Why an International Court in Europe?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN THE NETHERLANDS
WHEN the owner of a garage in the northern part of the Netherlands was denied a permit to sell liquid gas, which also implied he was not allowed to convert automobile engines to burn liquid gas, he waged a long legal battle in the various courts to undo the state-imposed restriction. In the meantime, he went bankrupt.
Feeling that he had been denied justice by the courts of the Netherlands, he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In 1985 the European Court decided in his favor. The owner of the garage viewed the decision of the court as a tremendous moral victory because, as the man put it, ‘it proved that he had been in the right all along.’
He is one of a number of citizens in European countries who during past decades have taken their appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. This court stands open to hear not only complaints of individuals within Europe but also complaints of countries against other countries when it is felt that fundamental human rights have not been respected. The increase in the number of court cases before international courts reflects the longing of citizens and some governments for justice.
The European Court of Human Rights
In 1950 several European states, which were united in the Council of Europe and met in Rome, decided to form a treaty whereby they could guarantee their citizens and foreigners who resided under their judicial authority certain rights and freedoms. Later other rights were added, while at the same time an increasing number of European states joined the European Treaty with a view to the protection of human rights and basic freedoms. Some of these rights have to do with protection of life and prevention of torture, and others have to do with family life as well as freedom of religion, of expression, of opinion, and of assembly and association. Victims of violations of these human rights can lodge a complaint against the state with the secretary-general of the Council of Europe.
Since the inception of the court, more than 20,000 complaints have been lodged. How does the court determine which cases to hear? First, an effort is made toward reconciliation. If that fails and the complaint is recognized as valid, it is taken before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Only about 5 percent of the complaints ever reach the court. Up till the end of 1995, the court had passed 554 verdicts. Although the verdict of the court in the case of a complaint by an individual is binding for the state concerned, the situation where a complaint is lodged by a state or states is not a simple matter. In such a case, the likelihood is that the state against whom judgment has been passed will choose a course of political expediency rather than comply with the demands of the treaty. While the International Court of Justice at The Hague handles only disputes between states, the European Court pronounces verdicts also in cases of differences between citizens and states.
Victories in Favor of Freedom of Worship in Europe
In 1993 the European Court of Human Rights arrived at two important decisions in favor of freedom of worship. The first case involved a resident of Greece, Minos Kokkinakis. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he had been arrested more than 60 times since 1938, had been made to appear 18 times before Greek courts, and had spent more than six years in prison.
On May 25, 1993, the European Court decided that the Greek government had violated the religious freedom of the then 84-year-old Minos Kokkinakis and awarded him damages in the amount of $14,400. The court rejected the argument of the Greek government that Kokkinakis and Jehovah’s Witnesses as a whole applied pressure tactics when discussing their religion with others.—For additional information, see The Watchtower of September 1, 1993, pages 27-31.
In the second case, the European Court decided in favor of Ingrid Hoffmann of Austria. Because she had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses while married, she was deprived of guardianship over her two children, following her divorce. The lower courts had originally assigned her the guardianship, but the Supreme Court assigned it to her Catholic husband. The court based this action on an Austrian law that says that children must be brought up in the Catholic religion if the parents were Catholic at the time of their getting married unless both agree to change their religion. Her ex-husband asserted that now that she had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she was not able to raise the children in a normal, sound manner. On June 23, 1993, the European Court decided that Austria had discriminated against Mrs. Hoffmann on the grounds of her religion and had violated her right to raise her family. She was awarded damages.—For additional information, see Awake! of October 8, 1993, page 15.
These decisions affect all people who love freedom of religion and expression. Appeals to international courts can contribute to the protection of fundamental rights of citizens. It is also good to recognize the limitations of judicial organs. In spite of the best intentions in the world, they are not able to guarantee lasting peace and complete respect for human rights.