Once focused on protecting fundamental rights, the European Court of Human Rights has increasingly become concerned with state sovereignty. The consequences of prioritising borders above human life will be detrimental to all.
Last month, at least 37 more humans lost their lives in the name of a European border.
On 24th June 2022, an estimated 2,000 sub-Saharan Africans approached the 13km-long perimeter fence that divides Morocco from the autonomous Spanish enclave of Melilla.
What ensued was a massacre. The Spanish and Moroccan officials beat, kicked, and attacked migrants. Images emerged of piles of bodies – of those who had been murdered and of those still alive but in need of urgent medical care – as the authorities stood by.
The Melilla massacre is doubtless the outcome of unchecked police brutality, the impunity of border authorities, and the primacy that so-called ‘state sovereignty’ takes over human life. Worse yet – it’s also the consequence of a landmark European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgement in 2020 that paved the way for the killings just two years later.
The debate on migrant rights at the ECtHR long predates the last-minute interim measures that blocked the UK’s Rwanda flight last month – but this incident has come to characterise the public discourse.
This is a mischaracterisation of the matter. In reality, the question of the future of the ECtHR concerns to what extent everyone in Europe – with or without citizenship – can access the Court when their rights have been violated.
The ability of the ECtHR to hold governments accountable to unchecked state power is being eroded; both by the states party to the Court, like the UK, and by the Court itself, as it strips migrants of their rights, and undermines its very role.
’A carte blanche for violent pushbacks’
In August 2014, around 500 sub-Saharan Africans attempted to scale the same border fence in Melilla, for the same reasons. Whilst migrants who can pass as Moroccans are able to present themselves at the border crossing to lodge an asylum claim, black migrants have long been prevented from accessing the border crossing due to racial profiling.
And so, N.D. and N.T., two men from Mali and Côte D’Ivoire respectively (and known by their initials to protect their identity) were forced to scale the three interior fences that morning in August 2014.
N.D. and N.T. reached the top of the inner border fence by early morning. There, they waited for several hours in the heat, exhausted, without food, water, or medical assistance, before the Spanish police forced them down.
Instead of being processed in Spain in accordance with Spanish, EU, and international law, they were handcuffed as they stepped onto European soil, and returned to Morocco.
International law requires states to identify and individually assess each person who enters their territory, regardless of how they crossed the border. Furthermore, the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits collective expulsion under Article 4 of Protocol 4.
It was on this basis that N.D. and N.T.’s case was heard in the European Court of Human Rights in February 2020, six years after that fateful morning.
The ECtHR, however, ruled that N.D. and N.T.’s own “culpable conduct” – namely, scaling the wall rather than using the official border crossing at the Moroccan town Beni Enzar – justified their removal as a “consequence of their own conduct”.
The ECtHR did not accept that racial profiling in Morocco was a justification for scaling the border fence, or that it was a reason to consider that official border crossings were in fact not accessible to black migrants like N.D. and N.T. – despite detailed submissions from the UN refugee agency at the time.
Following the judgement, human rights activists described N.D. N.T. v Spain as a ‘carte blanche for violent pushbacks everywhere in Europe.’ Their warning went unheeded, and pushbacks have indeed become the modus operandi of European border authorities.
The ECtHR is specifically and uniquely mandated for human rights, not for border control or state sovereignty – and yet, the latter has taken priority in recent years. In doing so, migrants have become “objects of state sovereignty rather than subjects of human rights,” argued Marie-Bénédicte Dembour in her book When Humans Become Migrants.
Professor Albuquerque, who sat on the ECtHR between 2011 and 2020, found resonance in Dembour’s words. He describes ND NT v Spain as a trial conducted topsy turvy: instead of responding to the violation of N.D and N.T’s rights, the Court treated them as if they were “defendants accused of intentionally disruptive and aggressive behaviour,” he told The New Arab.
N.D N.T v Spain is not a unique example of the ECtHR presiding over the erosion of migrants’ and refugees’ basic rights – indeed, the Court ruled similarly in another case concerning collective expulsion from North Macedonia to Greece.
This has not gone unnoticed by ECtHR judges like Albuquerque or academics; a field of academic research warns against the trajectory of the ECtHR, which is moving towards a conflation of criminal and immigration law termed ‘crimmigration’.
As for the impact upon migrants, Albuquerque argues that this has opened the door to a situation in which “migrants can be treated worse than ordinary criminals” and detained systematically, “simply because efficiency trumps liberty in migration law”.
In certain cases, the ECtHR has indeed ruled in favour of a protective environment for migrants. In M.H. v Croatia, concerning the death of a six-year-old Afghan girl at the Croatian border, the Court ruled that there had been a violation of the right to life, the prohibition of torture, and the prohibition of collective expulsion.
“M.H. v Croatia sent an important message to Croatia that pushbacks are illegal,” Hanaa Hakiki, a senior legal advisor with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, told The New Arab. Still, Hakiki voiced concern as to the future of the Court.
“As grandparents and parents, it seems the Court could better relate to the humanity of the victims in this horrible case. But still, it’s outrageous that applicants have to rely on the sympathy of judges in order to access their basic human rights. We should not need this level of tragedy for the Court to acknowledge that the law should apply at our borders,” she added.
Bureaucracy obstructing justice
Raising a case with the Court has proven increasingly difficult. Due to a backlog of thousands of cases resulting in years of delays, and the requirement for the lawyer to be in contact with the claimant throughout, it can be hard to sustain a case with individuals who, pending a just resolution to their case, “are on the move and live in prolonged periods of undocumentation,” explained Marion Bouchetel, a lawyer with Legal Center Lesvos.
Where the ECtHR does in fact rule in favour of the claimant, the ‘just satisfaction’ remedy provided is often financial, and at a maximum of a few thousand euros, is barely enough to disincentive the state from committing said violations again. Most importantly, financial remedies do little to address claimants’ original desire to access international protection in Europe or to be reunited with family.
This notwithstanding, Bouchetel is still keenly aware of the important role that the ECtHR has to play in keeping state accountability in check. With her colleagues at Legal Center Lesvos, she has filed multiple interim measures with the ECtHR that prevent illegal deportations of unregistered asylum seekers.
The question for her is more about recommitting to the Court’s foundational values – and she warns against the black and white debate that doesn’t address the current limitations of the Court in upholding migrants’ rights, and on the other hand, in its crucial role in preventing state violence.
The future of the ECtHR
Hakiki’s and Bouchetel’s work cannot be separated from the historical significance of the court. “The ECtHR is a legacy of World War II, when the merits of unbridled state sovereignty came under question,” said Hakiki.
As Europe confronts the rise of illiberalism, the role of the ECtHR could not be more crucial. “Illiberal democracies always argue that they apply the law – but that is a misnomer in an illiberal democracy that by definition does not recognise human rights,” she added.
In these situations, it is always the most vulnerable, including migrants and asylum seekers, who are the first to have their rights stripped from them. The ECtHR is particularly important for migrants, who can’t vote and only have the protection of fundamental rights, but the consequences of the degradation of the Court, as well as basic protections, will have consequences that span across society.
Where empathy and exhortations to morality fall short with the general public, activists warn that undermining the role of the ECtHR as guarantor of human rights only serves to minimise the protection of everyone’s rights.
As the United Kingdom ponders withdrawing from the Court, Albuquerque stresses that countries simply remaining in the ECtHR is not enough; more must be done to ensure its focus remains on human rights rather than state sovereignty.
Those in favour of limiting the accountability that the ECtHR demands of member states out of suspicion of migrants need only wait for their rights to be curtailed in turn.