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In The Bowels of Europe’s Conscience

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Joel Lewin

SocietyEUtopia: StrasbourgEU-TOPIA: Time to Vote

Any one of 820m people can apply to the European Court of Human Rights without a lawyer and without a fee. It is extremely democratic but it is a victim of its own openness, receiving 60, 000 applications a year. Who are these people and how does this colossal judicial creature function? I met Kurds and cut-throats and a man reporting a murderous Japanese robot

“He will con­tribute to peace and democ­racy, so we’ve started a cam­paign for his re­lease,” says Adem, a Kurd cam­paign­ing against the im­pris­on­ment of Ab­dul­lah Öcalan, leader of the Kur­dis­tan Worker’s Party. In March 2014, the Eu­ro­pean Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had vi­o­lated Öcalan’s rights by keep­ing him in “in­hu­man” con­di­tions; ten years soli­tary con­fine­ment in an iso­lated is­land prison.

Adem and four other Kurds are gath­ered around posters of Öcalan on this leafy river­side av­enue op­po­site the Stras­bourg Court. They’re in high spir­its after the rul­ing in Öcalan’s favour. Rather than look­ing back bit­terly at a con­flict with Turkey that claimed 40,000 lives, thanks to the ECHR, they are look­ing to the fu­ture with op­ti­mism. “We al­ready have one mil­lion [sig­na­tures] and we’ve been here for two years,” Adem tells me proudly, “we’ll con­tinue like peo­ple did the same for Man­dela.”

In­side Eu­rope’s Con­science

The ECHR con­sists of two colos­sal steel cylin­ders which shine brightly against the clear April sky. The build­ing has an epic aura, like twin leviathans float­ing in the blue. They are con­nected by a web of glass and gird­ers. Jus­tice may be an an­cient ideal, but “Eu­rope’s con­science” feels like some­thing from the fu­ture. The glass walls feel non-ex­is­tent; you see through every­thing and noth­ing is hid­den. Tracey Turner-Tretz, the Reg­istry press of­fi­cer, tells me the con­struc­tion is sym­bolic of the trans­parency the court seeks to dif­fuse.

I meet Clare Ovey, Head of the UK Reg­istry Di­vi­sion in a per­fectly cir­cu­lar con­fer­ence room. It is the width of one whole cylin­der. A deep blue car­pet with the EU stars em­broi­dered in gold gives the im­pres­sion that this court is not just in Eu­rope, it is Eu­rope, a cor­po­real em­bod­i­ment of the val­ues Eu­rope was built on. The whole wall is a win­dow, so Clare and I are bathed in a cu­ri­ously bal­anced light. There are no shad­ows, only light.

“The con­ven­tion sys­tem is there to pro­tect mi­nori­ties,” ex­plains Ovey, “be­cause you can as­sume in any sort of democ­racy that the ma­jor­ity can look after them­selves, be­cause they’ve got ac­cess to power- so it’s the mi­nor­ity in­ter­ests that need rights.” She speaks quickly and with con­vic­tion, smil­ing be­hind her black rimmed spec­ta­cles.

Stand­ing up to States

The Court has a his­tory of pro­tect­ing mi­nor­ity rights against pow­er­ful states. It made Rus­sia pay over one mil­lion euros to the fam­i­lies of Chechens killed by the Russ­ian army. The Court obliged Cyprus to prop­erly pro­tect vic­tims of sex traf­fick­ing. It has forced the UK, Bul­garia, Switzer­land and oth­ers to care bet­ter for the men­tally ill. “Here you feel like your work is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence,” says Ovey.

But not every­one agrees. UK Jus­tice Sec­re­tary Chris Grayling said the ECHR does not “make this coun­try a bet­ter place.” When the Court ruled Britain’s blan­ket ban on pris­oner vot­ing vi­o­lated the Con­ven­tion, David Cameron said the thought of pris­on­ers vot­ing makes him “phys­i­cally ill”. UK Home Sec­re­tary Theresa May has threat­ened to cut ties with the “in­ter­fer­ing” ECHR.

What does the Court make of this back­lash? Ovey spreads her hands in a ges­ture of gen­tle frus­tra­tion. She par­tially blames the press, “That judge­ment has been re­ported as this court say­ing mur­der­ers and rapists should get the vote and that’s def­i­nitely not what it said.” But Ovey also at­trib­utes this re­cent vit­riol to op­por­tunis­tic but mis­di­rected eu­roscep­ti­cism, “We’re com­ing up to the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions and the way that the par­ties have di­vided them­selves and pre­sented them­selves is turn­ing on Eu­rope,” she ex­plains. “This court, even though we’re sep­a­rate from the EU, we’re seen as part of that, and that’s why politi­cians and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters like to at­tack us.”

In any case, the ex­tent of the Court’s in­ter­ven­tion is ex­ag­ger­ated. A few judge­ments steal the head­lines, but the Court rarely rules against mem­ber states. In 2013, out of 909 ap­pli­ca­tions from the UK, only 13 were deemed a vi­o­la­tion, yet the To­ries claim the Court is se­ri­ously im­ping­ing on British sov­er­eignity. Propos­ing an in­de­pen­dent British human rights bill sug­gests human rights are not uni­ver­sal and can be ap­plied se­lec­tively. Ovey says British foot-drag­ging is harm­ful for every­one; “The Ukrain­ian pres­i­dent ba­si­cally said 'why should we bother en­forc­ing our judge­ments when some­one like the UK doesn’t?'”

How Does it Work?

Whereas na­tional courts apply fixed ju­di­cial frame­works; “guilty or not guilty”, the ECHR’s job is to probe and im­prove these na­tional frame­works; it’s more a ques­tion of “what is jus­tice?” It's the only way an in­di­vid­ual can chal­lenge a state. Since any­one can apply with no fee and no lawyer, the Court re­ceives 60, 000 ap­pli­ca­tions a year and has 99, 000 pend­ing. These fig­ures sound huge, but what do they look like?

In the cav­ernous mail room, an army of fil­ing cab­i­nets stand to at­ten­tion in neat rows. The ten ad­min­is­tra­tors here speak 28 lan­guages be­tween them and they deal with 1,600 let­ters a day. I de­scend an­other level to the bow­els of Eu­rope’s con­science. These bow­els are filled with valu­able trea­sure; 60 years of jus­tice. Jus­tice as an ideal may be un­quan­tifi­able, but in prac­tice it can be counted; as 5.2 km of archived doc­u­ments to be pre­cise. “That’s 36 times higher than the Stras­bourg cathe­dral,” says Eliza, who works in the archives.

Plu­ral­ity in Prac­tice

Out­side the Court, an en­camp­ment of pro­tes­tors liv­ing in tents sprawls along the bank of the river Ill. Clas­si­cal music drifts across the en­camp­ment. The pro­tes­tors are not ex­actly what I was ex­pect­ing. I meet Maimouna El Ma­zougui, a 73 year old Mo­roc­can. She al­leges that the French and Is­raeli gov­ern­ments col­luded to plant a chip in her brain to con­trol her re­motely, mak­ing her vi­brate and pre­vent­ing her from doing God’s work. She is sit­ting in her tent on a camp chair clutch­ing a lit­tle black radio. Crates of bot­tled water are stacked out­side her tent. She’s here for the long haul- years al­ready. “The planet is gov­erned by a global band of crim­i­nals, mur­der­ers and neo-Nazi Jews,” she tells me, “I’m wait­ing here for jus­tice.”

Later I meet Jonathan Simp­son, who shows me a long white scar on his neck, “The British se­cret ser­vices cut my throat,” he rages. He claims they have been wag­ing a cam­paign of ter­ror against him for decades. “I could write a whole book on den­tal abuse alone,” he tells me. “Look at that gum line. One set up after an­other. There was even a bogus den­tal prac­tice. The build­ing was ob­vi­ously hired for the pur­pose, no pa­tients, the min­i­mum of décor, ab­solutely off the scale.” An­other pro­tes­tor, Moustafa from Bul­garia, tells me he has trav­elled 48 hours on the bus to come here  and re­port a Japan­ese robot of Toy­ota make which killed his fam­ily with a laser. He un­zips his leather jacket to re­veal a tor­soe wrapped in plas­tic; home-made ar­mour.

Ev­i­dently some of these ap­pli­ca­tions will not be ac­cepted, but what mat­ters is they are al­lowed to apply. The Court treats every ap­pli­ca­tion with dig­nity and with­out pre­con­cep­tions. “I think it’s ac­tu­ally a very good sign,” says Iverna Mc­Gowan, Di­rec­tor of Pro­grams at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, “the Court’s val­ues are based on a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety, democ­racy, val­ues such as free­dom of ex­pres­sion. Who are we to judge prima facie if some­one has a valid case or not?"

This ar­ti­cle is part of a spe­cial se­ries de­voted to Stras­bourg. It's part of "EU-topia : Time To Vote", a pro­ject run by Cafébabel in part­ner­ship with the Hip­pocrène foun­da­tion, The Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion, the Min­istry of For­eign Af­faires and the EVENS foun­da­tion. The whole se­ries will soon be avail­able on the home­page.

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