Monday 16 June 2008

A People's History of the ECHR

For many Strasbourg watchers a certain curiosity remains after reading new judgments: what happens subsequently? Of course, the formal answer can be found in the work of the Committee of Ministers which monitors state compliance with the Court's case law. But beyond that, it is only by chance sometimes that newspapers report on how the applicants themselves continue with their lives. Also, one often wonders why a certain case was brought to Strasbourg. These are questions on the often partly hidden human dimension of jurisprudence. I was therefore particularly delighted when I recently was made aware of an intriguing book*: Michael Goldhaber, A People's History of the European Court of Human Rights (Rutgers University Press 2007). The book traces the backgrounds of the protagonists in a number of leading ECHR cases. Through meticulous research, dozens of interviews, and even photographs we finally discover what Jeff Dudgeon looks like or why Paula Marckx was so keen to press her case in Strasbourg (and why Anthony Tyrer was not). Paula Marckx fought for equal rights for her daughter Alexandra, who was born out of wedlock. And thus, the book recounts that Paula was smart enough to write a letter to Strasbourg in the name of her daughter:

"Messieurs, I am a ten-month-old baby (...) I hope with all my heart that a baby of my age can count on an institution like yours to protect her rights."

Mother and daughter won their case and now run a website that offers advice for travelling with pets... But the book also traces the perseverance of small groups of British (and American!) lawyers whose legal creativity was instrumental in lodging several of the first complaints which resulted in 'leading cases'. Finally, it is a written monument to the courage of people like Serif Aksoy, who pressed the case of his son - who was killed and tortured - before the European Court and paid a very heavy price for that; he was tortured 24 times. But the Strasbourg judgment in Aksoy was a landmark case, for the first time finding a violation of the prohibition of torture in an individual case. As the famous anthropologist Margareth Mead has said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." The stories in Goldhaber's book certainly illustrate that dictum well!

Although sometimes using sweeping statements, which to European readers sound almost too stereotypically American, the book does an excellent job in pointing out the unique success of Strasbourg in securing human rights - in a very accessible style for that matter. This is a book that doesn't only satisfy one's curiosity, it also whets one's appetite for more. Recommended reading!

And, as an afterthought in the wake of the Irish 'No!', it might be a consolation that Goldhaber asserts that the European Convention on Human Rights is, by far, the "most satisfying basis for a [European] communal identity."

* The Dutch judge at the European Court, Egbert Myjer, wrote about Goldhaber's book in a recent issue of the Dutch human rights review NJCM-Bulletin, vol. 33-2, pp. 305-307.