European Court of Human Rights

Applies to/Se aplica a

State practice
State law
Individual cases
For Urgent Action
Only under 18-s

Summary

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is an international human rights court charged with dealing with individual complaints in relation to alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Before submitting a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, domestic remedies have to be exhausted, unless these would be unreasonably prolonged or not effective. The complaint should also not have been submitted to any other procedure of international investigation or settlement.
If a complaint is declared admissible, and the Court decides on the merits of the case, it will either find there has been a violation of specific articles of the European Convention or not. In a case where the Court finds a violation of the Convention, it will usually also award compensation.
Decisions by the European Court of Human Rights are legally binding on the State concerned.

1. Likely results from use of mechanism

The European Court of Human Rights will first take a decision of the admissibility of a complaint, depending on its admissibility criteria. Should the Court find that a complaint is admissible, it will issue a judgment on the merits of the case, either finding that there was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and usually awarding compensation, or finding that there has not been a violation of the Convention.
Following a judgment against a State, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe will monitor the implementation of the judgment by the State concerned.

Urgent action

The Court may, under Rule 39 of its Rules of Court, indicate interim measures to any State party to the Convention. Interim measures are urgent measures which, in accordance with the established practice of the Court, apply only where there is an imminent risk of irreparable damage. Interim measures are applied only in limited situations: the most typical cases are ones in which there are fears of a threat to life (situation falling under Article 2 of the Convention) or ill-treatment prohibited by Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment).
More information on interim measures is included in a practical guide published by the European Court, available at http://www.echr.coe.int/NR/rdonlyres/5F40172B-450F-4107-9514-69D6CBDECF5....

2. To which States does the mechanism apply?

The European Convention on Human Rights applies to all 47 member States of the Council of Europe. The rights set out in the Convention have to be guaranteed not only to their own citizens but also to everybody in their jurisdiction. A list of member States of the Council of Europe is available at http://www.coe.int/aboutCoe/index.asp?page=47pays1europe&l=en.

3. Who can submit information?

A complaint (called an “application”) can only be submitted by the victim(s) of alleged human rights violations or their legal representatives. However, NGOs or legal entities can also be the victims of human rights violations (for example in the case of freedom of association).

4. When to submit information?

Before submitting a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, all domestic remedies need to be exhausted. This means that all appeals to courts available in a country need to have been exhausted, including – if possible – an appeal to the Constitutional or Supreme Court. In these appeals, the substance of the violations of the European Convention (not the Convention itself) needs to have been raised.
An application to the European Court of Human Rights needs to be made within six months from the date of the final decision at domestic level (generally the judgment of the highest court). After this time limit an application cannot be accepted by the Court.

5. Special rules of procedure or advice for making a submission?

For the initial application to the Court it is not strictly necessary to be represented by a lawyer. However, it might be advisable to already involve a lawyer, as this might increase the chances of your application. About 90% of applications are declared inadmissible by the Court. Application forms are available for download at http://www.echr.coe.int/ECHR/EN/Header/Applicants/Apply+to+the+Court/App.... On the website of the European Court you can also go through a first admissibility checklist at http://www.echr.coe.int/ECHR/EN/Header/Applicants/Apply+to+the+Court/Che....

The first application to the European Court should include:

  • a brief summary of the facts and of your complaint;
  • an indication which of your rights under the European Convention have been violated;
  • the domestic remedies you have used;
  • copies of the decisions given in your case by all the public authorities concerned; and
  • your signature as the applicant, or the signature of your legal representative, plus a form authorising your representative and signed by you.

For an application to be admissible, it is important that:

  • the application is made by the victim(s) or their legal representatives;
  • the alleged violation has not previously been under investigation by another international settlement procedure, which – in the case of the European Court – are the United Nations Human Rights Committee (individual complaint procedure), the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labour Organisation, and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
  • The victim has to have suffered a “significant disadvantage” as a consequence of the violation of his or her human rights.

Before making an application to the European Court, it is advisable to study the Practical Guide on Admissibility Criteria published by the Court (see http://www.echr.coe.int/NR/rdonlyres/B5358231-79EF-4767-975F-524E0DCF2FB...).

Applications should be sent by registered post to:
The Registrar
European Court of Human Rights
Council of Europe
F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex.

An application can be sent by fax first, but should also be sent by post.

While the initial application can be made in any official language of any member State of the Council of Europe, any follow-up communication with the European Court after the Court has given notice to the Government concerned for their observations has to be in one of the official languages of the Court, which are English and French.

As soon as the Court has given notice to the Government for their observations, however, the presence of a lawyer is required.

6. What happens to the submission (how long will it take)?

Following the submission of an application to the European Court, first a single judge will screen the application. If the single judge finds that the application is inadmissible, and no further examination is needed, he or she can decide so. The applicant will be notified by letter. The great majority of cases are declared inadmissible by a single judge.
If the single judge does not find the application inadmissible, he or she will forward it to a Committee or to a Chamber for further examination.
A committee of three judges can also find an application inadmissible at any stage of the proceedings. If the case is well covered by case law of the European Court, and no further examination is required, the committee can also find the application admissible and render a judgment on the merits of the case. In both cases, a decision of the committee has to be unanimous.
Decisions by a single judge or by a committee of three judges are final.

Only cases that are not obviously inadmissible will be communicated to the Government of the State concerned. From that time on it is obligatory to be represented by a lawyer.

Usually, the procedure before the European Court of Human Rights is in writing only. Once a chamber has declared an application admissible, the President of the Chamber may invite the parties to the case to submit further written observations and evidence. Both parties will usually given the same time to submit information. While it is possible to request an oral hearing, a decision on this will be taken by the Chamber.

The European Court of Human Rights introduced a new “pilot judgment procedure” in cases that reveal structural or systemic problems in a country party to the European Convention, and where the Court received a number of similar applications. If a case is selected for the pilot judgment procedure, it is dealt with as a matter of priority, while the remaining cases are on hold (more information is available in Rule 61).

Where the Chamber finds that there has been a violation of one of the rights protected by the European Convention of Human Rights, the Chamber may also take a decision on “just satisfaction” (the payment of compensation to the victim), if an application has been made.

What happens after the judgement?

The Court transmits the judgement to the Committee of Minister of the Council of Europe which confers with the country how to execute the judgement. As a consequence of the supervision of the Committee, amendments to legislation are usually made.

Referral to the Grand Chamber

Both, the State concerned and the applicant can request a referral of the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court within three months of a Chamber judgment. It is important to highlight in such an application the serious questions relating to the interpretation of the European Convention, or the serious issue of general importance.
A panel of five judges of the Grand Chamber will examine the request solely on the basis of the case file, and either accept or refuse it. It does not need to give reasons for the refusal of the request.
Should the request be granted, the Grand Chamber will decide the case by means of a judgment.

How long does it take?

The European Court of Human Rights has a huge backlog of cases. Even the first stage – the decision on admissibility – can take well over one year, and a decision on the merits of a case will take considerably longer. Even though the Court aims to decide on important cases within three years, it is highly likely that it will take five years of more.

7. History of the use of the mechanism

The European Court of Human Rights and the former European Commission of Human Rights (abolished in 1998) have been used in a range of cases related to conscientious objection to military service and to military taxation – with mixed success.
As late as in 2011, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights overturned the jurisprudence of the former European Commission of Human Rights, and recognised that the right to conscientious objection to military service is protected under article 9 of the European Convention (Bayatyan v. Armenia, 23459/03). Since then, the European Court has consolidated its jurisprudence with more cases from Armenia and Turkey.
Previously, the European Court had not evaluated cases brought by conscientious objectors under article 9 of the Convention. In its judgment in the case of Turkish conscientious objector Osman Murat Ülke, the Court ruled that the repeated imprisonment amounted to a “civil death”, and therefore to a violation of article 3 of the European Convention (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment).
Several cases of total objectors refusing substitute service were declared inadmissible by the former European Commission of Human Rights (see Johansen v. Norway (10600/83)), as were cases complaining about the punitive length of substitute service (see Tomi Autio v. Finland (17086/90)). On the latter question, the jurisprudence of the former European Commission of Human Rights is very different to the one of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (see Foin v. France, 1999).

Contact Details: 
European Court of Human Rights Council of Europe 67075 Strasbourg Cedex France Tel: +33-3-88 41 20 18 Fax: +33-3-88 41 27 30
Further Reading: 

Interpretations

Title Date
Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)4 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on human rights of members of the armed forces 24/10/2010

"H. Members of the armed forces have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Any limitations on this right shall comply with the requirements of Article 9, paragraph 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
40. Members of the armed forces have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to change religion or belief at any time. Specific limitations may be placed on the exercise of this right within the constraints of military life. Any restriction should however comply with the requirements of Article 9, paragraph 2, of the Convention. There should be no discrimination between members of the armed forces on the basis of their religion or belief.
41. For the purposes of compulsory military service, conscripts should have the right to be granted conscientious objector status and an alternative service of a civilian nature should be proposed to them.
42. Professional members of the armed forces should be able to leave the armed forces for reasons of conscience.
43. Requests by members of the armed forces to leave the armed forces for reasons of conscience should be examined within a reasonable time. Pending the examination of their requests they should be transferred to non-combat duties, where possible.
44. Any request to leave the armed forces for reasons of conscience should ultimately, where denied, be examined by an independent and impartial body.
45. Members of the armed forces having legally left the armed forces for reasons of conscience should not be subject to discrimination or to any criminal prosecution. No discrimination or prosecution should result from asking to leave the armed forces for reasons of conscience.
46. Members of the armed forces should be informed of the rights mentioned in paragraphs 41 to 45 above and the procedures available to exercise them.
"

Recomendación 1518 (2001) 23/05/2001

The Assembly accordingly recommends that the Committee of Ministers invite those member states that have not yet done so to introduce into their legislation:
i. the right to be registered as a conscientious objector at any time: before, during or after conscription, or performance of military service;
ii. the right for permanent members of the armed forces to apply for the granting of conscientious objector status;
iii. the right for all conscripts to receive information on conscientious objector status and the means of obtaining it;
iv. genuine alternative service of a clearly civilian nature, which should be neither deterrent nor punitive in character.

Recommendation No. R(87)8 of the Committee of Ministers to member states regarding conscientious objection to compulsory military service 09/04/1997

1. Anyone liable to conscription for military service who, for compelling reasons of conscience, refuses to be involved in the use of arms, shall have the right to be released from the obligation to perform such service, on the conditions set out hereafter. Such persons may be liable to perform alternative service; (…)
8. The law may also provide for the possibility of applying for and obtaining conscientious objector status in cases where the requisite conditions for conscientious objection appear during military service or periods of military training after initial service; (...)
10. Alternative service shall not be of a punitive nature. Its duration shall, in comparison to that of military service, remain within reasonable limits;
11. Conscientious objectors performing alternative service shall not have less social and financial rights than persons performing military service. Legislative provisions or regulations which relate to the taking into account of military service for employment, career or pension purposes shall apply to alternative service.
"

Recommendation 816 (1977) on the right of conscientious objection to military service 06/10/1977

The Assembly,(...)
4. Recommends that the Committee of Ministers:
a. urge the governments of member states, in so far as they have not already done so, to bring their legislation into line with the principles adopted by the Assembly ;
b. introduce the right of conscientious objection to military service into the European Convention on Human Rights.

Recommendation 478 (1967) on the right of conscientious objection 26/01/1967

The Assembly,
1. Having regard to its Resolution 337 on the right of conscientious objection,
2. Recommends the Committee of Ministers:
(a) to instruct the Committee of Experts on Human Rights to formulate proposals to give effect to the principles laid down by the Assembly in its Resolution 337 by means of a Convention or a recommendation to Governments so that the right of conscientious objection may be firmly implanted in all member States of the Council of Europe ;
(b) to invite member States to bring their national legislation as closely as possible into line with the principles adopted by the Consultative Assembly.

Precedentes (Jurisprudencia)
Title Date
Case of Tomi Autio v. Finland (Application no. 17086/90) - inadmissibility decision of Commission 06/12/1991

The case concerned conscientious objector Tomi Auti, who complained about discrimination due to the punitive length of substitute service in Finland. The Commission came to the conclusion that “For the purposes of Article 14 of the Convention, a difference in treatment is discriminatory if it "has no objective and reasonable justification”, that is, if it does not pursue a “legitimate aim”, or if there is no “reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised”.”
The Commission is satisfied that the differential treatment in question pursued a “legitimate aim”.
Although the duration of substitute service is considerably longer than that of military service the Commission, taking into account the State's margin of appreciation, finds that the differential treatment in question does not amount to a violation of Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 9 of the Convention.

Case of H.; B. v. The United Kingdom (Application no. 11991/86) 17/07/1986

Inadmissibility decision related to conscientious objection to military taxation.
“Article 9 (art. 9) primarily protects the sphere of personal beliefs and religious creeds, i.e. the area which is sometimes called the forum internum. In addition, it protects acts which are intimately linked to these attitudes, such as acts of worship or devotion which are aspects of the practice of a religion or belief in a generally recognised form.
However, in protecting this personal sphere, Article 9 of the Convention does not always guarantee the right to behave in the public sphere in a way which is dictated by such a belief: for instance by refusing to pay certain taxes because part of the revenue so raised may be applied for military expenditure...
The obligation to pay taxes is a general one which has no specific conscientious implications in itself. Its neutrality in this sense is also illustrated by the fact that no tax payer can influence or determine the purpose for which his or her contributions are applied, once they are collected. Furthermore, the power of taxation is expressly recognised by the Convention system and is ascribed to the State by Article 1, First Protocol.
The Commission has examined carefully the arguments submitted by the applicants but is unable to find any factor to distinguish this application from those cited above or to lead it to depart from its previous reasoning. The Commission finds therefore that there has been no interference with the applicants' rights guaranteed by Article 9 para. 1 of the Convention. It follows that the complaint is manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 27 para. 2 of the Convention.
For these reasons, the Commission DECLARES THE APPLICATION INADMISSIBLE.”

Case of Johansen v. Norway (Application no. 10600/83) 14/10/1985

Inadmissibility decision by the European Commission of Human Rights, related to total objection.
“Being a pacifist, the applicant is opposed to military service, and he also objects to civilian service, since the purpose of such service is, in his opinion, to uphold respect for military service.(...)
The applicant has alleged a breach of Article 9 of the Convention, which guarantees to everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
When interpreting this provision, the Commission has taken into consideration Article 4 para. 3(b) of the Convention which inter alia provides that "service exacted instead of compulsory military service" should not be included in the concept of "forced or compulsory labour". Since the Convention thus expressly recognises that conscientious objectors may be required to perform civilian service it is clear that the Convention does not guarantee a right to be exempted from civilian service (see No. 7705/76, Dec. 5.7.77, D.R. 9 p. 196). The Convention does not prevent a state from taking measures to enforce performance of civilian service, or from imposing sanctions on those who refuse such service.
The Commission refers to its finding under para. 1 and concludes that the applicant's detention cannot be considered contrary to Article 9 of the Convention.
It fol­lows that this aspect of the application is manifestly ill-foun­ded within the meaning of Article 27 para. 2 of the Convention.”

Case of N. v. Sweden (Application no. 10410/83) - inadmissibility decision 10/10/1984

A pacifist, the applicant was convicted for refusing to perform compulsory military service. He did not ask for a possibility to perform substitute civilian service. Before the Commission, he alleged to be a victim of discrimination, since members of various religious groups were exempted from service while philosophical reasons such as being a pacifist did not constitute valid grounds for discharging him from his obligation to serve in the army.
The Commission declared the case inadmissible. It did not find an appearance of a violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 9 of the Convention, stating that it was not discriminatory to limit full exemption from military service and substitute civil service to conscientious objectors belonging to a religious community which required of its members general and strict discipline, both spiritual and moral.

Case of C. v. United Kingdom (Application no. 10358/83) 15/12/1983

The applicant complains that the absence of any procedure whereby he may effectively invoke the right to manifest his pacifist beliefs by directing a proportion of the tax due from him for peaceful purposes represents a breach of Articles 9 and 13 of the Convention. (…)
The obligation to pay taxes is a general one which has no specific conscientious implication in itself. Its neutrality in this sense is also illustrated by the fact that no tax payer can influence or determine the purpose for which his or her contributions are applied, once they are collected. Furthermore, the power of taxation is expressly recognised by the Convention system and is ascribed to the State by Article 1, First Protocol.
It follows that Art. 9 does not confer on the applicant the right to refuse on the basis of her conviction to abide by legislation, the operation of which is provided for by the Convention, and which applies neutrally and generally in the public sphere, without impinging on the freedoms guaranteed by Article 9. (...)

Case of X. v. United Kingdom (Application no. 10295/82) 14/10/1983

The applicant, a pacifist, did not wish any portion of her income tax to be used for military purposes. She alleged that the fact that this was not allowed in the United Kingdom violated Art. 9. (...)
The obligation to pay taxes is a general one which has no specific conscientious implication in itself. Its neutrality in this sense is also illustrated by the fact that no tax payer can influence or determine the purpose for which his or her contributions are applied, once they are collected. Furthermore, the power of taxation is expressly recognised by the Convention system and is ascribed to the State by Prot. No. 1 Art. 1. It follows that Art. 9 does not confer on the applicant the right to refuse on the basis of her conviction to abide by legislation, the operation of which is provided for by the Convention, and which applies neutrally and generally in the public sphere, without impinging on the freedoms guaranteed by Art. 9.

Case of X. v. Germany (Application no. 7705/76) 05/07/1977

A Jehovah’s Witness and recognised as a conscientious objector by the competent authorities, the applicant refused to comply with a call-up for substitute civilian service. He was convicted of avoiding service and sentenced to four months in prison, but was granted a stay of execution to negotiate for a service agreement to do social work in a hospital or other institution, which would exempt him from civilian service. As he was unable to arrange for such an agreement, his sentence was enforced in December 1976. The applicant complained of the revocation of the stay of execution, relying on Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment), Article 7 (no punishment without law) and Article 9.
The Commission declared the case inadmissible. It found in particular that since Article 4 § 3(b) expressly recognised that conscientious objectors might be required to perform civilian service in substitution for compulsory military service, it had to be inferred that Article 9 did not imply a right to be exempted from substitute civilian service. With regard to the complaint under Article 7, the Commission underlined that it was for the national legislator to define the offences that may be penalised and found that the Convention did not prevent a state from imposing sanctions on those who refused to perform civilian service. Further, taking into consideration the length of the applicant’s sentence, its deferment and his conditional release, the Commission found no convincing argument in support of his allegations of a violation of Article 3.

Case of X. v. Austria (Application no. 5591/72) 02/04/1973

The applicant complained about his conviction by the Austrian courts for having refused to serve his compulsory military service on grounds of his religious beliefs as a Roman Catholic.
The Commission declared the case inadmissible, finding in particular that Article 4 § 3(b) of the Convention, which exempts from the prohibition of forced or compulsory labour “any service of a military character or, in cases of conscientious objectors, in countries where they are recognised, service exacted instead of compulsory military service” clearly showed that States had the choice whether or not to recognise conscientious objectors and, if so recognised, to provide some substitute service. Article 9 as qualified by Article 4 § 3(b), did not impose on a State the obligation to recognise conscientious objectors and, consequently, to make special arrangements for the exercise of their right to freedom of conscience and religion as far as it affected their compulsory military service. It followed that these Articles did not prevent a State which had not recognised conscientious objectors from punishing those who refused to do military service.

Case of Grandrath v. Germany (Application no. 2299/64) 12/10/1966

Mr Grandrath, a minister of Jehovah's Witnesses, was a "total objector", seeking to be exempted both from military and from civilian service. He complained about his criminal conviction for refusing to perform substitute civilian service and alleged that he was discriminated against in comparison with Roman Catholic and Protestant ministers who were exempt from this service.
The European Commission of Human Rights examined the case under Article 9 (freedom of religion) and under Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 4 (prohibition of forced or compulsory labour). The Commission concluded that there had been no violation of the Convention, as conscientious objectors did not have the right to exemption from military service, and that each Contracting State could decide whether or not to grant such a right. If such a right was granted, objectors could be required to perform substitute civilian service, and did not have a right to be exempted from it.

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