Earlier this month, the Council of Europe published statistics indicating that 25,000 new applications were submitted so far this year to the European Court of Human Rights and almost 100,000 applications were pending judicial decisions. Since 2010, there have been numerous reform efforts to increase the effectiveness of the Court. Consequently, the backlog of cases and the time spent dealing with inadmissible lawsuits have decreased. Although inter-governmental work continues to further improve the functioning of the Court, it mainly deals with technical issues linked to the internal rules of procedure. It seems that the key issues that determine the effectiveness of the Court are missing from the debate or at least aren’t given the prominence they deserve.

For the Court to be effective, it must first and foremost have the political support of the Council of Europe member states. If there is any distrust of the foundations of the Court―such as the right to individual complaint or the binding nature of the judgements―then the very existence of the Court is called into question. Statements from the UK on potential withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, which have intensified earlier this year, are particularly worrying in this regard. As Dean Spielmann, President of the Court, has said:

It would be a political disaster if any member state left the Convention. But it would be particularly disastrous if the UK pulled out, with its noble history of civil liberties […] and while being responsible for promoting human rights all over the world.

Indeed, the drafting of the Convention was led by British MP and lawyer, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. The Convention is to a large extent based on the British Bill of Rights and the UK was among the first signatories of the Convention. If the member state that designed the Convention pulled out from it, a harmful political signal would be sent to other states with less mature democracies, even possibly creating a domino effect of further withdrawals. Member states, for which the Court has contributed to democratic transformation and the creation of judicial systems based on the rule of law and human rights, could play particularly active roles in advocating for and supporting the Court.

Member states should also consider what they can do for the Court and not only what the Court can do for them. Over 10,000 judgements haven’t yet been executed by the concerned states. Therefore, any further discussion on improving the Court should start with an effective implementation of judgements, and standards enshrined therewith, at the national level. Furthermore, if member states wish to accelerate the proceedings of the Court, they should increase their financial contributions for its functioning. The Court's annual budget is just above half of that of the International Criminal Court and three times smaller than the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

Although technical discussions on procedural improvements should continue, it’s time to refocus the debate on the reform of the Court to address the key underlying issues. The Convention and the Court are still the cornerstones of the only regional human rights system that provides for a high degree of individual protection. It’s particularly relevant in the absence of independent judiciaries inside some of the Council of Europe member states, where it has become the only accessible court for citizens seeking redress for human rights violations. The Convention and the Court are also the very foundation of today's European values system.

Note: All views expressed in this post are solely those of the author.