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About the ECHR | Applying to the ECHR | Conditions in a Nutshell | European Ombudsman | 1503 Procedure | Special Rapporteurs & Representatives | European Case law

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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 or government.

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 the registry.

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:

The Registrar
European Court of Human Rights
Council of Europe
Strasbourg Cedex

(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 judges.

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.

European Ombudsman

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

1503 Procedure

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.

Consistent pattern
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
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 for you.

2 Confidentiality
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 described above.
• 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)
Step 1
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 its author.

Step 2
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 their complaint.

Step 3
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.
Step 4
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 violated.
• 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 been exhausted.

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 mass media.
• The complaint should not be inconsistent with the major international human rights instruments.

2. Format
There are no formal requirements regarding the format a complaint should take. However, a good complaint will consist of:
• 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
United Nations
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 taken place.
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 remedies.
Multiple applications
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 applications".

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 UDHR.

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 in Geneva.
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 in operation.
Individual complaints
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 the violation.

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 to them.
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
Human Rights
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.


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