are overloaded with work. But basically we can hardly hold it against our citizens that they want to avail themselves of their rights when they feel their human rights have been infringed upon."

Allegations of human-rights abuses can range from discrimination to the improper conduct of trials and the mistreatment of prisoners.

The court will only hear a case when all domestic legal options have been exhausted. On a national level, countries are expected to comply with the court's verdict, although the body has no power to actually enforce it.


Currently, the court is witnessing a flurry of cases filed from South Ossetians. By late 2008, the court had received nearly 2,000 applications from people complaining of illegal treatment at the hands of Georgia during the brief war with Russia last summer.

Russia has also made complaints against Georgia.

The court's HQ
The court is headquartered in LuxembourgImage: picture-alliance / dpa

"There will be a massive increase in the workload of the court," the court's president, Jean-Paul Costa, told Reuters late last year. "We cannot just throw away these cases."

"The European Court of Human Rights is not there to pronounce judgment on questions of war and peace," he said. "The court cannot made political judgments in conflict situations."

The court also handles cases filed by individuals who stand accused of human rights abuses themselves -- from suspected Islamic militants to terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The court was established and is overseen by the Council of Europe, a pan-European human rights body, and is not a branch of the European Union.

Author: Jane Paulick

Editor: Kyle James

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