EU to get 'judicial oversight' on human rights
13.07.10 @ 09:27
BRUSSELS - EU laws will in a few years' time be subject to legal challenges in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, under an "independent oversight" mechanism made possible by the Lisbon Treaty, a representative of the pan-European body said in an interview.
"For the first time in history, the EU will be subject to an external independent judicial oversight, and will be scrutinised in the same way as any other of the 47 member countries when it comes to the respect of human rights," Torbjorn Froysnes, the Council of Europe's ambassador in Brussels told EUobserver on Friday (9 July).
Last week, EU justice and human rights commissioner Viviane Reding officially kicked off negotiations aimed at making EU institutions subject to binding rulings issued by the Strasbourg-based court, which already has jurisdiction over all 27 member states plus another 20 non-EU countries, including regular human rights defaulters Russia and Turkey.
This became possible once the Lisbon Treaty came into force, granting the EU a formal legal status, which allows it to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty dating back to 1950 and defending rights such as freedom of thought, speech, assembly and religion. The convention is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a body of the Council of Europe, as a last resort for citizens and states when all other national avenues for appeal have been exhausted.
Mr Froysnes said negotiations are expected to wrap up before the end of June 2011 and will be followed by a ratification process in all 47 member states plus the European Parliament, which may take several years.
"When the new agreement is ratified, the EU will be held responsible for its own actions. This doesn't mean that the Council of Europe will get involved in EU decision-making, but a court is a court and its rulings will have to be respected," he said.
Jammed by a huge influx of cases, out of which some 90 to 95 percent is routinely dismissed for not meeting eligibility requirements, the Strasbourg court has recently simplified its procedure so as to speed up processing of valid cases, for which can take up to five years for the judges to issue a verdict. A backlog of 120,000 cases were waiting to be dealt with at the end of 2009.
"With the new procedures, we expect a 25 percent increase in judgements passed," Mr Froysnes said.
The scope of the rulings - varying from cases brought by Chechen victims against the Russian state to the introduction of crucifixes in Italian schools - could open a Pandora's Box when it comes to EU legislation, particularly since countries, not just citizens, can formulate complaints. Georgia last year filed a case to the Strasbourg court against Russia for its 2008 military invasion, accusing Moscow of ethnic cleasing.
In terms of penalties, just as with any of the 47 members of the convention, the EU could be subject to financial compensations to the damaged party and demanded to change the respective piece of legislation if found that it violates human rights.
The European Parliament recently welcomed the perspective of the EU joining the convention on human rights and recommended that it also join the Council of Europe and its various committees, which cover issues ranging from social rights to prevention of torture.
"The Council of Europe is a machinery for social reform. There are over 200 binding conventions dealing with all parts of society outside trade relations. But it will take time," Mr Froysnes said.
Human rights are not limited to police and military actions, press freedom or discrimination issues, but also apply to the Internet.
"There is a convention on personal data protection which also covers the internet," the diplomat said. His institution is planning a big event on data protection in January 2011, celebrating 30 years since this convention was signed. The co-organisers are the European Commission, the bloc's data protection authorities, along with industry representatives such as Microsoft, he added.
The US, while a member of the other internet-related convention on cybercrime, is so far not part of the data protection agreement. But Mr Froysnes hopes this may change soon, particularly with the Obama administration showing more interest in this dossier.