Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An amendment to the European Convention on Human Rights reorganized the European Court of Human Rights, eliminating the inefficient European Human Rights Commission and guaranteeing that private individuals could take their cases before the court.

Summary of Event

In 1948, the majority of Europeans enthusiastically supported the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) (UDHR). The next year, ten European governments launched the Council of Europe, which had the goals of promoting human rights, European unity, and social and economic progress. In order to implement the principles of the UDHR, the council created and promulgated the European Convention on Human Rights, which was ratified by ten countries in 1950. The convention obligates the contracting countries to assure citizens of a large number of enumerated rights without invidious discrimination. European Court of Human Rights Strasbourg Court European Convention on Human Rights (1950) Human rights;international law [kw]Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights (Nov. 1, 1998) [kw]Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights, Europe Celebrates the (Nov. 1, 1998) [kw]European Court of Human Rights, Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the (Nov. 1, 1998) [kw]Court of Human Rights, Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European (Nov. 1, 1998) [kw]Human Rights, Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of (Nov. 1, 1998) [kw]Rights, Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human (Nov. 1, 1998) European Court of Human Rights Strasbourg Court European Convention on Human Rights (1950) Human rights;international law [g]Europe;Nov. 1, 1998: Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights[10220] [g]France;Nov. 1, 1998: Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights[10220] [c]Human rights;Nov. 1, 1998: Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights[10220] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 1, 1998: Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights[10220] Wildhaber, Luzius Robinson, Mary Tarschys, Daniel Mitterrand, François

For enforcement of these rights, Section II of the convention provided for the establishment of two judicial institutions, the European Commission on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The commission was assigned the tasks of examining the petitions and making initial decisions and recommendations. Once the commission issued a written report, the case could then be referred to the higher court, the ECHR, which was composed of one distinguished judge from each member country. Acting as an appellate court, the ECHR had great discretion in deciding whether further examination was warranted. In the majority of cases, it accepted the commission’s judgments, but not always.

The ECHR, informally called the Strasbourg Court, consisted of part-time judges who were elected for three-year terms. These judges were expected to be impartial and not representatives of any particular country, although the rules allowed them to participate in cases involving their country of origin. Decisions were made on the basis of a majority vote. A Committee of Ministers was given the responsibility for supervising the execution of the rulings. As more and more Europeans looked to the ECHR as a source of redress, its expanding caseload became almost unmanageable.

In 1993, the Council of Europe and the European heads of state held a joint summit conference in Vienna. The participants included French president François Mitterrand and Irish president Mary Robinson. The summit’s agenda centered on a variety of human rights issues, including ways to combat intolerance and increase protection for minorities. Recognizing the increasingly unmanageable caseload faced by the commission and the ECHR, the summit passed a resolution to establish a new and more efficiently organized court. In pursuance of the resolution, a committee of jurists formulated and recommended Protocol 11, an amendment to the European Convention on Human Rights. By May, 1994, the protocol had been ratified by all participating states, and it was scheduled to go into force on November 1, 1998. Luzius Wildhaber, who was a distinguished judge on the ECHR, was elected to serve as the first president of the reorganized court.

Under Protocol 11, the European Court for Human Rights retained its original title, but it was redesigned in order to replace the rather ponderous combination of commission and court. The protocol greatly simplified the court’s procedures and shortened the length of time required to render judgments. Under the new arrangement, each complaint is first to be examined by a committee of three judges, which has the prerogative of rejecting any complaint without explanation. If approved, the case is then referred to one of five sections, where the complaint is then heard and decided by a panel of about seven judges. Cases of unusual importance may be appealed to the Grand Chamber of seventeen judges. Decisions are binding on member countries, and a country may be expelled from the Council of Europe for noncompliance.

Prior to Protocol 11, private individuals had not been given direct access to the court; they could only present their petitions to the commission, which then decided whether or not to take the case to the court. In addition, when ratifying the convention, states had been allowed to opt out of the clause that gave individual persons this limited access to the commission. Protocol 11, in contrast, guaranteed individuals the privilege of taking their complaints directly to the court. By ratifying the protocol, moreover, the member states accepted that the court had jurisdiction to decide complaints brought against them by individuals.

Protocol 11 was not meant to elevate the ECHR as an appellate court over the national courts of the European countries, which have different laws and judicial traditions. The ECHR, therefore, does not overturn a decision of a national court except when the decision clearly violates a provision of the European Convention on Human Rights. Decisions of the ECHR, moreover, are technically applicable only to the case in question, and there is no attempt to develop a body of case law based on precedent. Several countries, nevertheless, have attempted to bring their national legislation into conformity to ECHR decisions. Great Britain’s Human Rights Act of 2002, for instance, requires the national courts to take note of the case law of the ECHR.

In making judicial interpretations, judges of the ECHR attempt to apply standards and values that are universally acknowledged by all liberal democratic countries, although critics accuse the court of a Eurocentric bias. Although judges attempt to minimize influences resulting from their countries of origin, some judges have admitted that unconscious biases cannot be entirely eliminated. Since the majority of the judges come from continental countries that have the civil code system rather than the common law tradition of England, the judges’ decisions tend to reflect the presuppositions and practices of the former rather than the latter.


Since the addition of Protocol 11, the ECHR has rendered a number of notable decisions. In 2000, it concluded that the Russian government had seriously violated the human rights of Chechen civilians. In 2003, it held that sharia Sharia (Islamic law) is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly its provisions on women’s rights, inheritance, and religious freedom. Several rulings held that the age of consent must be the same for homosexual and heterosexual relationships. In 2006, the court awarded $300,000 to a person who had been tortured by the Russian police.

The addition of Protocol 11 not only enhanced the powers and efficiency of the ECHR but also tended to add to the court’s visibility and prestige. Decisions and statements from ECHR judges, especially among liberal jurists, became increasingly recognized as having relevance outside of Europe. During the early twenty-first century, for instance, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer, quoted the opinions of ECHR judges as evidence of an international standard on issues such as “cruel and unusual” punishments.

One of the unintended consequences of Protocol 11 was to add to the problem of the court’s growing caseload. During the 1998 term, for example, the number of registered applications totaled 5,979, whereas the number grew to a total of 27,281 during the 2003 term. In an attempt to deal with this growth, Protocol 14 was added to the convention in 2004; this amendment allowed an individual judge to decide on the admissibility of most cases and authorized chambers of three judges to decide cases that resemble those decided in the past. European Court of Human Rights Strasbourg Court European Convention on Human Rights (1950) Human rights;international law

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christou, Theodora, and Juan Pablo Raymond, eds. European Court of Human Rights: Remedies and Execution of Judgments. London: British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 2005. Collection of thoughtful essays by leading lawyers and academic scholars, providing perspectives on the structure and rulings of the ECHR.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2006. Provides an excellent starting place for learning about human rights in various regions of the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldhaber, Michael. People’s History of the European Court of Human Rights. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Reader-friendly and interesting summary of the accomplishments of the ECHR since its creation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horspool, Margot, and Matthew Humphreys. European Union Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Although the ECHR is not part of the European Union, this textbook is recommended for those unfamiliar with Europe’s legal system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matlary, Janne H. Intervention for Human Rights in Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Although this important book is not primarily about the ECHR, it provides the historical context of Europe’s promotion of human rights through diplomacy and military force.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merrills, J. G., and A. H. Robinson. Human Rights in Europe: A Study of the European Convention on Human Rights. Yonkers, N.Y.: Juris, 2001. Comprehensive and readable account, including a historical introduction, analysis of case law, and a good summary of Protocol 11.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steiner, Henry, and Philip Alstron. International Human Rights in Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Huge text that emphasizes legal systems and issues throughout the world.

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Categories: History