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Council of Europe; European Court of Human Rights: 47 Member States Adopt the Brighton Declaration

(May 7, 2012) On April 20, 2012, the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe, at a high-level ministerial conference in Brighton, United Kingdom, unanimously voted to adopt a series of measures, known as the “Brighton Declaration,” aimed at reforming the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The Brighton conference follows two previous conferences, at Interlaken and at Izmer, which were chiefly aimed at resolving the Strasbourg-based court's burgeoning caseload problem. (High Level Conference on the Future of the European Court of Human Rights: Brighton Declaration[hereinafter Conference], Council of Europe website (last visited May 2, 2012).)

The High Level Conference on the Future of the ECtHR was organized by the UK government as part of its chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers. The Conference was held in the context of increasing tension between the UK and the European court over recent judgments of the court, including in particular its decision in a prisoner voting rights case and its decision against the deportation of alleged terrorist Abu Qatada from the UK. (Helen Fenwick, An Appeasement Approach in the European Court of Human Rights?, UK Human Rights Blog, (Apr. 17, 2012).)

The measures adopted at Brighton include calling for:

1) the Committee of Ministers to adopt by the end of 2013 the necessary amending instrument to insert the principles of “subsidiarity” and “margin of appreciation” in the preamble of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, on which the ECtHR is based (Conference, supra, ¶ 12(b));

2) reduction of the time limit for submitting applications to the ECtHR from six months to four months (id. ¶ 15(a));

3) amendment of the admissibility criteria (id. ¶ 15(d)); and

4) drafting of a new optional protocol that would allow national courts to request advisory opinions from the Strasbourg court (id. ¶ 12(d)).

Sir Nicholas Bratza, the President of the ECtHR, took issue with the proposal for insertion of the principles of “subsidiarity” and “margin of appreciation” in the ECtHR Convention, stating it was difficult to see “the need for, or the wisdom of, attempting to legislate for it in the Convention, any more than for the many other tools of interpretation which have been developed by the Court in carrying out the judicial role entrusted to it.” (Sir Nicolas Bratza, Draft Speaking Notes (Apr. 19, 2012),Council of Europe website.)

International human rights organizations also had mixed reactions to the results at Brighton. On the one hand, organizations, such as Amnesty International and Open Society Justice Initiative, were relieved that some of the far-reaching changes that were originally proposed, measures that would curb access to the Court, were not part of the final declaration. Moreover, language that reaffirmed the states' commitment to fully implement the Convention on the domestic level was welcomed. However, these organizations criticized the lack of effort to deal with some of the ECtHR's more pressing problems, including stemming its growing caseload and improving state compliance with Court judgments. (Press Release, Amnesty International, Brighton Declaration: States Must Be Serious About European Court's Judgments Instead of Tampering with Its Independence(Apr. 20, 2012).)

According to Amnesty International, “[a]ll in all, whereas the Brighton Declaration was supposed to establish an ambitious agenda for ensuring the viability of the Convention system, it largely ends up avoiding the difficult questions while infringing on the Court's independence and authority.” (Id.) The Open Society Justice Initiative “expressed regret that the Brighton Declaration proposes amending the European Convention on Human Rights to encourage greater deference by the court to national governments, though this will do little to stem the growing caseload.” (Press Release, Open Society Justice Initiative, Brighton Conference on ECHR Reform Leaves Work Ahead(Apr. 20, 2012).)