Ten years of successful litigation at the European Court of Human Rights

Bill Bowring explains the work and history of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre and encourages a new generation  of barristers to get involved

The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) is celebrating its tenth anniversary, with recent events in Moscow and in London. EHRAC was founded in 2003 by a partnership of London Metropolitan University, the Bar Human Rights Committee, and the Russian NGO “Memorial”. Memorial was founded in 1989 in the USSR as the All-Union Voluntary Historical and Educational Society “Memorial”, as the result of an initiative in 1987 to establish a monument in Moscow to the victims of Stalinist repression. Memorial’s main focus has been (and remains) the accurate documentation and remembrance of victims of repression in the USSR and in today’s Russia.

Creating EHRAC

Three streams of events came together to create EHRAC in 2003.

First was my own visit, to the former Soviet Union, in 1983, when I fell in love with the Russian language. In 1992 I became one of the founder members of the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC), and also, with a committed circle of barristers and solicitors, a volunteer lawyer with the Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP). During the 1990s I represented many Kurdish applicants to the European Court of Human Rights, drafting pleadings and representing applicants before the Commission and Court and at in-country fact-finding hearings. During this time I also visited Russia regularly, as an expert for the European Union’s TACIS (Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States) programme, and for the Council of Europe.

From 1997 to 2004 I served as Adviser on Human Rights and Judicial Reform in Russia for the newly established Department for International Development (DfID). In the course of drafting, monitoring and evaluating projects in Russia for DfID I came to know some of the Russian human rights defenders, including Memorial.

The second was in 1996 when Russia, under President Yeltsin, joined the Council of Europe, despite the fact that the First Chechen War was continuing. In 1996 Russian Federal forces were defeated by the Chechen insurgents, and from 1997 to 1999 Chechnya (Ichkeria) was de facto independent of Russia. In 1998 Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which, because Russia has a ‘monist’ approach to international law, immediately became part of Russia’s domestic legislation, with a status superior to Russian laws.

In August 1999 Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister of Russia, and on 1 October 1999, after he promised to “smash the Chechens in the outside toilet”, Russian Federal forces again entered Chechnya. Their mission was to avenge their defeat in 1996, and to crush Chechen resistance. On 29 October 1999, in the first of a series of gross violations of human rights, Russian planes bombed a civilian refugee column which had been given a “green route” to leave Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was about to be stormed by Federal forces. Further massacres occurred on November 1999 in the Staropromyslovskiy District of Grozny, and in January 2000 in the village of Katyr-Yurt near Grozny.

Memorial had a network of volunteers and lawyers in Chechnya who worked with victims and witnesses. Early in 2000 a young volunteer in the Human Rights Centre of Memorial, Anna Kornilina, began work on the first six Chechen complaints to the ECtHR. These were communicated to Russia in April 2000, by which time Putin was Acting President of Russia. Although I volunteered to give assistance with drafting the Replies to the Russian Government’s Observations on the Applications, it was clear that Memorial did not have the experience or capacity to grapple with the complexity of the cases and the enormous weight of documentation generated.

Thirdly, in December 2002, after applying in April 2001, I won a grant (the maximum, of €1 million) from the European Commission’s European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights. The application, drafted with a team of young barristers from BHRC, was based on the experience of KHRP, and proposed a full partnership between Memorial in Russia, and LondonMet and BHRC in London, with the objective of strengthening the capacity of women and men to take cases to Strasbourg. The new project would draw on the experience and commitment of the barristers and solicitors who had provided volunteers for KHRP.

Not only did the new partnership project learn from KHRP experience, but EHRAC was able to attract Philip Leach (now Professor of Human Rights at Middlesex University, where EHRAC moved earlier in 2013) to become Director. Having been lawyer at Liberty, Philip became the lawyer at KHRP. EHRAC was also able to draw on the expertise and experience of the circle of volunteer lawyers who had supported KHRP.

On 2005, following an oral hearing at which Phil Leach, the Russian advocate Kirill Koroteev (now a senior lawyer in EHRAC’s Moscow office) and I represented the first six Chechen applicants, the applicants won their case, and were awarded substantial damages. Since then the ECtHR has given judgment in favour of over 200 Chechen applicants.

EHRAC also represented the applicant in the first case against Russia concerning environmental pollution, Fadeyeva v Russia, and on 9 June 2005 the ECtHR ruled that Russia had violated Mrs Fadeyeva’s right to respect for her home and private life. Enforcement of this judgment has proved more problematic, and EHRAC is actively involved in the process of enforcement at Strasbourg.

The initial EC funding, for three years, has been replaced with grants from a number of sources, and EHRAC has been able to expand its work to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine.

EHRAC has now assisted the applicants in 310 applications to the ECtHR, and so far judgments have been handed down in 98 cases, in 96% of which there has been a finding of at least one violation of the ECHR. More than €6,500,000 has been awarded to EHRAC’s applicants. Since 2003 EHRAC has held 37 training events for 850 participants in seven regions of Russia and in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as an annual Legal Skills Development Programme in London and Strasbourg.

Case examples

Here are some case examples. EHRAC has secured moral justice for families of individuals who have “disappeared” at the hands of agents of the state, for example in Umarovy v Russia and Shafiyeva v Russia (both 2012). In Esmukhametov v Russia (2011) and Damayev v Russia (2012), applicants secured judgments in cases of indiscriminate bombing in Chechnya. In Isayev v Russia (2011), the prevalence of torture in Chechnya was highlighted. EHRAC, together with its Georgian partner, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, has taken 32 cases arising out of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, and these cases were communicated to Russia in 2011. They are still ongoing. With GYLA there were victories in Kiladze v Georgia (2010), on victims of Stalinist repression; and in Kakabadze v Georgia (2012), the right to freedom of assembly in Georgia was upheld. In a new departure for the Strasbourg Court, in January 2013 Oleksandr Volkov, a Supreme Court judge in Ukraine, won findings that his rights to a fair trial and private life had been violated. The Court also ordered  his reinstatement.

Now EHRAC is representing 14 Russian NGOs threatened by the new Russian law on “Foreign Agents”, as well as taking cases challenging the law banning “gay propaganda”, and is intervening as Third Party in the case concerning the “Katyn massacre”, the murder by Soviet forces of 21,000 Polish prisoners in 1940.

Get involved

We want to encourage a new generation of barristers to take part. To get involved, send your CV, an example of your work, and a letter giving reasons for applying, to: Vahe Grigoryan, EHRAC Legal Officer, v.grigoryan@mdx.ac.uk.ehrac. You can download EHRAC’s illustrated 10 Year Review and much more from http://www.mdx.ac.uk/aboutus/Schools/law/ehrac/news/index.aspx.

Bill Bowring is a barrister at Field Court Chambers and Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London

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