ECHR Strikes Down Swiss Federal Provision Due to Inherent Gender Discrimination

By: Jamie McLennan

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – On October 20, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously held in B. v. Switzerland that a federal provision from Switzerland violated Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) and Article 8 (right to respect for privacy and family life) when the Swiss Governmental provision allocated pensions differently to widows and widowers.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Photo Courtesy of ECHR.

The applicant, B., is a Swiss national who is the father of two children. The applicant lost his wife in an accident when the children were two and four years old. The Swiss Federal Law on Old-Age and Survivors’ Insurance allowed widows and widowers to collect a pension if they were unable to work while caring for their children. However, the federal statute stated that widowers should be able to return to work when their children reached majority age and no longer needed assistance. In 2010, after the applicant’s youngest daughter turned the age of majority, the Compensation Office notified him that his pension was terminated. He lodged an appeal, which stated that the federal law violated gender equality as protected in the Swiss Constitution. The Cantonal Court dismissed his appeal and acknowledged that the federal statute purposely treated men and women differently when allocating monetary resources for the death of a spouse.

In November of 2012, the applicant filed suit with the ECHR. The suit alleged that the Swiss provision violated Articles 14 and 8, as the statute discriminated against widowed fathers, as compared to widowed mothers, with the sole responsibility of raising their children.

The Court found that the applicant’s complaint fell within the scope of protection for Articles 14 and 8. The purpose of Article 8 is to protect the privacy of matters within families. According to the Court, the applicant’s pension was to enable the surviving parent to control family matters as they pleased. Moreover, the applicant lost his pension at the age of 57 and it would be difficult to envision an older man being forced to rejoin the workforce so many years later. Correspondingly, the Court also affirmed the alleged gender discrimination because the applicant did experience unequal treatment in that his payments were terminated, whereas a widow would not have lost her pension. The Court rejected the Swiss Government’s justification for the difference in treatment on grounds of sex, as the Government argued that there were different roles and statuses between men and women when the legislation was enacted in 1948. In response, the Court reiterated that the Charter is a “living instrument,” which should be interpreted in light of present-day conditions and progressive changes in society.

The Court ordered that the Swiss Government pay the applicant 5,000 euros in respect for non-pecuniary damage and 6,380 euros in respect of costs and damages.

For further information, please see;

European Court of Human Rights- Fact Sheet- 20. Oct. 2020.

European Court of Human Rights- Forthcoming Judgements- 22. Oct. 2020.

European Court of Human Rights- Press Release- 20. Oct. 2020.

ECHR Rules Russia Can Compensate Prisoners for Inadequate Detention Conditions

By: Genna Amick

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

MOSCOW, Russia – On April 9, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) ruled on the admissibility of six applicants who applied for compensatory damages under Russia’s 2019 Compensation Act.

Entering into force in January 2020, the Compensation Act provides detainees who are held in pre-trial detention facilities with financial compensation if they suffered from inadequate detention conditions that violated national or international standards. Russia adopted the Compensation Act in response to rulings from two earlier cases from the ECHR, which required that Russia take action regarding the inhumane, degrading conditions of their pre-trial detention centers.

One of the main issues faced by pre-trial detention centers in Russia is overcrowding. This has been a problem for years, likely due to Russian courts approving prosecutorial requests for pre-trial custody in 90.7% of cases. The complaints of the six applicants in this case all involve alleged overcrowding.

The applicants, who filed on various dates in 2017 and 2018, relied on both Article 3 and Article 13 of the European Convention. Article 3 prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment. Applicants used Article 13, which ensures the right to an effective remedy, to complain that Russia lacked an effective domestic remedy for their inhumane pre-trial detention conditions. Although the applicants filed their complaints two to three years before the Compensation Act went into effect, the Court did not review their applications until after the Act was in effect. Therefore, all six applicants’ claims were deemed inadmissible as the Court held that the Compensation Act is an effective domestic remedy to their claims.

The ECHR found the Compensation Act to be an effective method of compensatory redress for applicants who had already been released from a pre-trial detention center but had suffered through improper detention conditions while there. The Court based this ruling on a number of factors, such as that the remedy has the requisite procedural guarantees, it is accessible to the people who may need it, and it offers applicants a reasonable likelihood of success. The Court also based their decision on an assumption that claims would be processed in a reasonable time period and that compensation would be paid promptly to applicants who qualified for redress.

The Court stated that released detainees may qualify for compensation under the Compensation Act if, during their detention, they did not receive the standard amount of space per detainee that is required under Article 3 of the European Convention, which is 3 square meters per detainee. All six applicants’ complaints alleged they received less than 3 square meters; therefore, they are all eligible to apply for redress under the Compensation Act. Since the applicants at issue filed a few years before the Act went into effect, they have 180 days from the publication of the ECHR’s ruling to avail themselves of the remedy provided by the Compensation Act.

Despite the ECHR finding the Compensation Act to be an effective remedy for released detainees, the ECHR reserved their judgment on whether the Act can be effective as a preventative remedy for applicants who are still being detained.

For further information, please see:

HUDOC – Shmelev and Others v. Russia – remedies for complaints about poor conditions of detention – 9 Apr. 2020

Human Rights Watch – Russia’s Pretrial Prisons Vulnerable as COVID-19 Spreads – 24 Mar. 2020

Russia’s Criminal Investigation Procedures Don’t Comply with Convention on Human Rights

By: Jacob Tyson

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – On February 4, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) found the Russian government responsible for 29 cases of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment by police officers, violations of Article 3 and Article 13 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and awarded 835,000 euros in pecuniary damages to the victims. The treatment the victims received included electric shock, strangulation, needles being placed under fingernails, rape, and threats of torture toward family members.

Man is arrested by Russian law enforcement. Photo Courtesy of The Moscow Times/AP.

The case revolved around whether the complaints were credible and admissible even though they relied on faulty investigations. The Court opined that medical examinations, especially in cases of ill-treatment toward prisoners and detainees, are an essential safeguard of human life and the justice process. However, without this information, human rights investigations can be inadmissible in court. Here, multiple applicants were not examined until weeks after their complaints of torture. Upon examination, the forensic experts were not provided with enough information which made it impracticable for the experts to create an accurate picture of what happened to these prisoners. The experts, instead, relied on the pre-investigation inquiry by the Russian authorities.

According to the Court, this was an inadequate effort by the Russian government. The Court held that the mere carrying out of a pre-investigation inquiry under the Code of Criminal Procedure of the Russian Federation is insufficient to comply with Article 3 of the Convention. “It is incumbent on the authorities to institute criminal proceedings and conduct a proper criminal investigation in which a full range of investigative measures are carried out,” the Court wrote.

This could have a significant impact on criminal procedure in Russia, as well as other Council of Europe member states, to ensure more thorough and accurate investigations into police brutality and inhumane prison practices. However, since 2015, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed a bill allowing the Constitutional Court to circumvent rulings of the ECHR and any other rulings by international human rights bodies in an effort to protect Russian legal sovereignty. It is unlikely this ruling will affect the way Russia conducts its investigations in the future or in its 15,000 currently pending ECHR applications.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Applications nos. 47821/09 against Russia – 4 Feb. 2020

МБХ – ЕСПЧ Присудил Россиянам 1 Млн Евро за Незаконные Обыски и Пытки в Полиции – 4 Feb. 2020

The Moscow Times – Russia Ordered to Pay $1M to Police Brutality Victims – 5 Feb. 2020

ECHR Rules Spain Did Not Breach the Convention in Returning Migrants to Morocco

By: Nadia Abed

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

STRASBOURG, France — On February 13, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) ruled that Spain did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”) in returning migrants to Morocco for attempting to cross the fences onto European Union territory in the case of N.D. and N.T. v. Spain.

Police office scales fence climbed by migrants at Melilla border. Photo Courtesy of AFP.

On August 13, 2014, hundreds of migrants attempted to storm their way onto European Union territory by scaling fences to reach the city of Melilla, a Spanish enclave surrounded by Moroccan territory. Moroccan police were able to prevent about 500 migrants from scaling the outer fence, but around a hundred migrants succeeded, with 75 migrants reaching the top of the fence and a few landing on the other side on Spanish soil. Those who reached the soil were met by members of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish law enforcement, while others remained at the top of the fence.

Two individuals, N.D., a national of Mali, and N.T., a national of Côte d’Ivoire (“the applicants”), were of the few that remained at the top of the fence. After a few hours, the two climbed down and were apprehended by the Guardia Civil who “reportedly handcuffed them, took them back to Morocco and handed them over to the Moroccan authorities.”

The applicants lodged applications with the ECHR on February 12, 2015 alleging that there had been a violation of Protocol No. 4 Article 4 which prohibits collective expulsion of aliens and Article 13 which secures the right to an effective remedy. Through both Articles, the applicants claim that they were forced back to Morocco with “no chance to explain their circumstances, no chance to request asylum, and no chance to appeal their expulsion.”

On October 2, 2017, in its Chamber judgment, the Court held that there was a violation of Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 and a violation of Article 13 in conjunction with Article 4 of Protocol No. 4. On December 14, 2017, the Spanish Government requested the case be referred to the Grand Chamber under Article 43 of the Convention. On January 29, 2018 the Grand Chamber accepted and a hearing was held on September 26, 2018.

The Court reasoned that the applicants had attempted to enter Spanish territory in an unauthorized manner by taking advantage of a large crowd. In accordance with the Convention, States are required to “make available genuine and effective access to means of legal entry [and] should allow all persons who faced persecution to submit an application for protection.” As a result of not using the proper channels, States can refuse entry to their territories to aliens and asylum-seekers who fail, without convincing reason, to follow such requirements.

Regarding the applicants Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 claim, the Court noted that Spanish law had several possible means available to those seeking admission to their territory, such as applications for visas or international protection, therefore the State had provided genuine and effective access to its territory. Applicants’ did not allege they tried to enter Spanish territory by any legal means. The court concluded that the applicants had “placed themselves in jeopardy by participating in the storming of the border fences [and their expulsion was a] consequence of their own conduct.”

Regarding the applicants’ Article 13 claim taken in conjunction with Article 4 of Protocol No. 4, the Court explains that “the lack of an [individualized] procedure for [the applicants’] procedure for their removal had been the consequence of the applicants’ own conduct in placing themselves in an unlawful situation by crossing the Melilla border protection structures… at an [unauthorized] location.” Further, the Court concluded that there had not been a violation of Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 or Article 13 in conjunction with Article 4 of Protocol No. 4.

European Court of Human Rights – Forthcoming Grand Chamber judgment in a case concerning the immediate return of two migrants who tried to enter Spain by climbing the fences of the Melilla enclave – 6 Feb. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – Spain did not breach the Convention in returning migrants to Morocco who had attempted to cross the fences of the Melilla enclave – 12 Feb. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – Case of N.D. and N.T. v. Spain – 12 Feb. 2020

The Local Spain – Spain cleared by European Court of Human Rights over Removal of migrants at border fence – 13 Feb. 2020

European Court of Human Rights Hears Syrian National’s Case for Family Reunification

By: Melissa Berouty

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

STRASBOURG, France — On March 18, 2020, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) will hear the case of M.A. v. Denmark, regarding the denial of family reunification. According to the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights (“the Commissioner”), “[f]amily reunification procedures allow foreign nationals residing in Council of Europe member states to request permission to bring members of their family to join them, and to re-establish family life on the territory of their member state of residence.” The Commissioner has stated that family separation of individuals with international protection has been the root of “depression, anxiety, and feelings of guilt for leaving family members behind in dangerous situations.” These subsequent effects lead to difficulty in integration, including breaking through potential language barriers. Commonly, the integration process does not fully commence until the family reunification process is complete.

In January 2015, M.A., the applicant and a Syrian national, entered into Denmark seeking asylum. M.A. was granted temporary protection for a one-year period, under Section 7, subsection 3 of the Aliens Act, which offers protection for “individuals who face capital punishment, torture or inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment due to severe instability and indiscriminate violence against civilians in their home country.” Since then, M.A.’s residence permit has been extended in one-year increments.

In November 2015, M.A. requested to be reunited with his wife of twenty-five years, who was residing in Syria. Typically, under Danish law, an individual with temporary protection under section 7, subsection 3 of the Aliens Act must have a residence permit for more than three years for family reunification. Given this, in September 2016, M.A.’s request was denied by the Immigration Appeals Board, given the standard set by Danish law and a lack of “special reasons” to justify family reunification before the three-year threshold.

Following the denial of his application in early 2017, M.A. filed a complaint arguing that Denmark’s refusal of a family reunion was a direct violation of his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”). M.A. argues that Danish law is discriminatory given that if he had been offered a “higher degree of protection,” he would be eligible for a family reunion within one year rather than three. In May 2017, the High Court of Eastern Denmark ruled against M.A.

On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court of Eastern Denmark’s decision. Here, the Supreme Court found no violation of the Convention stating, “the difference in treatment in the right to a family reunion had been justified by the fact that some groups of individuals had required greater protection.” On January 30, 2018, M.A.’s case was brought before the ECHR.

Here, M.A. again claims a violation of his rights under the Convention, specifically prohibition of discrimination under Article 14 in conjunction with the right to a family life under Article 8. On September 7, 2018, the Danish government was given notice, pursuant to Rule 54 of the local Court Rules, that “an application against the State is pending before the Court.” On November 19, 2019, jurisdiction was relinquished to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.

According to the Commissioner, Denmark’s family reunification laws and policies have been in discussion for nearly fifteen years. In January 2016, the Commissioner’s predecessor contacted the Danish Minister expressing concerns over the waiting periods set forth in section 7, subsection 3 of the Aliens Act, particularly in its compatibility with Article 8 of the Convention. On January 31, 2019, the Commissioner expressed her recommendation to the Danish Government that “[w]aiting periods of over one year are inappropriate for refugees and for their family members.” Further, the Commissioner noted that Syrian individuals are being disproportionately affected, following the 1951 Refugee Convention. On March 18, 2020, the Grand Chamber hearing of M.A. v. Denmark will commence to decide on this issue.

For further information, please see:

ECHR – M.A. v. Denmark (relinquishment) – November 2019

ECHR – Relinquishment in favour of the Grand Chamber M.A. v. Denmark – 11 Nov. 2019

Council of Europe – Third party Intervention by the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights – 31 Jan. 2019