Who’s Afraid of Europe’s Human-Rights Court?

SOFIA – At a time when the ongoing European debt crisis is fracturing public faith in the continent’s political and economic institutions, one would expect Europe’s leaders to strengthen as many unifying symbols as they can. Instead, they have allowed one of the jewels of post-World War II European integration – the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – to come under threat as well.

Unlike the Brussels-based European Union, long beleaguered by its democratic deficit, the Strasbourg-based ECHR is, if anything, too well loved. In 2011, more than 60,000 people sought its help – far more than can expect a reasoned decision. (By contrast, the United States Supreme Court receives roughly 10,000 petitions a year.)

To save the ECHR from this crushing burden, some member states have proposed changes that could weaken it, even if unintentionally. Those of us who passionately believe in the Court and its achievements must speak out now to persuade the protagonists of misguided reforms to reverse course. Instead, the ECHR’s 47 member states – with 800 million people – need to shoulder more responsibility to make the existing system work.

Launched in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the ECHR has become a potent symbol of Europe’s commitment to government by law, not force, by vindicating the rights to life, humane treatment, free expression, and access to a lawyer. For example, the Court ruled that the infamous “five techniques” – an early form of “enhanced interrogation” employed by the British in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s – constituted inhuman treatment, and condemned racial segregation of Roma children in Czech schools.