About the ECHR |
Applying to the ECHR |
Conditions in a Nutshell |
European Ombudsman | 1503
Procedure | Special
Rapporteurs & Representatives |
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About the ECHR
The European Court of Human Rights is based on the
Council of Europe - currently composed of forty-one states. The
United Kingdom is bound by many international treaties which oblige
it to respect human rights. One of the most important of these is
the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This treaty offers
the possibility of redress where a person's civil liberties have
been infringed and no remedy can be obtained from the British courts
The Convention was drawn up under the auspices of
the Council of Europe, an organisation of West European countries
which is based in Strasbourg, France, and is quite separate from
the European Community. The Convention was adopted on 4 November
1950 and came into force on 3 September 1953. Its provisions guarantee
most, but not all, civil liberties, including the right to life,
freedom from torture, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to
a fair trial, the right to privacy, freedom of religion, freedom
of expression, and freedom of assembly and association. The rights
guaranteed by the Convention have already been considered in the
section on the Human Rights Act 1998.
In theory, the existence of the Human Rights Act means
that there will be fewer cases going to the ECHR, as the domestic
courts should ensure that the Convention is adhered to. There will,
however, be circumstances where a case proceeds beyond the domestic
courts. For example, if a declaration of incompatibility is made
or if the complainant believes the law has been incorrectly applied.
The new European Court of Human Rights came into operation
on 1 November 1998. Prior to this there had been a separate Commission
that decided on the admissibility of cases. The functions of the
old Commission have now been incorporated into the Court.
There are two ways in which alleged breaches of the
Convention's provisions by the UK can be brought to the attention
of these bodies. The first is through a complaint made by one of
the other countries which are also bound by the Convention. For
example, it was as a result of a complaint by the Republic of Ireland
against the UK that certain interrogation practices used in Northern
Ireland were held to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.
Countries are, however, reluctant to bring cases against each other
and will only do so in the most extreme cases or where their own
interests are affected.
The second, and most common, method of complaint is
by a person whose rights have been infringed. This is used much
more frequently and with greater effect. Any person claiming to
be a victim of a violation of the Convention may lodge directly
with the court in Strasbourg. Application forms are available from
During war or other public emergency threatening
life of the nation, governments can derogate from their obligations
under the Convention. This enables them to restrict the exercise
of some of the rights and freedoms, but only in so far as is necessary
to deal with the emergency. The UK has, in the past, used this provision
in Northern Ireland and one is in force now which allows the police
to detain people under the terrorism laws for up to seven days.
The UK has also derogated from their Article 5 commitments in statutory
instrument 2001 No 3644 Human Rights Act 1998 (Designated Derogation)
in anticipation of the measures contained in the Anti-Terrorism
Crime and Security Act 2001 which permits internment of non-UK nationals
without trial. No derogation is ever possible in respect of the
right to life - other than in respect of deaths resulting from lawful
acts of war, freedom from torture and slavery and the prohibition
of retrospective penalties.
Applying to the ECHR
Any person, group of individuals or non-governmental
private organisations whose rights have been violated can bring
an application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
A complaint does not have to be made using an application, it can
be made by letter, (but a form may have to be completed later).
Complaints should be made to:
European Court of Human Rights
Council of Europe
(Tel: 00 333 88
41 20 18)
The complaint should include details of the complainant
and anyone acting on their behalf, the country which is to be the
respondent, a statement of the facts, description of the relevant
domestic/national law, the Convention rights relied on, the purpose
of the application, the remedies sought and any judgments or decisions
relevant to the complaint.
A complaint must be made within 6 months after the last available
remedy in the national court of the applicant.
The case will then be registered. A judge known as rapporteur will
be appointed, if and where necessary they will ask for more information.
The case will then either be passed to the chamber or a committee
to decide on the merits of the application and whether it is admissable.
If the case is admissable the respondent country will be invited
to give written observations. Further written observations may then
be invited from both sides and the chamber will then hold a hearing.
Usually strict time limits are imposed on the length of the hearing,
(rarely more than 90 minutes).
The European Court of Human Rights has its own system of Public
Funding, which may be available to an applicant.
The parties are also contacted by the Registrar of the Court to
see whether there is a possibility of settlement between the parties.
If the Court decides there has been a violation of Convention rights
it can award compensation, costs and expenses as "just satisfaction".
Complex cases will be dealt with by the grand chamber.
The European Court of Human Rights will not hear a case if it is
based on the same facts of a case previously rejected. The final
judgment of the court is not binding on the national state, but
all states that are a party to the Convention have agreed to respect
the final judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in any
action where they are a party.
Conditions in a nutshell:
The following conditions must be satisfied to make
a complaint under the European Convention on Human Rights:
• The Court can only deal with complaints relating
to the rights listed in the Convention and Protocols.
• You can only complain to the Court about matters
which are the responsibility of a pubic authority. It will not deal
with complaints against private individuals.
• Before applying to the Court you must have
exhausted all domestic remedies. This means that you have tried
all appeal or tribunal avenues available.
• You must apply to the Court within six months
of the decision of the last domestic court or tribunal
If you satisfy the above conditions you should send
a letter to the registrar:
• giving a brief summary of your complaint,
• indicating which of your Convention rights
you think has been violated
• stating what remedies you have used
• listing the official decisions in your case,
giving the date of each decision, the court which took it and brief
details of the decision itself. Attach copies - not originals -
of these decisions.
The registrar may ask for more information of documents
or for further explanation of your complaints. If the Registrar
decides that your complaint is one that could be registered as an
application, you will be sent the necessary document on which to
submit your formal application.
Unlike cases in the courts of the United Kingdom the
decision to allow a case to continue is made on the basis of the
papers alone. If a case is declared inadmissible at an early stage
there are no further steps that can be taken and no applications
can be made concerning the same facts. It is therefore not sufficient
merely to complete an application form. To have a real chance of
success it will be necessary to set out separately the facts, the
relevant domestic law and detailed submissions on convention law.
One of the best ways of setting out the application
itself is to model it on a decision of the court. These are often
models of clarity and any application so constructed will help to
reduce the workload of those in the Court secretariat, and give
the best chance of success.
Each application is assigned to a Section - there
are four Sections at the court - and then to a Committee of three
judges to sift out inadmissible and unmeritous applications. If
the Committee decides the case is admissible they will pass it on
to a Chamber. In some applications the case will proceed directly
to a Chamber. A Chamber - of seven judges - will consider the case
and decide on admissibility and merit. If a case raises a serious
question of interpretation of the Convention the Chamber may at
any time relinquish control in favour of the Grand Chamber of seventeen
Throughout proceedings Chambers may invite evidence
from the parties and may call a public hearing on the merits of
the case. Chambers will decide by majority vote. Within three months
of the judgment of a chamber, either party may request a referral
to the Grand Chamber, which may or may not be granted. The Grand
Chamber's decision is final.
Success in the European Court of Human Rights can
take several years to achieve and will frequently result in little
financial gain for the applicant. However, the Court will help establish
points of principle which are binding on the member state. As mentioned
previously, the Human Rights Act 1998 should reduce the need for
British cases to proceed to the ECHR.
In September 1995 the new office of the European Ombudsman
was created. It adjudicates on complaints brought by European Union
citizens about maladministration in the activities of EC institutions
or bodies, such as the European Commission - but not the European
Court of Justice or the Court of First Instance acting in their
judicial capacities. Complaints can be made directly to the Ombudsman
or through your MEP. The address is as follows:
The European Ombudsman
1, Avenue du President Schuman
F-67001 Strasbourg Cedex B.P. 403
Tel: 00 333 88 17 40 01
What is the 1503 Procedure
The 1503 procedure is a universal mechanism.
It applies in respect of all countries in the world. The 1503 Procedure
is named after the resolution of the United Nations Commission on
Human Rights which established it. It enables 2 bodies of the UN
(the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection on Human Rights
and the Commission on Human Rights) to examine complaints which
appear to show consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested
human rights violations received from individuals or NGOs.
In order to show a consistent pattern, the communication
should refer to a substantial number of violations against different
individuals. In the past, the Commission on Human Rights has decided
that as few as 6 or 7 cases of prolonged administrative detention
were sufficient to show a consistent pattern.
Gross violations are very serious violations
of human rights. They include torture, enforced disappearances,
extrajudicial executions (killings), arbitrary or summary executions
(for example carrying out of the death penalty after an unfair trial),
widespread arbitrary imprisonment or lengthy detention without charge
or trial and widespread denial of the right to leave a country.
Reliably attested violations
The allegations of violations must be reliably
attested, which means backed up by credible evidence. Violations
of any of the human rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration
on Human Rights can be examined under this procedure.
Main features and usefulness of the procedure
This procedure has 2 main features. It examines
the human rights situation in specific countries and it is confidential.
1 Examination of the human rights ‘situation’
in a country
This procedure examines the human rights situation in countries.
It does not examine individual cases. When a large number of individual
cases are received which, taken together, seem to show a pattern
of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights, the UN
may decide to examine the situation in that country. This procedure
is useful if you have evidence of a substantial number of violations
against different individuals or evidence of a serious violation
of human rights against one person and wish to draw attention to
the human rights situation in a particular country, rather than
to an individual case, because:
• You think the UN should focus on the underlying problems
in the country rather than an individual case.
• The victim of the violation wants the UN to examine the
situation in the country rather than the details of what happened
to him or her.
This procedure is not useful if you, or the person
you represent, has been the victim of a violation of human rights
and you want an international mechanism to investigate the case.
If you are looking for such a mechanism, the 1503 procedure is not
In its early stages, the 1503 procedure is confidential.
It involves communications between the UN and the state under examination
which are not made public. Individuals or NGOs which submit complaints
are not informed of any action taken regarding their complaint.
Usually, the only communication they receive from the UN is a letter
acknowledging receipt of their complaint.
The confidential nature of the 1503 Procedure has 2 major consequences:
• Once a collection of individual complaints are examined
by the UN under this confidential procedure, the state concerned
may argue that those individual complaints should not be examined
by other public mechanisms at the same time. Therefore, if you submit
a complaint or a number of complaints under this procedure and then
try to submit those complaints to other mechanisms (such as a Special
Rapporteur) the state concerned may protest and ask those mechanisms
not to accept your complaint.
• No details of the UN’s examination of a state under
this procedure are made public until the final stages of an examination.
The shortest delay within which the final stages can take place
is 1 year after the UN first received the individual communication.
Therefore, there will be no publicity about any examination the
UN may undertake for at least a year.
This procedure is not useful if you plan to send
your complaint to a number of different mechanisms or if your primary
goal is to get publicity for your complaint, as only a very small
number of examinations carried out under this procedure are finally
made public. In these circumstances the 1503 procedure may not be
the appropriate mechanism for you.
What the 1503 procedure can do to assist you
An examination of the human rights situation
in a country by the UN Commission on Human Rights under this procedure
can result in the following action being taken:
• The Commission may decide to appoint an independent expert
to look into the situation in the country concerned.
• The Commission may decide to stop the examination under
the confidential 1503 procedure and refer the examination to its
public procedure. Under its public procedure (known as the 1235
procedure) the Commission may adopt resolutions condemning or expressing
concern about the human rights situation in the country. It can
also decide to appoint a Special Rapporteur or Representative to
look in to the human rights situation in a country or to examine
a particular human rights problem.
• The Commission may decide to keep the situation in a country
under review (that is continue its examination), if further information
concerning the human rights situation in the state concerned has
been received from the state or individuals. After further examination,
it may decide to stop the examination or take one of the actions
• At the Commission the names of the states being examined
under the 1503 Procedure are publicly announced. This can be politically
embarrassing for the states concerned.
• Finally, the Commission can - and sometimes does - simply
decide to end its examination of the situation in a country and
take no action at all.
How the procedure works (the formal procedure)
The UN staff in Geneva receive all the complaints
sent to the UN under the 1503 Procedure. They sift out any complaints
which they consider do not meet the admissibility criteria as set
out below in the section How to submit a complaint.
If the UN staff think that a complaint might be admissible, they
send the complaint to the state against which the complaint has
been brought. The state then has 12 weeks to respond and to give
its view on whether it thinks the UN should accept the complaint.
It is important to note that the author of the complaint (the person
who submitted the complaint) may remain anonymous if they clearly
state in the complaint that they do not wish their identity to be
revealed to the government concerned. These complaints and any government
responses received are then forwarded to the UN’s Working
Group on Communications.
The UN sends a letter acknowledging receipt of the complaint to
The UN’s Working Group on Communications
only meets once a year (usually in August). It considers all the
complaints and government responses which have been forwarded to
it. If the Working Group thinks that any of the complaints reveal
a bad human rights situation (i.e. a consistent pattern of gross
and reliably attested human rights violations) in a particular country,
it can refer examination of the ‘situation’ in that
country to the Working Group on Situations.
The UN informs all states examined by the Working Group on Communications
of any action taken in regard to them.
Authors of complaints are not informed of any progress regarding
The Working Group on Situations only meets once
a year (usually in March) to examine the country ‘situations’
which have been referred to it by the Working Group on Communications.
If the Working Group on Situations is concerned that there is evidence
of a bad situation in a country it can refer examination of the
situation to the UN Commission on Human Rights. It can also suggest
action which the Commission should take to ameliorate the situation
in the country.
The UN Commission on Human Rights examines the
country ‘situations’ which have been referred to it
by the Working Group on Situations. The Commission only meets once
a year (usually in April) and its examinations of country situations
are carried out in closed session (i.e. not open to the public).
These closed sessions are attended by state representatives of the
members of the Commission and state representatives of the countries
under examination. These official representatives discuss the human
rights situation in the country. The discussions are based on reports
compiled by the 2 Working Groups which examined the situation in
the country concerned as described in steps 2 and 3 above. At the
end of these discussions, the Commission can decide to take action
to address the situation in a particular country.
Who are the people who examine complaints
under the 1503 procedure?
A number of different bodies examine complaints
under this Procedure.
The Working Group on Communications
There are 5 members of the Working Group each from one of the regional
groups; Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Western Europe.
They are nominated by the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights which
itself is composed of 26 members nominated by the UN Commission
on Human Rights. Although they are nominated by states, member of
the Sub-Commission are directed to act in their individual capacity.
Working Group on Situations
This Working Group is composed of 5 persons each
from one of the 5 regional groups nominated by the UN Commission
on Human Rights.
The UN Commission on Human Rights
The UN Commission on Human Rights is composed
of diplomats representing its 53 member states. When it meets in
closed session to examine country situations under the 1503 Procedure,
representatives from each of the 53 states and representatives of
states being examined under the 1503 procedure attend. States under
examination do not have to be members of the Commission to attend
the closed session .
Representatives of the states under examination attend the closed
session in order to defend the state and try to prevent the Commission
from taking action against them.
Who can submit a complaint
Complaints can be submitted by: individuals or
groups of individuals who claim to be the victims of human right
violations; any person or group of people which has direct and reliable
knowledge of violations, or non-governmental organisations which
have direct and reliable knowledge of violations of human rights.
Anonymous complaints will not be accepted by the UN.
How to submit a complaint
1. Admissibility criteria
There is no formal procedure for submitting a
complaint under the 1503 Procedure. However, a complaint must meet
the admissibility criteria. These criteria describe the information
that must be included and the information that should not be included.
What must be included in the complaint?
• The name of the author of the complaint, that is the person(s)
or organisation(s) submitting the complaint. If the author wishes
to remain anonymous this should be clearly stated in the complaint.
However, it should be noted that, no matter how careful the UN may
be a state may still find out the name of the author of a complaint
(either from the facts of the complaint or another source).
• The complaint must show the existence of a consistent pattern
of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights.
• The complaint must contain a description of the facts including:
the identification of alleged victims, the identification of alleged
perpetrators of violations and a detailed description of incidents
in which alleged violations occurred. This description should aim
to show a consistent pattern of violations.
• The complaint should include clear evidence of the violation.
For example: written statements from victims or their families describing
the violation, written statements from other witnesses to the violation
or a medical report describing injuries which resulted from the
violation. These pieces of evidence can be included in the text
of the complaint or attached to the complaint as an annex.
• The complaint should state which rights have been violated.
This may appear obvious, but you should clearly state which article
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights appears to have been
• The complaint should include a statement of purpose that
is, the reasons why you have submitted the complaint. It would be
sufficient to say that you are ‘seeking UN action to bring
an end to the violations of human rights disclosed in the complaint’.
• The complaint should explain how domestic remedies have
What should not be included in the complaint:
• The complaint should not contain abusive
language or insulting remarks about the state concerned, and should
not show political motivations. This means that it should not challenge
the legitimacy of the government concerned as such, but should concentrate
on the facts of the complaint.
• The complaint should not be based only on reports in the
• The complaint should not be inconsistent with the major
international human rights instruments.
There are no formal requirements regarding the
format a complaint should take. However, a good complaint will consist
• A cover letter stating that the complaint is submitted under
the 1503 Procedure. The letter should also contain a summary of
the allegations made and a statement of purpose setting out the
reasons why you have submitted the complaint.
• The text of the complaint, describing in detail the consistent
pattern of gross violations of human rights
• Annexes, containing the best available documentary evidence
of the allegations (for example witness statements, statements from
victims, medical reports etc).
3. Where to send the complaint
Written complaints should be sent to:
Support Services Branch
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
1211 Geneva 10
Tel. 00 41 22 917 90 00
Fax: 00 41 22 917 90 11
Exhaustion of domestic remedies
As the primary responsibility for the protection
of human rights in a country lies with the government of that country,
international law states that you must exhaust domestic remedies
before bringing your complaint to an international mechanism.
Exhaustion of domestic remedies means using all the procedures available
to you in your own country to seek protection of your rights or
to seek justice in respect of a past violation of your rights. These
procedures include taking a case to court or making a complaint
to the police.
You should demonstrate in your complaint to an international mechanism
that you have exhausted, or have made an attempt to exhaust domestic
remedies by including all details of any complaints you made to
the national authorities and any legal proceeding which may have
However, international law also recognises that sometimes, domestic
remedies are not available or are ineffective. You may not need
to exhaust domestic remedies if you can show that the remedies available
to you at national level are ineffective.
In addition, if your complaint concerns a threat to life (for example
a death threat, a fear that a summary execution may take place or
a fear that a person may be deported to a country where they are
at risk of execution) there is no requirement to exhaust domestic
The term "multiple applications" refers to a complaint
which has been submitted to several different mechanims at or around
the same time.
Some mechansims will not consider a complaint if the complaint has
already been submitted to another mechansim. For example, a Special
Rapporteur will not usually consider a complaint if it has already
been submitted to the Human Rights Committee or to the United Nations
Commission on Human Rights under the 1503 procedure.
In general, you would be advised to carefully select the mechanism
which may be best placed to suit you and to avoid submitting "multilple
Special Rapporteurs & Representatives
Special Rapporteurs & Representatives
are universal mechanisms. They apply to all countries in the world.
Special Rapporteurs and Representatives are established by the UN
Commission on Human Rights and not under a Treaty. Therefore, they
do not have any treaty (international legal) powers to compel a
government to take action or to stop violating human rights. What
they can do is lobby a government and urge it to respect human rights.
They can raise individual complaints with government representatives
and urge them to prevent violations of human rights. They can also
generate publicity for individual cases by issuing press statements.
In addition, they can visit countries when invited by a government
and report on the human rights situation in a country. Special Rapporteurs
and Representatives work to promote the rights set out in the major
international human rights instruments such as the ICCPR and the
Who they are
Special Rapporteurs and Representatives serve
in an individual capacity and although some are diplomats or government
officials, increasingly many of them have expertise in human rights
which they gained in the non-state sector. They are supported by
the staff at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
How they are established
The UN Commission on Human Rights establishes
Special Rapporteur and Representatives for specific human rights
problems (known as thematic Rapporteurs or Representatives) or for
certain countries (known as country-specific Rapporteurs or Representatives).
An example of a thematic Rapporteur is the Special Rapporteur on
Torture and an example of a country-specific Rapporteur is the Special
Rapporteur on Afghanistan. Special Rapporteurs and Representatives
are not established as permanent offices. The UN Commission on Human
Rights meets every year and renews, withdraws or establishes new
Rapporteurs and Representatives. This manual deals only with some
of the thematic Rapporteurs and Representatives which are currently
When a Special Rapporteur or Special Representative
receives a complaint which they think is credible and reliable,
and which falls within their mandate, they can take action.
They can take up the complaint with the government concerned. In
practice, this means that they can send information concerning the
complaint to the government and ask that the government respond
to the information. They may also issue press statements concerning
an individual case.
In their communications, they can urge the government concerned
to investigate, prosecute, impose appropriate sanctions and provide
compensation to victims of violations of human rights. They can
also urge governments to take measures to prevent further violations
in the future.
Where a complaint concerns a threat that a violation of human rights
is about to be carried out, they can send an urgent appeal to the
government concerned urging the government to take action to prevent
Special Rapporteurs and Representatives also
visit countries to examine the situation regarding the protection
of the human rights falling within their mandates. However, they
must be invited by the government of a county before they undertake
a visit. Unfortunately, some countries do not issue invitations
During country visits, they can meet with government representatives,
NGOs, human rights defenders and other interested parties. If a
Special Representative or Special Rapporteur is planning to visit
your country, it may be useful to contact them in advance. To find
out about future visits of Special Representatives and Rapporteurs
you should contact their offices:
c/o Office of the High Commissioner for
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10
Tel: + 41 22 917 9000
Fax: +41 22 917 9006
After carrying out a visit, the Special
Rapporteurs and Representatives present a report setting out their
findings and recommendations to the UN Commission on Human Rights.
However, the Commission does not pay much attention to the implementation
of their recommendations and most of the Rapporteurs and Representatives
are so under-resourced that it is rarely possible for them to follow-up
on country visits.