ECtHR, GC, Biao v. Denmark, judgment of 24 May 2016 – overturning earlier Chamber judgment
C. The Court’s assessment
1. General principles
88. The Court reiterates that Article 14 complements the other substantive provisions of the Convention and the Protocols thereto. It has no independent existence since it has effect solely in relation to “the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms” safeguarded by those provisions. The application of Article 14 does not necessarily presuppose the violation of one of the substantive rights guaranteed by the Convention. The prohibition of discrimination in Article 14 thus extends beyond the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms which the Convention and Protocols require each State to guarantee. It applies also to those additional rights, falling within the general scope of any Article of the Convention, for which the State has voluntarily decided to provide. It is necessary but it is also sufficient for the facts of the case to fall within the ambit of one or more of the Convention Articles (see, for example, Stec and Others v. the United Kingdom (dec.) [GC], nos. 65731/01 and 65900/01, §§ 39-40, ECHR 2005‑X; E.B. v. France [GC], no. 43546/02, §§ 47-48, 22 January 2008; and Vallianatos and Others v. Greece [GC], nos. 29381/09 and 32684/09, § 72, ECHR 2013).
89. The Court has established in its case-law that only differences in treatment based on an identifiable characteristic, or “status”, are capable of amounting to discrimination within the meaning of Article 14. Moreover, in order for an issue to arise under Article 14 there must be a difference in the treatment of persons in analogous, or relevantly similar, situations (see for example, Carson and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 42184/05, § 61, ECHR 2010; Burden v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 13378/05, § 60, ECHR 2008; D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic [GC], no. 57325/00, § 175, ECHR 2007-IV; and Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v. Denmark, 7 December 1976, § 56, Series A no. 23). Article 14 lists specific grounds which constitute “status” including, inter alia, race, national or social origin and birth. However, the list is illustrative and not exhaustive, as is shown by the words “any ground such as” (in French “notamment”) (see Engel and Others v. the Netherlands, 8 June 1976, § 72, Series A no. 22, and Carson and Others, cited above, § 70) and the inclusion in the list of the phrase “any other status”. The words “other status” have generally been given a wide meaning (see Carson and Others, cited above, § 70) and their interpretation has not been limited to characteristics which are personal in the sense that they are innate or inherent (see Clift v. the United Kingdom, no. 7205/07, §§ 56-58, 13 July 2010).
90. A difference in treatment is discriminatory if it has no objective and reasonable justification, that is if it does not pursue a legitimate aim or if there is not a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be achieved. The notion of discrimination within the meaning of Article 14 also includes cases where a person or group is treated, without proper justification, less favourably than another, even though the more favourable treatment is not called for by the Convention (see Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali, cited above, § 82).
91. A general policy or measure that has disproportionately prejudicial effects on a particular group may be considered discriminatory even where it is not specifically aimed at that group and there is no discriminatory intent. This is only the case, however, if such policy or measure has no “objective and reasonable” justification (see, among other authorities, S.A.S. v. France [GC], no. 43835/11, § 161, ECHR 2014 (extracts), and D.H. and Others, cited above, §§ 175 and 184-185).
92. As to the burden of proof in relation to Article 14 of the Convention, the Court has held that once the applicant has demonstrated a difference in treatment, it is for the Government to show that it was justified (see D.H. and Others, cited above, § 177).
93. The Contracting States enjoy a certain margin of appreciation in assessing whether and to what extent differences in otherwise similar situations justify a difference in treatment (see, for example, Hämäläinen v. Finland [GC], no. 37359/09, § 108, ECHR 2014; X and Others v. Austria [GC], no. 19010/07, § 98, ECHR 2013; and Vallianatos and Others, cited above, § 76). The scope of the margin of appreciation will vary according to the circumstances, the subject matter and its background, but the final decision as to the observance of the Convention’s requirements rests with the Court. A wide margin is usually allowed to the State when it comes to general measures of economic or social strategy (see Burden, cited above, § 60; Carson and Others, cited above, § 61; Şerife Yiğit v. Turkey [GC], no. 3976/05, § 70, 2 November 2010; and Stummer v. Austria [GC], no. 37452/02, § 89, ECHR 2011). However, very weighty reasons would have to be put forward before the Court could regard a difference in treatment based exclusively on the ground of nationality as compatible with the Convention (see Gaygusuz v. Austria, 16 September 1996, § 42, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996‑IV; Koua Poirrez v. France, no. 40892/98, § 46, ECHR 2003-X; Andrejeva v. Latvia [GC], no. 55707/00, § 87, ECHR 2009; and Ponomaryovi v. Bulgaria, no. 5335/05, § 52, ECHR 2011).
94. No difference in treatment based exclusively or to a decisive extent on a person’s ethnic origin is capable of being justified in a contemporary democratic society. Discrimination on account of, inter alia, a person’s ethnic origin is a form of racial discrimination (see, D.H. and Others, cited above, §176; Timishev v. Russia, nos. 55762/00 and 55974/00, § 56, ECHR 2005‑XII; and Nachova and Others v. Bulgaria [GC], nos. 43577/98 and 43579/98, §145, ECHR 2005‑VII).
2. Application of those principles to the present case
(a) Applicability of Article 14 of the Convention taken in conjunction with Article 8
95. It is undisputed by the parties that the facts of the case, namely the refusal to grant family reunification and the non-application of the 28‑year rule to the applicants in the present case fall within the ambit of Article 8. The Court agrees. Consequently, and recalling the principles set out in paragraph 88 above, Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 8 applies to the facts of the case (see, for example, Hode and Abdi v. the United Kingdom (no. 22341/09, § 43, 6 November 2012)).
(b) Compliance with Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 8
(i) Do the facts of the case disclose discrimination?
96. It is not in dispute that the applicants were in a relevantly similar situation to that of other couples in which a Danish national and a foreign national seek family reunification in Denmark. Moreover, the Government acknowledged, as did the domestic courts, that the 28-year rule did treat Danish nationals differently, depending on how long they had been Danish nationals. If the person had been a Danish national for 28 years, the exception to the “attachment requirement” applied. If the person had not been a Danish national for 28 years, the exception did not apply. The crux of the case is therefore whether, as maintained by the applicants, the 28‑year rule also created a difference in treatment between Danish-born nationals and those who acquired Danish nationality later in life, amounting to indirect discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin.
97. It will be recalled that on 1 July 2003 the Aliens Authority refused the second applicant’s request for a residence permit as the applicants did not fulfil the attachment requirement. Their appeal was dismissed on 27 August 2004 by the Ministry for Refugees, Immigration and Integration on the same grounds. The applicants did not benefit from the newly introduced exception to the attachment requirement, namely the 28-year rule which had come into effect on 1 January 2004, as the first applicant had not been a Danish national for 28 years.
98. The Court observes that the 28-year rule was introduced by Act no. 1204 of 27 December 2003, with effect from 1 January 2004, to relax the application of the attachment requirement for residents who had been Danish nationals for 28 years or more. Thereafter, section 9, subsection 7 of the Aliens Act was worded as follows (see paragraph 35 above):
“Unless otherwise appropriate for exceptional reasons, a residence permit under subsection 1(i)(a), when the resident person has not been a Danish national for 28 years, and under subsection 1(i)(b) to (d), can only be issued if the spouses’ or the cohabitants’ aggregate ties with Denmark are stronger than the spouses’ or the cohabitants’ aggregate ties with another country. Resident Danish nationals who were adopted from abroad before their sixth birthday and who acquired Danish nationality not later than on their adoption are considered to have been Danish nationals from birth.”
The wording of the provision thus distinguished only between residents who had been Danish nationals for at least 28 years and those who had not been Danish nationals for 28 years.
99. According to the preparatory work (see paragraph 36 above) it would appear that the aim of the proposed provision was to ensure that Danish expatriates having strong and lasting ties with Denmark in the form of at least 28 years of Danish nationality would be able to obtain spousal reunion in Denmark. The proposed provision targeted a group of persons who did not, under the previous section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act, have the same opportunities as Danish and foreign nationals living in Denmark for obtaining spousal reunion. The proposed adjustment of the attachment requirement was to give “Danish expatriates a real possibility of returning to Denmark with a foreign spouse or cohabitant, and likewise young Danes could go abroad and stay there for a period with the certainty of not being barred from returning to Denmark with a foreign spouse or cohabitant as a consequence of the attachment requirement”.
100. Moreover, again according to the preparatory work (see paragraph 37 above), the exemption for “exceptional reasons” in the relevant provision allowed for situations covered by Denmark’s treaty obligations. It was specifically stated that 28 years of legal residence since early childhood would fall within the “exceptional reasons”, as provided in section 9, subsection 7, for the benefit of non-Danish nationals. Accordingly, persons who were not Danish nationals, but who were born and raised in Denmark, or came to Denmark as small children and were raised in Denmark, were also exempted from the attachment requirement, as long as they had resided lawfully in Denmark for 28 years.
101. For the reasons that follow, the Court is not ready to accept the Government’s claim that the difference in treatment was linked solely to the length of nationality with the result that the applicants were treated differently when compared to a couple seeking family reunification in which one of the spouses had been a Danish national for more than 28 years, Mr Biao having been a Danish national for a shorter period.
102. The applicants alleged that the 28-year rule created in practice a difference in treatment between Danish-born nationals and those who acquired Danish nationality later in life. In addition, since the majority of Danish-born nationals would be ethnically Danish, while persons acquiring Danish nationality later in life would overwhelmingly be of different ethnic origins, that is other than Danish, the differential treatment also amounted to indirect discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin. The applicants referred, among other things, to the view expressed by the minority of the Supreme Court (see paragraph 30 above), which had found that the 28‑year rule amounted to an indirect difference in treatment between Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin and Danish nationals of other ethnic origin regarding the right to spousal reunion.
103. The Court has accepted in previous cases that a difference in treatment may take the form of disproportionately prejudicial effects of a general policy or measure which, though couched in neutral terms, discriminates against a group (see, for example, Hugh Jordan v. the United Kingdom, no. 24746/94, § 154, 4 May 2001). Such a situation may amount to “indirect discrimination”, which does not necessarily require a discriminatory intent (see, D.H. and Others, cited above, § 184).
104. It is therefore pertinent in the present case to examine whether the manner in which the 28-year rule was applied in practice had a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who, like the first applicant, acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of an ethnic origin other than Danish (see also D.H. and Others, cited above, § 185).
105. To this end the Court finds it necessary to view the relevant provision of the Aliens Act from a historical perspective. It notes that the attachment requirement was introduced into Danish legislation on 3 June 2000 as one of the conditions for granting family reunion with persons residing in Denmark who were not Danish nationals.
106. As of 1 July 2002 the attachment requirement was extended to apply also to Danish nationals, one of the reasons being, according to the preparatory work (see paragraph 33 above), as follows:
“… Experience has shown that integration is particularly difficult in families where generation upon generation fetch their spouses to Denmark from their own or their parents’ country of origin. With resident aliens and Danish nationals of foreign extraction it is a widespread marriage pattern to marry a person from their country of origin, among other reasons owing to parental pressure. This pattern contributes to the retention of these persons in a situation where they, more than others, experience problems of isolation and maladjustment in relation to Danish society. The pattern thus contributes to hampering the integration of aliens newly arrived in Denmark. The government find that the attachment requirement, as it is worded today, does not take sufficient account of the existence of this marriage pattern among both resident foreigners and resident Danish nationals of foreign extraction. There are thus also Danish nationals who are not well integrated into Danish society and where the integration of a spouse newly arrived in Denmark may therefore entail major problems.”
107. However, as stated above (see paragraph 35 above), it soon transpired that the decision to extend the attachment requirement to Danish nationals had consequences for Danish expatriates, who had difficulties returning to Denmark with their foreign spouses.
108. In the proceedings before the Grand Chamber, the Court invited the Danish Government to indicate how many persons had benefited from the 28‑year rule pursuant to section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act and how many of those were Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin (see paragraph 84 above).
109. As already indicated, the Government replied that regrettably they had been unable to produce the specific information requested by the Court (see paragraph 44 above). However, they did provide a memorandum of 1 December 2005 on the application of the attachment requirement to spousal reunification under section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act and general statistics on family reunion in Denmark.
110. It is thus not possible for the Court to establish exactly how many persons have benefited from the 28‑year rule pursuant to section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act and how many of those were Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin and how many were Danish nationals of other origin.
111. Nevertheless, the Court finds that it can in the present case, and without being exhaustive as to the categories of persons covered, conclude as follows:
a) As intended, all Danish-born expatriates, who would otherwise have had difficulties in fulfilling the attachment requirement when returning to Denmark with their foreign spouses, would benefit from the 28-year rule from the age of 28.
b) All other Danish-born nationals resident in Denmark would benefit from the 28-year rule from the age of 28.
c) Moreover, it follows from the preparatory work (see paragraph 37 above) that aliens, who were not Danish nationals, who were born and raised in Denmark or who came to Denmark as small children, and who had lawfully resided in Denmark for 28 years, would also benefit from the 28‑year exemption rule, when they reached the age of 28 or shortly thereafter.
d) Most, if not all persons, who like Mr Biao, had acquired Danish nationality later in life, would not benefit from the 28-year rule, since the exception would apply only after 28 years had passed from the date when such person became a Danish national. The Government have explained that this does not mean, as claimed by the applicants, that persons in this category would de facto have to wait 28 years before being granted family reunion, since, for example, couples in the applicants’ situation, being raised in the same country and one of them acquiring Danish nationality later in life, would generally fulfil the attachment requirement after three years of acquiring Danish nationality or after 12 years of lawful residence (see paragraph 78 above). The Court observes that the preparatory notes to the 28-year rule did not mention that the 28-year rule would not have any disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who acquired Danish nationality later in life since such persons would in any event fulfil the attachment criteria much sooner, and, as stated above, there are no statistics in this regard. Furthermore, the attachment requirement would not automatically be considered fulfilled after three years of nationality or after 12 years of lawful residence. Moreover, it is noteworthy that if a person acquires Danish nationality (category d) for example at the age of 28 (and thus after 9 years of required lawful residence in Denmark, see paragraphs 14 and 30), in general, he or she will still have to wait three years before the attachment requirement may be considered fulfilled. However, a 28-year old Danish-born national, resident in Denmark (category b) would be exonerated from the attachment requirement immediately at the age of 28, and a 28‑year old Danish-born expatriate (category a) would also be exonerated from the attachment requirement immediately at the age of 28, even if the expatriate had resided in Denmark only for a short period of time. Accordingly, although persons who acquire Danish nationality later in life may not have to wait 28 years to be allowed family reunification, but rather three years or more, this does not, in the Court’s view, remove the fact that the application of the 28-year rule had a prejudicial effect on Danish nationals in the applicant’s situation.
112. The Court also considers that it can reasonably be assumed that at least the vast majority of category a) Danish expatriates and category b) Danish nationals born and resident in Denmark, who could benefit from the 28-year rule, would usually be of Danish ethnic origin whereas category d) persons acquiring Danish citizenship at a later point in their life, like Mr Biao, who would not benefit from the 28-year rule, would generally be of foreign ethnic origin.
113. It is not to be overlooked that aliens in category c), and thus persons of foreign ethnic origin, could also benefit from the 28-year rule, but that does not alter the fact that the 28-year rule had the indirect effect of favouring Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin, and placing at a disadvantage, or having a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who, like the first applicant, acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of an ethnic origin other than Danish (see paragraph 103 above).
114. The burden of proof must shift to the Government to show that the difference in the impact of the legislation pursued a legitimate aim and was the result of objective factors unrelated to ethnic origin (see paragraphs 115 to 137 below). Having regard to the fact that no difference in treatment based exclusively or to a decisive extent on a person’s ethnic origin is capable of being justified in a contemporary democratic society and a difference in treatment based exclusively on the ground of nationality is allowed only on the basis of compelling or very weighty reasons (see paragraphs 93 and 94 above), it falls to the Government to put forward compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin if such indirect discrimination is to be compatible with Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 8 of the Convention.
(ii) The legitimacy of the aim pursued
115. The Government submitted that the aim of the 28-year rule was to make an exception to the attachment requirement for those who had strong and lasting ties with Denmark when seen from a general perspective. The rationale was that it would be unproblematic to grant such persons family reunion with a foreign spouse because the latter would normally be successfully integrated into Danish society. In particular the aim was to ensure that Danish expatriates would be able to obtain family reunion in Denmark since this group had been unintentionally and unfairly disadvantaged by the tightening of the attachment requirement introduced in 2002. Finally, and more generally, the 28-year rule exception to the attachment requirement pursued the legitimate aim of immigration control and improving integration (see paragraph 79 above).
116. The applicants alleged that the disputed legislation had been introduced intentionally to target Danish citizens of non-Danish ethnic or national origin and thus did not pursue a legitimate aim. In this respect they referred to the finding by the minority of the Supreme Court (see paragraph 30 above).
117. The Court reiterates that where immigration is concerned, Article 8, taken alone, cannot be considered to impose on a State a general obligation to respect a married couple’s choice of country for their matrimonial residence or to authorise family reunification on its territory. Nevertheless, in a case which concerns family life as well as immigration, the extent of a State’s obligations to admit to its territory relatives of persons residing there will vary according to the particular circumstances of the persons involved and the general interest (see, among others, Jeunesse v. the Netherlands, cited above, § 107). Moreover, the Court has, on many occasions, accepted that immigration control, which serves the general interests of the economic well-being of the country, pursued a legitimate aim within the meaning of Article 8 of the Convention (see, for example, Zakayev and Safanova v. Russia, no. 11870/03, § 40, 11 February 2010; Osman v. Denmark, 38058/09, § 58, 14 June 2011; J.M. v. Sweden (dec.), no. 47509/13, § 40, 8 April 2014; and F.N. v. the United Kingdom (dec.), no. 3202/09, § 37, 17 September 2013).
118. That being said, the present case concerns compliance with Article 14 of the Convention read in conjunction with Article 8, with the result that immigration control measures, which may be found to be compatible with Article 8 § 2, including with the legitimate aim requirement, may nevertheless amount to unjustified discrimination in breach of Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 8. It appears that case‑law on these matters is rather sparse. In Hode and Abdi, (cited above, § 53) the Court accepted that offering incentives to certain groups of immigrants may amount to a legitimate aim for the purposes of Article 14 of the Convention. Furthermore, in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali (cited above, § 87), the Court found legitimate the aim cited by the Government for the differential treatment on the ground of birth, namely “to avoid the hardship which women having close ties to the United Kingdom would encounter if, on marriage, they were obliged to move abroad in order to remain with their husbands” or, in other words, to distinguish a group of nationals who, seen from a general perspective, had lasting and strong ties with the country.
119. The majority of the Supreme Court found that the 28-year rule had the same aim as the requirement of birth in the United Kingdom, which was accepted in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali (cited above), namely to distinguish a group of nationals who, seen from a general perspective, had lasting and strong ties with the country (see paragraph 29 above).
120. The minority of the Supreme Court, without specifically adverting to the legitimacy of the aim pursued, expressed a clear view that the indirect difference in treatment between Danish nationals of Danish ethnic extraction and Danish nationals of other ethnic extraction resulting from the application of the 28-year rule was an intended consequence (see paragraph 30 above).
121. The Court considers that it is not required to take a separate stand on the questions whether the indirect discrimination, which it has found in this case, was an intended consequence as alleged by the applicants, or whether the aim put forward by the Government for the introduction of the 28‑year rule was legitimate for the purposes of the Convention. The Court finds it appropriate in the circumstances of the present case to limit its inquiry to the existence (or not) of compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin for the difference in treatment, a matter which will be examined below.
(iii) The justification of the aims pursued
122. The Court observes that one of the aims of introducing the 28‑year rule (see paragraphs 29, 35 and 74 above), was that the previous amendment of the Aliens Act in July 2002, extending the attachment requirement to apply also to Danish nationals, had been found to have unintended consequences for persons such as Danish nationals who had opted to live abroad for a lengthy period and who had started a family while away from Denmark and subsequently had difficulties fulfilling the attachment requirement upon return. It was found that there would normally be a basis for successful integration of Danish expatriates’ family members into Danish society, since they would often have maintained strong ties with Denmark, which in addition would also have been passed on to their spouse or cohabitant and any children of the union.
123. It will be recalled that the preparatory work in respect of the 28‑year rule underlined that the “fundamental aim of tightening the attachment requirement in 2002”, namely securing better integration of foreigners would not be forfeited by introducing the said exception. The “fundamental aim” of tightening the attachment rule in 2002 was set out in the preparatory work to that amendment (see paragraph 33 above).
124. In the Court’s view the materials concerning the legislative process show that the Government wished, on the one hand, to control immigration and improve integration with regard to “both resident foreigners and resident Danish nationals of foreign extraction”, whose “widespread marriage pattern” was to “marry a person from their country of origin”, and, on the other, to ensure that the attachment requirement did not have unintended consequences for “persons such as Danish nationals who opted to live abroad for a lengthy period and who started a family while away from Denmark” (see paragraphs 33 and 36 above).
125. The Court considers that the justification advanced by the Government for introducing the 28-year rule is, to a large extent, based on rather speculative arguments, in particular as to the time when, in general, it can be said that a Danish national has created such strong ties with Denmark that family reunion with a foreign spouse has a prospect of being successful from an integration point of view. The answer to this question cannot, in the Court’s view, depend solely on the length of nationality, whether for 28 years or less. Therefore, the Court cannot follow the Government’s argument that because the first applicant had been a Danish national for only two years when he was refused family reunion, the consequences of the 28‑year rule could not be considered disproportionate as regards his situation. It points out that this line of reasoning seems to overlook the fact that in order to obtain Danish nationality the first applicant had resided in Denmark for at least nine years, had proved his proficiency in the Danish language and knowledge of Danish society, and met the requirement of self‑support.
More concretely, in August 2004, when Mr Biao was refused family reunion, not only had he been a Danish national for approximately two years, he had lived in Denmark for more than ten years, had been married there to a Danish national for approximately four years, had participated in various courses and worked there for more than six years, and had had a son on 6 May 2004, who was a Danish national by virtue of his father’s nationality. None of these elements was or could be taken into account in the application of the 28-year rule to the applicant, although in the Court’s opinion they were indeed relevant when assessing whether Mr Biao had created such strong ties with Denmark that family reunion with a foreign spouse had any prospect of being successful from an integration point of view.
126. The Court finds that some of the arguments advanced by the Government in the course of the preparatory work relating to the Act which extended from 1 July 2002 the attachment requirement to residents of Danish nationality (see paragraph 33 above), reflect negatively on the lifestyle of Danish nationals of non-Danish ethnic extraction, for example in relation to their “marriage pattern”, which, according to the Government, “contributes to the retention of these persons in a situation where they, more than others, experience problems of isolation and maladjustment in relation to Danish society. The pattern thus contributes to hampering the integration of aliens newly arrived in Denmark”. In this connection, the Court would refer to its conclusion in Konstantin Markin v. Russia [GC] (no. 30078/06, §§ 142‑143, ECHR 2012 (extracts)), that general biased assumptions or prevailing social prejudice in a particular country do not provide sufficient justification for a difference in treatment on the ground of sex. The Court finds that similar reasoning should apply to discrimination against naturalised nationals.
127. Thus, so far, the arguments and material submitted by the Government before the Court have not shown that the difference in treatment resulting from the impugned legislation was based on objective factors unrelated to ethnic origin.
128. In the judicial review of the application of the 28-year rule to the applicants, the majority of the Danish Supreme Court found that the exception was based on an objective criterion and that it could be considered objectively justified to select a group of nationals with such strong ties to Denmark, when assessed from a general perspective, that it would be unproblematic to grant family reunion. The rationale being that it would normally be possible for the foreign spouse or cohabitant of such a person to be successfully integrated into Danish society. Moreover, they found that the consequences of the 28-year rule could not be considered disproportionate for the first applicant (see paragraph 29 above).
129. The majority relied heavily on the Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali judgment (cited above), as they considered that the factual circumstances of the present case in most material aspects were identical to those of Mrs Balkandali’s situation. Both the latter and Mr Biao arrived in the country as adults. Mr Biao’s application for spousal reunion was refused when he had resided in Denmark for eleven years, two of which as a Danish national. Mrs Balkandali’s application was refused after she had resided in the United Kingdom for eight years, two of which as a British national. Further, relying, inter alia, on the statement (ibid, § 88) that “there are in general persuasive social reasons for giving special treatment to those whose link with a country stems from birth within it”, the majority in Supreme Court found, as stated above, that “the criterion of 28 years Danish nationality had the same aim as the requirement of birth in the United Kingdom, which was accepted by the Court in the 1985 judgment as not being contrary to the Convention: to distinguish a group of nationals who, seen from a general perspective, had lasting and strong ties with the country”.
130. The Court would point out, however, that it has found that the 28‑year rule had the indirect discriminatory effect of favouring Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin, and placing at a disadvantage or having a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of ethnic origins other than Danish (see paragraph 113 above). The Supreme Court on the other hand found that the discrimination at issue was based solely on the length of citizenship a matter falling within the ambit of “other status” within the meaning of Article 14 of the Convention. Accordingly, the proportionality test applied by the Supreme Court was different from the test to be applied by this Court, which requires compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin to justify the indirect discriminatory effect of the 28-year rule (see paragraph 114).
131. In the field of indirect discrimination between a State’s own nationals based on ethnic origin, it is very difficult to reconcile the grant of special treatment with current international standards and developments. Since the Convention is first and foremost a system for the protection of human rights, regard must also be had to the changing conditions within Contracting States and the Court must respond, for example, to any evolving convergence as to the standards to be achieved (see Dhahbi v. Italy, no. 17120/09, § 47, 8 April 2014; Konstantin Markin, cited above, § 126; and Fabris v. France [GC], no. 16574/08, § 56, ECHR 2013 (extracts)).
132. The Court notes in this connection that the applicants relied on Article 5 § 2 of the European Convention on Nationality. It is noteworthy that it has been ratified by 20 member States of the Council of Europe, including Denmark (see paragraph 47 above). Moreover, in respect of Article 5 § 2 of the European Convention on Nationality, the Explanatory Report (see paragraphs 48 above) states that although not being a mandatory rule to be followed in all cases, the paragraph was a declaration of intent, aimed at eliminating the discriminatory application of rules in matters of nationality between nationals from birth and other nationals, including naturalised persons. This suggests a certain trend towards a European standard which must be seen as a relevant consideration in the present case.
133. Furthermore, within the member States of the Council of Europe there is a degree of variation as regards the conditions for granting family reunion (see paragraph 61 above). However, it would appear from the 29 countries studied that there are no States which, like Denmark, distinguish between different groups of their own nationals when it comes to the determination of the conditions for granting family reunification.
134. In relation to EU law it is relevant to point out that the Court’s conclusions in, inter alia, Ponomaryovi (cited above, § 54) and C. v. Belgium (7 August 1996, § 38, Reports 1996‑III), that “the preferential treatment of nationals of member States of the European Union … may be said to be based on an objective and reasonable justification, because the Union forms a special legal order, which has, moreover, established its own citizenship” concerned preferential treatment on the basis of nationality; not favourable treatment of “nationals by birth” as compared to “nationals by acquisition later in life” or indirect discrimination between the country’s own nationals based on ethnic origin. The Court also notes that in EU law on family reunification no distinction is made between those who acquired citizenship by birth and those who acquired it by registration or naturalisation (see paragraph 87 above).
135. The rules for family reunification under EU law did not apply to the applicants’ case in August 2004 (see paragraph 58 above). However, it is instructive to view the contested Danish legislation in the light of relevant EU law. Given that the first applicant has moved to Sweden, by virtue of Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the member States, and in the light of the CJEU’s judgment of 25 July 2008 in Metock v. Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (see paragraph 59 above), the applicants and their child now have a prospect of success in applying from Sweden for a residence permit in Denmark.
136. In addition, it is noteworthy that various independent bodies have expressed concern that the 28-year rule entails indirect discrimination. Reference is made, for example, to the reports cited by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) in which it stated (see paragraph 54, point 49, above) that “ECRI is deeply concerned by the fact that the 28 years’ aggregate ties with Denmark rule amounts to indirect discrimination between those who were born Danish and people who acquired Danish citizenship at a later stage.”; and “the rule that persons who have held Danish citizenship whether it be for over 28 or 26 years, or who were born in Denmark or came to the country as a small child or have resided legally in the country, whether it be for over 28 or 26 years, are exempt from these requirements, also risks disproportionately affecting non‑ethnic Danes.” (see paragraph 55, point 129, above). The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), expressed a similar concern (see paragraph 60, point 15, above).
137. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed his concern as regards the operation of the 28-year rule (see paragraph 49 above) and found that it placed naturalised Danish citizens at a considerable disadvantage in comparison to Danish citizens born in Denmark and stated that “the dispensation from the aggregate ties conditions for a naturalised citizen, for whom the condition will, inevitably, be harder to meet by virtue of his or her own foreign origin, at so late an age constitutes, in my view, an excessive restriction to the right to family life and clearly discriminates between Danish citizens on the basis of their origin in the enjoyment of this fundamental right…”.
(iv) The Court’s conclusion
138. In conclusion, having regard to the very narrow margin of appreciation in the present case, the Court finds that the Government have failed to show that there were compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin to justify the indirect discriminatory effect of the 28‑year rule. That rule favours Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin, and places at a disadvantage, or has a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of ethnic origins other than Danish.
139. It follows that there has been a violation of Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 8 of the Convention in the present case.
On 19 May 2016, in J.N. v UK the Strasbourg Court provided a useful detailed overview of its case law principles concerning lawfulness of migrant detention in view of deportation:
74. Article 5 of the Convention enshrines a fundamental human right, namely the protection of the individual against arbitrary interference by the State with his or her right to liberty. Subparagraphs (a) to (f) of Article 5 § 1 contain an exhaustive list of permissible grounds on which persons may be deprived of their liberty and no deprivation of liberty will be lawful unless it falls within one of those grounds. One of the exceptions, contained in subparagraph (f), permits the State to control the liberty of aliens in the immigration context (see, as recent authorities, Saadi v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 13229/03, § 43, ECHR 2008, and A. and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 3455/05, §§ 162‑63, 19 February 2009).
75. It is well established in the Court’s case-law under the sub‑paragraphs of Article 5 § 1 that any deprivation of liberty must, in addition to falling within one of the exceptions set out in sub-paragraphs (a) to (f), be “lawful”. In other words, it must conform to the substantive and procedural rules of national law (Amuur v. France, 25 June 1996, § 50, Reports 1996‑III, and Abdolkhani and Karimnia v. Turkey, no. 30471/08, § 130, 22 September 2009).
76. In assessing the “lawfulness” of detention, the Court may have to ascertain whether domestic law itself is in conformity with the Convention, including the general principles expressed or implied therein. On this last point, the Court stresses that, where deprivation of liberty is concerned, it is particularly important that the general principle of legal certainty be satisfied.
77. In laying down that any deprivation of liberty must be effected “in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law”, Article 5 § 1 does not merely refer back to domestic law; like the expressions “in accordance with the law” and “prescribed by law” in the second paragraphs of Articles 8 to 11, it also relates to the “quality of the law”. “Quality of law” in this sense implies that where a national law authorises deprivation of liberty it must be sufficiently accessible, precise and foreseeable in its application, in order to avoid all risk of arbitrariness (see Nasrulloyev v. Russia, no. 656/06, § 71, 11 October 2007; Khudoyorov v. Russia, no. 6847/02, § 125, ECHR 2005‑… (extracts); Ječius v. Lithuania, no. 34578/97, § 56, ECHR 2000-IX; Baranowski v. Poland, no. 28358/95, §§ 50-52, ECHR 2000-III; and Amuur, cited above). Factors relevant to this assessment of the “quality of law” – which are referred to in some cases as “safeguards against arbitrariness” – will include the existence of clear legal provisions for ordering detention, for extending detention, and for setting time-limits for detention (Abdolkhani and Karimnia, cited above, § 135 and Garayev v. Azerbaijan, no. 53688/08, § 99, 10 June 2010); and the existence of an effective remedy by which the applicant can contest the “lawfulness” and “length” of his continuing detention (Louled Massoud v. Malta, no. 24340/08, § 71, 27 July 2010).
78. In addition to the requirement of “lawfulness”, Article 5 § 1 also requires that any deprivation of liberty should be in keeping with the purpose of protecting the individual from arbitrariness (see, among many other authorities, Saadi v. the United Kingdom, cited above, § 6; and Chahal v. the United Kingdom, 15 November 1996, § 118, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996‑V). It is a fundamental principle that no detention which is arbitrary can be compatible with Article 5 § 1 and the notion of “arbitrariness” in Article 5 § 1 extends beyond lack of conformity with national law, so that a deprivation of liberty may be lawful in terms of domestic law but still arbitrary and thus contrary to the Convention.
79. While the Court has not formulated a global definition as to what types of conduct on the part of the authorities might constitute “arbitrariness” for the purposes of Article 5 § 1, key principles have been developed on a case-by-case basis. It is moreover clear from the case-law that the notion of arbitrariness in the context of Article 5 varies to a certain extent depending on the type of detention involved.
80. One general principle established in the case-law is that detention will be “arbitrary” where, despite complying with the letter of national law, there has been an element of bad faith or deception on the part of the authorities (see, for example, Bozano v. France, 18 December 1986, Series A no. 111, and Čonka v. Belgium, no. 51564/99, ECHR 2002-I). Furthermore, the condition that there be no arbitrariness further demands that both the order to detain and the execution of the detention genuinely conform with the purpose of the restrictions permitted by the relevant sub‑paragraph of Article 5 § 1 (see Winterwerp v. the Netherlands, 24 October 1979, § 39, Series A no. 33). There must in addition be some relationship between the ground of permitted deprivation of liberty relied on and the place and conditions of detention (see Aerts v. Belgium, 30 July 1998, § 46, Reports 1998-V; and Enhorn v. Sweden, no. 56529/00, § 42, ECHR 2005-I).
81. Where a person has been detained under Article 5 § 1(f), the Grand Chamber, interpreting the second limb of this sub-paragraph, held that, as long as a person was being detained “with a view to deportation”, that is, as long as “action [was] being taken with a view to deportation”, Article 5 § 1(f) did not demand that detention be reasonably considered necessary, for example, to prevent the individual from committing an offence or fleeing. It was therefore immaterial whether the underlying decision to expel could be justified under national or Convention law (see Chahal, cited above, § 112; Slivenko v. Latvia [GC], no. 48321/99, § 146, ECHR 2003 X; Sadaykov v. Bulgaria, no. 75157/01, § 21, 22 May 2008; and Raza v. Bulgaria, no. 31465/08, § 72, 11 February 2010).
82. Consequently, the Grand Chamber held in Chahal that the principle of proportionality applied to detention under Article 5 § 1 (f) only to the extent that the detention should not continue for an unreasonable length of time; thus, it held that “any deprivation of liberty under Article 5 § 1(f) will be justified only for as long as deportation proceedings are in progress. If such proceedings are not prosecuted with due diligence, the detention will cease to be permissible” (Chahal, § 113; see also Gebremedhin [Gaberamadhien] v. France, no. 25389/05, § 74, ECHR 2007-II). Indeed, the Court of Justice of the European Union has made similar points in respect of Article 15 of Directive 2008/115/EC (in the 2009 case of Kadzoev) and in respect of Article 9(1) of Directive 2013/13 (in the 2016 case of J.N.) (see paragraphs 42 and 44 above).
83. The Court has unequivocally held that Article 5 § 1(f) of the Convention does not lay down maximum time-limits for detention pending deportation; on the contrary, it has stated that the question whether the length of deportation proceedings could affect the lawfulness of detention under this provision will depend solely on the particular circumstances of each case (see A.H. and J.K. v. Cyprus, nos. 41903/10 and 41911/10, § 190, 21 July 2015; Amie and Others v. Bulgaria, no. 58149/08, § 72, 12 February 2013; Auad v. Bulgaria, no. 46390/10, § 128, 11 October 2011; and Bordovskiy v. Russia, cited above, § 50, 8 February 2005). Consequently, even where domestic law does lay down time-limits, compliance with those time-limits cannot be regarded as automatically bringing the applicant’s detention into line with Article 5 § 1(f) of the Convention (Gallardo Sanchez v. Italy, no. 11620/07, § 39, ECHR 2015; Auad, cited above, § 131).
84. In a series of Russian cases the Court has considered the existence ‑ or absence – of time-limits on detention pending extradition to be relevant to the assessment of the “quality of law” (see, for example, Azimov v. Russia, no. 67474/11, § 171, 18 April 2013; Ismoilov and Others v. Russia, no. 2947/06, §§ 139-140, 24 April 2008; Ryabikin v. Russia, no. 8320/04, § 129, 19 June 2008; Muminov v. Russia, no. 42502/06, § 121, 11 December 2008; and Nasrulloyev v. Russia, no. 656/06, §§ 73-74, 11 October 2007). In these cases the Court was addressing a recurring problem of uncertainty over whether a provision of domestic law laying down the procedure and specific time-limits for reviewing detention applied to detention pending extradition. In light of this uncertainty, in a number of those cases the Court held that the domestic law was not sufficiently precise or foreseeable to meet the “quality of law” standard. In other words, the deprivation of liberty to which the applicants were subjected was not circumscribed by adequate safeguards against arbitrariness (see, for example, Nasrulloyev, cited above, § 77).
85. The Court adopted a similar approach in Louled Massoud, cited above, § 71, in which it found that the Maltese legal system did not provide for a procedure capable of avoiding the risk of arbitrary detention pending deportation. It reaching this conclusion it noted that, in the absence of time‑limits, the applicant was subject to an indeterminate period of detention, and the necessity of procedural safeguards (such as an effective remedy by which to contest the lawfulness and length of his detention) therefore became decisive.
86. In Abdolkhani and Karimnia, cited above, § 135 and Garayev, cited above, § 99 the Court held that in the absence of clear legal provisions establishing the procedure for ordering and extending detention or extradition with a view to deportation and setting time-limits for such detention, the deprivation of liberty to which the applicants were subjected was not circumscribed by adequate safeguards against arbitrariness. Similarly, in Mathloom v. Greece, no. 48883/07, § 71, 24 April 2012, although the Court’s conclusions refer to the fact that “the relevant provisions of domestic law governing the detention of persons under judicial expulsion do not set the maximum length of such detention”, it is clear from the preceding paragraphs that it also viewed as significant the fact that the applicant had been detained for “an unreasonably long period” (more than two years), during which time his expulsion had not been possible. Consequently, the relevant authorities had failed to exercise “due diligence”.
(iii) Automatic judicial review
87. Although the Court has made it clear that the existence of an effective remedy by which to contest the lawfulness and length of detention may be a relevant procedural safeguard against arbitrariness (Louled Massoud, cited above, § 71), it has not, to date, held that Article 5 § 1(f) requires automatic judicial review of detention pending deportation. In fact, as with time-limits, it has found that the existence of such a remedy will not guarantee that a system of immigration detention complies with the requirements of Article 5 § 1(f) of the Convention; for example, in Auad, cited above, § 132 it found that the fact that the applicant’s detention was subject to automatic periodic judicial review provided an important safeguard against arbitrariness but could not be regarded as decisive.
88. In the context of Article 5 § 4, the Court has made it clear that that provision’s requirement that “everyone who is deprived of his liberty … shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court” does not impose a uniform, unvarying standard to be applied irrespective of the context, facts and circumstances (Louled Massoud, cited above, § 40). Nevertheless, the Court has provided some guidance on what might constitute an “effective remedy”. First, the remedy must be made available during a person’s detention to allow that person to obtain speedy review of its lawfulness. Secondly, that review must have a judicial character and provide guarantees appropriate to the type of deprivation of liberty in question (see Louled Massoud, cited above, § 40 and A. and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 3455/05, § 203, ECHR 2009‑…). Thirdly, the review should also be capable of leading, where appropriate, to release. Finally, it must be sufficiently certain, not only in theory but also in practice, failing which it will lack the accessibility and effectiveness required for the purposes of that provision (see Muminov, cited above, § 113, and Ismoilov, cited above, § 145, 24 April 2008).
PACE Resolution 2109 (2016) The situation of refugees and migrants under the EU-Turkey Agreement of 18 March 2016
1. The Parliamentary Assembly takes note of the European Union-Turkey Agreement of 18 March 2016, adopted against the background of the unprecedented numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in western Europe via the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkans route in 2015, which had generated political tensions in many States and an institutional crisis in the European Union. It recalls the fact that Turkey currently hosts over 2.7 million Syrian refugees, on whom it estimates to have spent over €7 billion.
2. The Assembly considers that the EU-Turkey Agreement raises several serious human rights issues relating to both its substance and its implementation now and in the future, in particular the following:
2.1. the Greek asylum system lacks the capacity to ensure timely registration of asylum applications, issue of first instance decisions or determination of appeals; the new Greek Law 4375/2016 may help to address earlier shortcomings but will not ensure adequate capacity;
2.2. detention of asylum seekers in the “hotspots” on the Aegean islands may be incompatible with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 5), due notably to procedural failures undermining the legal grounds for detention and inadequate detention conditions;
2.3. children and vulnerable persons are not systematically referred from detention to appropriate alternative facilities;
2.4. returns of Syrian refugees to Turkey as a “first country of asylum” may be contrary to European Union and/or international law, as Turkey may not ensure protection that is “sufficient”, according to the position of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and there have been reports of onward refoulement of Syrians;
2.5. returns of asylum seekers, whether Syrians or not, to Turkey as a “safe third country” are contrary to European Union and/or international law, as Turkey does not provide them with protection in accordance with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, non-Syrians do not have effective access to the asylum procedure and there have been reports of onward refoulement of both Syrians and non-Syrians;
2.6. remedies against decisions to return asylum seekers to Turkey do not always have automatic suspensive effect, as required by the European Convention on Human Rights;
2.7. resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey is made conditional on the number of returns from Greece and will subsequently depend on a “Voluntary Humanitarian Readmission Scheme”, which is likely in practice to generate unacceptably low levels of resettlement;
2.8. there have been unreasonable delays in the European Union’s disbursement of Financial assistance promised to Turkey to help support Syrian refugees in Turkey, which should not depend on developments in the Aegean Sea.
3. The Assembly also has concerns relating to certain parallel initiatives in areas closely related to the EU-Turkey Agreement, in particular the following:
3.1. the closure by “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” of its southern border, coupled with the EU-Turkey Agreement, has added to the pressure on Greece, a country already struggling with the effects of budgetary and financial austerity;
3.2. most European Union member States have effectively failed to honour their pledges to relocate refugees from Greece, despite the growing pressure that country is under;
3.3. it is premature to consider resuming transfers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation given the continuing inadequacies of its asylum system, the additional pressure of its current situation and the fact that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has not yet closed supervision of execution by Greece of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of M.S.S. v.Belgium and Greece.
4. The Assembly therefore recommends that Greece, as an implementing party of the EU-Turkey Agreement, and the European Union, insofar as it provides relevant operational assistance to the Greek authorities:
4.1. refrain from automatic detention of asylum seekers and ensure strict adherence to the requirements of national law, the European Convention on Human Rights and European Union law concerning both the grounds for and conditions of detention, with adequate provision for alternatives where detention is not justified or otherwise inappropriate, including following the expiry of time limits;
4.2. systematically ensure that children and vulnerable persons are promptly excluded from detention and referred to appropriate alternative facilities;
4.3. ensure that the rights and provisions under the European Union Reception Conditions Directive are fully respected for all refugees and migrants arriving in Greece;
4.4. refer the question of interpretation of the concept of “sufficient protection” in Article 35 of the
European Union Asylum Procedures Directive to the Court of Justice of the European Union and, until such interpretation has been given, refrain from involuntary returns of Syrian refugees to Turkey under this provision;
4.5. refrain from involuntary returns of asylum seekers to Turkey in reliance on Article 38 of the Asylum Procedures Directive;
4.6. ensure that sufficient resources, from within the Greek administration and seconded from other European Union member States, are rapidly made available so as to allow effective access to a proper asylum procedure and rapid first instance decisions and appeal determination, in accordance with European Union law, especially for applicants in detention;
4.7. revise the legislation to ensure that all appeals against decisions to return to Turkey have an automatic suspensive effect;
4.8. ensure that all migrants and asylum seekers whose applications are not accepted are treated with dignity and in full compliance with the European Union Return Directive.
5. The Assembly also recommends to the European Union, its member States, and States participating in European Union resettlement schemes, as appropriate:
5.1. resettlement pledges made under the 20 July 2015 European Union agreement on resettlement should be rapidly and fully honoured, regardless of developments in the implementation of the EUTurkey Agreement; beyond that, substantial numbers of Syrian refugees should be resettled from Turkey;
5.2. family reunion of refugees should be allowed without any delay or complicated procedures, in order to prevent family members from being forced to take an irregular route to reunification;
5.3. the financial assistance promised to Turkey in November 2015 to help support Syrian refugees should be disbursed without further delay;
5.4. commitments to relocate refugees from Greece should be rapidly fulfilled;
5.5. there should be no further consideration of resuming transfers to Greece under the Dublin
Regulation until the Committee of Ministers has closed its supervision of execution by Greece of the M.S.S. judgment.
6. Finally, the Assembly recommends that Turkey:
6.1. withdraw its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention and recognise the status and fully respect the rights of refugees under that convention;
6.2. refrain from any onward refoulement of asylum seekers returned from Greece, ensuring access to the asylum system and to an effective remedy with suspensive effect against removal as required by the European Convention on Human Rights;
6.3. ensure that all migrants and asylum seekers returned from Greece are treated in full accordance with international standards, including on detention.
The case F.G. v. Sweden (application no. 43611/11) concerned the refusal of asylum to an Iranian national converted to Christianity in Sweden. The applicant, F.G., notably alleged that, if expelled to Iran, he would be at a real risk of being persecuted and punished or sentenced to death owing to his political past in the country and his conversion from Islam to Christianity.
In the Grand Chamber judgment (23/03/2016) in the case the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously:
that there would be no violation of Article 2 (right to life) and Article 3 (prohibition of torture and of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights, on account of F.G.’s political past in Iran, if he were deported to his country of origin, and
that there would be a violation of Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention if F.G. were to be returned to Iran without a fresh and up-to-date assessment being made by the Swedish authorities of the consequences of his religious conversion.
The Court pointed out that the case involved important issues concerning the duties to be observed by the parties in asylum proceedings.
The Court considered that there was no evidence to support the allegation that the national authorities, in their decisions refusing asylum, had been wrong to come to the conclusion that F.G. had been a low-profile activist or political opponent and was not therefore in need of protection in Sweden. Indeed, they had taken into account F.G.’s political activities against the Iranian regime, as well as the fact that he had been arrested on a number of occasions and summoned before the Iranian courts. Nor could the Court conclude that the asylum proceedings had in any way been inadequate as concerned its assessment of F.G.’s political activities.
However, as concerned F.G.’s conversion to Christianity, the Swedish authorities had so far never made an assessment of the risks that F.G. could encounter upon returning to Iran. Regardless of F.G.’s conduct (namely, the fact that he declined to invoke his conversion as an asylum ground in the original proceedings), the Court considered that the Swedish authorities would now be under an obligation – given the absolute nature of Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention – to make a fresh assessment, of their own motion, of all the information brought to their attention before taking a decision on his removal.
Court’s press release: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/app/conversion/pdf?library=ECHR&id=003-5334476-6650466&filename=Grand%20Chamber%20judgment%20F.G.%20v.%20Sweden%20-%20refusal%20of%20asylum%20to%20an%20Iranian%20national%20converted%20to%20Christianity%20in%20Sweden.pdf
The latest report on Greece by the Council of Europe anti-torture Committee (CPT), issued on 1 March, rang, once again, the alarm concerning decades-old, institutionalised, unlawful violence by law enforcement agents. In its press release CPT highlighted the need for Greece to fully acknowledge the phenomenon of police ill-treatment and to adopt a “comprehensive strategy and determined action” to address it.
The issue is compounded by the fact that this deeply ingrained violence is combined with institutionalised racism inside parts of the Greek law enforcement forces, thus targeting in particular migrants. In its 2015 report the Greek Racist Violence Recording Network noted that in 21 out of the 81 racist incidents that were recorded in 2014 the perpetrators were either only law enforcement officials or law enforcement officials along with other perpetrators. Out of these, 13 took place in public places, six in police stations or detention centres, and two in an abandoned private place.
These findings were corroborated by the 2016 CPT report where it is noted that infliction of ill-treatment by law enforcement agents, particularly against foreign nationals, including for the purpose of obtaining confessions, continues to be a frequent practice. The report contains some particularly worrying, graphic paragraphs and an appended photograph concerning the alleged use in 2015 by the police in Thessaloniki of wooden bats during the interrogation of a Bulgarian national who was detained on remand.
The CPT report is alarming because it clearly identifies a Greek police culture under which it is not unprofessional to resort to ill-treatment, although its prohibition is enshrined in the unqualified and non-derogable Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). As the Strasbourg Court has underlined on numerous occasions (see e.g. Galotskin v. Greece, 2010) Article 3 ECHR enshrines one of the most fundamental values of democratic societies. Even in the most difficult circumstances, such as the fight against terrorism and organised crime, the Convention prohibits in absolute terms torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, irrespective of the victim’s conduct. In addition, the Court has noted that in respect of a person deprived of their liberty, recourse to physical force which has not been made strictly necessary by their own conduct diminishes human dignity and is in principle an infringement of Article 3 ECHR.
One of the major root causes for this highly problematic situation lies with the culture of impunity that pervades parts of the Greek, primarily, police forces, as well as of prosecutorial and judicial authorities. This requires a drastic overhaul of the law enforcement overseeing and redress mechanisms and of the awareness-raising and sensitisation of all actors of the national justice system.
As regards the law enforcement sector, CPT recommends the fostering of proper conduct by police members towards detainees, notably by doing more to encourage police officers to prevent colleagues from ill-treating, and to report, through appropriate channels, all cases of violence by colleagues. Importantly, CPT underlines the need for the authorities to adopt “whistle-blower” protective measures. However, in order for these highly useful recommendations to be given effect it is necessary to develop a reporting system linked to an independent complaint authority and a legal and institutional system able to fully and effectively safeguard the whistle-blowers’ personal security and other rights.
As regards the need to establish an independent and effective complaint mechanism, in his 2013 report on Greece, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, drawing upon the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Guidelines on eradicating impunity for serious human rights violations (2011), urged Greece to establish a fully independent and well-functioning complaints mechanism covering all law enforcement officials. This should be based on the five principles of effective complaints investigation: (a) independence: there should be no institutional or hierarchical connections between the investigators and the official complained against and there should be practical independence; (b) adequacy: the investigation should be capable of gathering evidence to determine whether the behaviour of the law enforcement body complained of was unlawful and to identify and punish those responsible; (c) promptness: the investigation should be conducted promptly and in an expeditious manner in order to maintain confidence in the rule of law; (d) public scrutiny: procedures and decision-making should be open and transparent in order to ensure accountability; and (e) victim involvement: the complainant should be involved in the complaints process in order to safeguard his or her legitimate interests.
What is however even more worrying and challenging is the fact that not only the administrative but also the judicial routes of investigation and prosecution in this context are fundamentally flawed. For example, CPT in its 2016 report refers to the cases of three migrant detainees whose allegations of torture and severe ill-treatment by police officers in 2013 were investigated by a public prosecutor. The prosecutor summarily dismissed the complaints and closed the file. The problem is that such bluntness has been encountered even at the highest judicial level, that of the Greek Court of Cassation (Areios Pagos). A characteristic example is the case of Kouidis v. Greece, where in 2006 the UN Human Rights Committee found the first violation by Greece of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This was the consequence of the fact that Areios Pagos, in a criminal case decided upon in 1998, did not take into account the applicant’s claims that his confession to the police was given under duress (serious ill-treatment including the use of falanga) during his interrogation in the Athens police headquarters.
The above shows that international and European human rights norms and standards have not as yet been fully embedded in the Greek national legal system. As noted by Adamantia Pollis in her incisive study on human rights in modern Greece (1987), albeit the judiciary in this country has been structurally independent it has rarely acted as a separate and autonomous branch of government. This has been a consequence of an ‘organic’ conception of the Greek nation which is embodied in the state, and its institutions, reinforcing its power. Pollis’ research in the 1980s demonstrated that Greek judges have remained committed to a legal philosophy that supports legal restrictions of rights in the name of higher state interests.
In order to overcome these structural shortcomings, the establishment of an effective system of administration of justice is needed, with courts empowered to apply domestic anti-torture law in line with the state’s human rights obligations and international or regional case law. Under the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence (see e.g. Gäfgen v. Germany, 2010) states have a positive procedural obligation, deriving from Article 3 ECHR, to conduct a thorough and effective investigation in all cases that raise an arguable claim of ill-treatment. This investigation should be capable of leading to the identification and punishment of those responsible. In view of this, in the course of the examination of all such cases the Strasbourg Court has imposed on itself the obligation to “apply a particularly thorough scrutiny”. In fact, this is the level of scrutiny that is required also from prosecutors and courts at domestic level.
In the 1975 ‘first torturers’ trial’ in Greece targeting officers of the Greek military police (ESA) involved in torture during the 1967-1974 dictatorship (cf. Amnesty International’s report), the court-martial prosecutor posed a fundamental question that is still echoing: “How could Greek officers sink to this moral degradation? Who are those responsible?” In a characteristically frank statement, probably prompted by the post-dictatorship atmosphere reigning then in Greece, the prosecutor added that “those morally responsible are not in this court. They are those who used the defendants…who, for many years, have given thousands of hours instruction on the fighting of communism without sparing even one hour to the defence of democracy”.
Regrettably these phrases are still of relevance today and call for reflection. Unlawful violence and impunity in the Greek system of law enforcement are decades-old long and derive from a long, sad tradition of state repression and disregard of human dignity and civil rights. As Pollis said in her 1987 study, despite the post-1974 legal and institutional changes in Greece, the underlying world view of the earlier decades persists. This is why the ‘culture’ of impunity still constitutes the mind frame of many state institutions and is tolerated. It is indeed high time for the national authorities to cross the Rubicon and redress this situation where human rights standards and the rule of law cannot but buckle.
By Nikolaos Sitaropoulos
In Osungu and Lokongo v. France (delivered on 8/9/2015), the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) rejected as “manifestly ill-founded” two applications submitted by Congolese regular migrants. The proceedings concerned the French authorities’ refusal to grant the migrants family allowances for their minor children who had entered and resided in France, in contravention of the family reunification rules (§§21-26).
The respondent state admitted that the refusal to grant family allowances affected the applicants’ right to respect for family life (Article 8 ECHR) and that this treatment was differential compared with that given to migrants from countries that have concluded special agreements with the European Union. However, the government argued primarily that this differential treatment was justified under Articles 8 and 14 (the non-discrimination clause in the ECHR) as “proportionate to the legitimate aims that it pursued, that is, the protection of public health, the protection of the child and immigration control” (§36). Additionally, the respondent state produced ten administrative court judgments to prove that regularisation of a de facto reunification is possible under domestic law and practice, and that the applicants could have made use of this avenue.
The Court did not really analyse the argument concerning nationality based differential treatment. It noted briefly (§44) that this treatment is not grounded exclusively in nationality and occurs in an “economic and social domain” where states enjoy a large margin of appreciation.
The largest part of the Court’s reasoning was centred on the argument advanced by France that regularisation was possible under domestic law (in order to receive the family allowances), and that the applicant parents did not make any serious efforts to that end (although the applicants had instituted a series of domestic court proceedings claiming discrimination). Based on this argument, the Court held that the non-allocation of family allowances was due to the applicants’ non-compliance with the family reunification rules. This, according to the Court, constituted an “objective and reasonable justification” for differential treatment (§48).
The Court’s decision raises questions of compatibility with previous case law. In the landmark Belgian Linguistics case (1968), the Court affirmed that the principle of equality of treatment is violated if the “distinction has no objective and reasonable justification”. Such a justification must be assessed “in relation to the aim and effects of the measure … regard being had to the principles which normally prevail in democratic societies”. There are two conditions that differential treatment must fulfill: firstly, it must pursue a legitimate aim; secondly, there must be a “reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised”. These principles have been applied by the Court in other cases concerning migrants’ family life (e.g. Hode and Abdi v. UK, 2012, Bah v. UK, 2011).
There is no doubt that the differential treatment in Osungu and Lokongo sought to pursue legitimate aims (“protection of public health, the protection of the child and immigration control”). Further, states are justified in restricting access to family allowances since this is a resource-intensive service. A large margin of appreciation certainly exists in this domain.
However, this does not entail the Court’s uncritical deference to a state’s decision, which should be explained and justified by the state concerned, and then analysed and judged by the Court. Deeper scrutiny of the respondent’s arguments would have revealed that the aims of immigration control, protection of public health, and protection of children, are not served by cutting off family benefits. In reality, even where such benefits are cut off, the migrant children concerned are allowed to remain in France and live “a normal life” with their parents who are regular residents. Thus, there is no link between the means adopted and the ends sought to be achieved. The question of necessity and proportionality does not even arise.
These cases raise important jurisprudential and practical issues. As also noted by an EU study published last year, provision of social security is of prime importance to efforts made to reduce poverty and inequality among migrants. Reports indicate there are currently around 9,000 migrant children in France in a situation similar to that of the applicants. It is thus hoped that the Court will be given another opportunity to revisit its case law in this domain in a more nuanced manner.
Judgment delivered on 7 July 2015 by the ECtHR
The applicants are seven Serbian nationals, a father and mother and their five children. They were born in 1981, 1977, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2011 respectively and live in Serbia. Their eldest daughter,
who was born in 2001 and was mentally and physically disabled from birth, died in December 2011.
The applicants are of Roma origin and were born in Serbia, where they have lived for most of their lives.
In March 2010 the applicants travelled to France, where they submitted an asylum application which was rejected. In March 2011 they travelled to Belgium and lodged an asylum application there. On
12 April 2011 the Belgian authorities submitted a request to the French authorities to take back the family. On 6 May 2011 France accepted the request under the Dublin II Regulation2. On 17 May 2011 the Aliens Office in Belgium issued the applicants with an order to leave Belgian territory for France, on the ground that Belgium was not responsible for considering the asylum application under the Dublin II Regulation. On 25 May 2011 the time-limit for enforcement of the order to leave the territory was extended until 25 September 2011 owing to the mother’s pregnancy and imminent
On 16 June 2011 the applicants submitted to the Aliens Appeals Board a request for the suspension and setting-aside of the decision refusing them leave to remain and ordering them to leave the country. On 22 September 2011 the applicants applied for leave to remain on medical grounds on behalf of their disabled eldest daughter. The Aliens Office rejected their application. On 26
September 2011, on expiry of the time-limit for enforcement of the order to leave the country, the applicants were expelled from the Sint-Truiden reception centre where they had been staying, as
they were no longer eligible for the material support provided to refugees. They travelled to Brussels, where voluntary associations directed them to a public square in the Schaerbeek municipality in the centre of the Brussels-Capital district, together with other homeless Roma families. They remained there until 5 October 2011. On 7 October 2011 they were assigned to a new reception facility as a mandatory place of registration in the Province of Luxembourg, 160 km from Brussels. The applicants eventually took up residence in Brussels North railway station, where they remained for three weeks until their return to Serbia was arranged on 25 October 2011 by a charity under the return programme run by Fedasil, the federal agency for the reception of asylum seekers.
In a judgment of 29 November 2011 the Aliens Appeals Board set aside the impugned decisions (the refusal of leave to remain and the order to leave the country) on the grounds that the Aliens Office had not established on what legal basis it considered France to be the State responsible for the applicants’ asylum application. The Belgian State lodged an appeal on points of law with the
Conseil d’État against the judgment of the Aliens Appeals Board. In a judgment of 28 February 2013 the Conseil d’État declared the appeal inadmissible for lack of current interest, given that the
applicants had returned to Serbia and that the Belgian State had been released from its obligations under the procedure for determining the Member State responsible for their asylum application.
Complaints, procedure and composition of the Court:
Relying on Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), the applicants complained that their exclusion from the reception facilities in Belgium from 26 September 2011 onwards had
exposed them to inhuman and degrading treatment. Under Article 2 (right to life), they alleged that the reception conditions in Belgium had caused the death of their eldest daughter. Lastly, under
Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), they complained that they had been unable to assert before the courts their claim that their removal to Serbia and the refusal to regularise their residence status had exposed them to a risk to their eldest daughter’s life (Article 2) and to a risk of suffering inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3).
Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment):
The Court reiterated that neither the Convention nor its Protocols conferred the right to political asylum and that Contracting States had the right, subject to their international undertakings
including the Convention, to control the entry, residence and expulsion of non-nationals.
Nevertheless, the State’s responsibility could be engaged in relation to asylum seekers’ conditions of reception. The Court observed3 that, in order to determine whether the threshold of severity required under Article 3 was met in a given situation, particular importance should be attached to the person’s status as an asylum seeker and, as such, a member of a particularly underprivileged and vulnerable population group in need of special protection. Asylum seekers’ vulnerability was heightened in the case of families with children, and the requirement of special protection had been even more important in the applicants’ case in view of the presence of small children, including one infant, and of a disabled child.
The Court had to ascertain in this case whether the applicants’ living conditions in Belgium between 26 September and 25 October 2011 engaged the responsibility of the Belgian State under Article 3.
The Court’s review related only to that period, between their eviction from the accommodation centre and their departure for Serbia, since the applicants’ reception and the fulfilment of their
needs prior to that period were not the subject of dispute. Between 26 September and 25 October 2011 their situation had been particularly serious as they had spent nine days on a public
square in Brussels and then, after two nights in a transit centre, a further three weeks in a Brussels train station. The Court noted that this situation could have been avoided or made shorter if the
proceedings brought by the applicants seeking the setting-aside and suspension of the decisions refusing them leave to remain and ordering them to leave the country, which had lasted for two
months, had been conducted more speedily.
However overstretched the reception network for asylum seekers in Belgium may have been at the time of the events5, the Court considered that the Belgian authorities had not given due
consideration to the applicants’ vulnerability and had failed in their obligation not to expose the applicants to conditions of extreme poverty for four weeks, leaving them living on the street,
without funds, with no access to sanitary facilities and no means of meeting their basic needs. The Court found that these living conditions, combined with the lack of any prospect of an improvement
in the applicants’ situation, had attained the level of severity required under Article 3. The applicants had therefore been subjected to degrading treatment, in breach of that provision.
Article 2 (right to life):
The Court noted that, although the Belgian authorities must have been aware that the applicants were living in poverty following their eviction from the centre, and must have known about their
eldest daughter’s medical conditions, the medical certificate had not mentioned the degree of severity of those conditions. It also noted, with regard to the timing of the events, that a number of
factors may have contributed to the child’s death, including having spent several weeks in insalubrious conditions after the family’s return to Serbia. Accordingly, the Court considered that the
applicants had not shown that their eldest daughter’s death had been caused by their living conditions in Belgium, or that the Belgian authorities had failed in their obligation to protect her life.
The Court therefore found no violation of Article 2.
Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) taken in conjunction with Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment):
On the basis of its analysis of the Belgian system as in force at the time of the events, the Court considered that the applicants had not had an effective remedy available to them, in the sense of
one that had automatic suspensive effect and enabled their allegations of a violation of Article 3 to be examined in a rapid and effective manner.
The order for the applicants to leave the country had been liable to be enforced at any time by the Belgian authorities, and the application to set aside and the request for suspension of the measure lodged by the applicants did not have suspensive effect. The Court observed in particular that the lack of suspensive effect had resulted in the material support granted to the applicants being
withdrawn and had forced them to return to their country of origin without their fears of a possible violation of Article 3 having been examined. The Court also noted that the length of the proceedings concerning the application to set aside had been unsatisfactory, given that the Aliens Appeals Board had not delivered its judgment until 29 November 2011, after the applicants had left for Serbia, thereby effectively depriving them of the opportunity to continue the proceedings in Belgium and France. Accordingly, since the applicants had not had an effective remedy, there had been a violation of Article 13 taken in conjunction with Article 3.
From Court’s press release: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/webservices/content/pdf/003-5127554-6327501
by Nikolaos Sitaropoulos
Juan Amaya-Castro argues that states’ selective immigration policies are discriminatory, and that this discrimination has been legitimized by international (migration) law. From a legal point of view, this is rather a misperception that confuses differential with discriminatory treatment. The latter is not allowed by contemporary international law as this post will show.
International migration law is not a self-contained legal regime. It is a multi-layered body of law consisting of various international, regional or bilateral treaties and agreements which leave “the alien’s body protected by a varying number of layers (legal regimes) depending upon the sartorial tastes of the State involved” (Richard Lillich, The Human Rights of Aliens in Contemporary International Law, Manchester UP, 1984, 122). Some of the most migrant-protective layers are certainly those provided by international and European human rights law and principles.
As regards migrants’ entry, the UN Human Rights Committee in its 1986 General Comment No 15 noted that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
“does not recognize the right of aliens to enter or reside in the territory of a State party. It is in principle a matter for the State to decide who it will admit to its territory. However, in certain circumstances an alien may enjoy the protection of the Covenant even in relation to entry or residence, for example when considerations of non-discrimination, prohibition of inhuman treatment and respect for family life arise”.
This is true also under another core law-making treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as interpreted by the Strasbourg Court (see below).
Differential treatment of migrants does not always equal discrimination
Migration control measures that differentiate among (prospective) migrants are not automatically unlawful. Whether such state action affecting migrants constitutes discriminationis grounded in the principle of prohibition of discrimination enshrined notably in Article 14 ECHR and in Protocol No. 12 to the ECHR. Non-discrimination grounds indicatively enlisted therein are: “sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status”.
As Judge Tanaka observed in his outstanding dissenting opinion in South West Africa (Second Phase) (1966), the “equal treatment of men as persons” is a metaphysical, natural law idea that pervades international and domestic law. Equality, however, does not exclude differentiation because “to treat different matters equally in a mechanical way would be as unjust as to treat equal matters differently”. For a differential practice not to amount to discrimination, it should be justified by the criterion of justice or reasonableness which excludes arbitrariness. In addition, since equality is a principle and different treatment an exception, states that resort to different treatment must always prove its “raison d’être and reasonableness”.
These positions were echoed later in the seminal Belgian Linguistics case (1968), where the European Court of Human Rights affirmed that the principle of equality of treatment is violated if the “distinction has no objective and reasonable justification”. The existence of such a justification must be assessed “in relation to the aim and effects of the measure under consideration, regard being had to the principles which normally prevail in democratic societies”. The Court went on and established two fundamental conditions that differential treatment should fulfill: firstly, it must pursue a legitimate aim; secondly, there must be a “reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised”.
Major prohibitive grounds of differential treatment affecting migrants
The ECHR organs have developed a significant body of case-law on whether exclusion from territory or difference of treatment affecting migrants may be prohibited by the principle of non-discrimination. One of the first, fundamental principles highlighted is that states have no right to base migration control measures upon migrants’ racial origin. The question was posed in 1970 before the former European Commission of Human Rights in the case of East African Asians v. UK, concerning the exclusion from the UK, expressly and admittedly for reasons of ‘racial harmony’, of UK passport holders of Asian origin who lived in Kenya or Uganda.
In the above case the Commission noted that “publicly to single out of a group of persons for differential treatment on the basis of their race might, in certain circumstances, constitute a special form of affront to human dignity”. In addition, immigration law discrimination on racial grounds could itself amount to degrading treatment under Article 3 ECHR, as was found to be the case in East African Asians. In 1983, in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali, the Commission made it clear that no state may implement immigration policies “of a purely racist nature, such as a policy prohibiting the entry of any person of a particular skin colour”.
These cases remain important in view of ongoing debates about migration control, which are often tainted by racist considerations. Among many examples one may cite the travel restrictions imposed on Roma from the Western Balkans seeking asylum in the EU (cf. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, The Right to Leave a Country, 2013).
The question of differential treatment on the ground of sex was posed in 1980 when the UK introduced stricter conditions, purportedly in order to protect the domestic labour market, for entry of migrant husbands or fiancés seeking to join or remain with their wives or fiancées already settled in the UK. Under the law and practice of the time, it was easier for men settled in the UK than for women so settled to obtain permission for their non-national spouses to enter or remain in the country. This was found to be discriminatory against the women, primarily migrant, applicants, hence unlawful by the Strasbourg Court (Plenary) in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali v. UK (1985).
Ultimately, the argument centered on whether the above difference had an objective and reasonable justification. The Court stressed that “very weighty arguments would have to be advanced before a difference of treatment on the ground of sex could be regarded as compatible with the Convention”. The data put forward by the respondent state did not convince the Court that this differential treatment to the detriment of migrant women already in the host state was justified “by the need to protect the domestic labour market at a time of high unemployment”.
Under the ECHR, states, in principle, cannot use nationality as a sole ground of distinction that would deny regular migrants, including recognised refugees, major social rights or social benefits. An exception to this principle may occur again only if states are in a position to persuasively provide “very weighty reasons” for differential treatment (e.g. Dhahbi v. Italy, 2014).
In his post, Juan Amaya-Castro claims that current selective immigration policies have legitimized another differentiation ground, the migrants’ “economic worth” on the basis of which easy entry and residence may be enjoyed by, for example, non-national investors or entrepreneurs. Although I am sympathetic towards his argument, I am not convinced that, in itself, such differentiation constitutes discriminatory, and hence unlawful, treatment, in the sense explained earlier. The Strasbourg Court has actually noted that, in the context of differential treatment, a “wide margin is usually allowed to the State under the Convention when it comes to general measures of economic or social strategy”, adding that “offering incentives to certain groups of immigrants may amount to a legitimate aim for the purposes of Article 14 of the Convention”. The Court has made it clear that in general it will respect the legislature’s policy in this field “unless it is manifestly without reasonable foundation” (e.g. Hode and Abdi v. UK, 2012).
In conclusion, the claim that international (migration) law gives states a free hand to discriminate is not watertight. It certainly still grants states a margin of appreciation and license for differential treatment. However, under the European Court of Human Rights’ case-law, any such treatment affecting migrants has to be in conformity with the fundamental principle of equality, that is, to be legitimate, reasonably proportionate and justified by “very weighty reasons”. In this context, the Court has rightly applied a particularly strict review in cases concerning ‘suspect’discrimination grounds relating to one’s race, sex or nationality, which refer to innate personal characteristics. These standards of European human rights law arguably constitute the most protective layer of international migration law.
By Nikolaos Sitaropoulos
The thorny question of implementation of the Views adopted by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) under the Optional Protocol (OP) to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was again thrust into the limelight by the French government’s comments on a report recently published by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. The comments made clear that France is not about to give effect to three Views issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2011 and 2013 finding violations of the Sikh authors’ freedom of religion for being legally obliged to denounce wearing a turban on their identity or residence permit photographs, or in order to attend an upper high school (lycée).
The first major argument put forward by the French government is that these questions were settled in 2006 by the French Supreme Administrative Court (Conseil d’Etat) in Association United Sikhs where this kind of restrictions were found lawful.
The second major argument presented by France is that in 2005 and 2008 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) also considered the above restrictive measures compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In its General Comment No 33 (2008) the HRC noted that even though it is not a judicial body, its Views “exhibit some important characteristics of a judicial decision. They are arrived at in a judicial spirit, including the impartiality and independence of Committee members”. It added that the Views are “an authoritative determination by a quasi-judicial organ established by ICCPR tasked with the interpretation of this treaty”.
As a consequence, every state party to ICCPR and its OP is bound by their provisions and the findings of the HRC, in accordance with the fundamental principle of pacta sunt servanda. Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) exemplifies this principle as follows: “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed in good faith”.
A vital, concomitant rule of customary international law is that no state party to a treaty may invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty (Article 27 VCLT). Under Article 27 VCLT domestic courts are actually bound to give effect to a ratified treaty. This is even more so where the constitution of that state, like France (Article 55), provides that ratified treaties prevail over domestic statutes. In view of the above, France’s first argument is hardly watertight.
As to the second argument based, in effect, on an alleged prevalence of ECHR over ICCPR in cases concerning religious freedom, in principle this could stand if France had made such a declaration upon acceding to ICCPR. Such a declaration was indeed made with regard to Articles 19 (freedom to hold opinions and of expression), 21 (right of peaceful assembly) and 22 (freedom of association) of ICCPR. However, Article 18 ICCPR covering religious freedom has been left out.
The inapplicability of the argument of prevalence of ECHR over ICCPR in this case may also be grounded in Article 53 ECHR. According to this provision nothing in ECHR may be construed as limiting or derogating from human rights that may be ensured under domestic law or another ratified treaty.
A 2014 report by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission echoed the widely accepted view that even though the HRC’s Views are not binding judgments, they still have a legal consequence: the states parties’ obligation to take the HRC’s Views into consideration in good faith.
Arguably good faith means, inter alia, that when a state party feels obliged to contest the HRC’s Views it should provide arguments that are legally sound and coherent. This is not the case in the Sikh cases and France’s arguments disregarding ICCPR and its adjudicating organ’s decisions. Regrettably states often forget that ICCPR is one of the building blocks of the international human rights system, which, unlike other human rights treaties like ECHR, contains no denunciation clause. It is indeed a cornerstone of the modern international law regime that merits much more attention and effective respect by all states parties.
All views expressed herein bind solely the author.
Strasbourg, 17/02/2015 – “Despite advances in legislation and measures to combat intolerance and racism, discrimination and hate speech not only persist in France but are on the rise. There is an urgent need to combat this in a sustained and systematic manner,” Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said today, publishing the report on his visit to France from 22 to 26 September 2014. In this report, the Commissioner addresses issues of intolerance, racism, and respect for the human rights of migrants, Travellers, Roma and persons with disabilities.
“In recent years, there has been a huge increase in antisemitic, anti-Muslim and homophobic acts. In the first half of 2014 alone, the number of antisemitic acts virtually doubled, while the number of Jews leaving France for Israel tripled compared with 2012, which is a telling indication of their feeling of insecurity. The rising number of anti-Muslim acts, 80% of which are carried out against women, and homophobic acts, which occur once every two days, is also cause for great concern. It is essential to put an end to such acts, including on the Internet, and to punish those responsible.”
The Commissioner welcomes France’s sound legal and institutional framework for combating racism and discrimination and urges the authorities to continue to fight resolutely against these phenomena. “To this end, it would be helpful to give full effect to the criminal law provisions recognising “testing” as evidence of discriminatory conduct and to include the fight against discrimination in a national plan to promote and protect human rights. Ratifying Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights on the general prohibition of discrimination would also help to further strengthen the legal framework.”
The trend towards more stringent and more complex rules in the asylum and immigration field raises serious questions of compatibility with France’s international commitments, particularly with regard to being granted asylum and the reception of asylum seekers. “The serious and chronic inadequacies in the reception of asylum seekers force many of them to live in extremely vulnerable and degrading conditions. Lasting solutions need to be found as a matter of urgency to ensure that everyone has effective access to reception centres and social protection.”
The reception and care of unaccompanied migrant minors highlights a further shortcoming in the French migration system. “There are between 7,000 and 12,000 such children living in France, 3,000 of whom are in Mayotte. Many are left without any social or educational support or medical care and some are even homeless. Their age is often determined following certain highly questionable procedures, especially when these involve bone age tests. It is not uncommon for these children to be deprived of their liberty when they arrive at the border unlawfully. The French authorities must put an end to these practices and provide better reception conditions, including overseas.”
The Commissioner also calls on the French authorities not only to honour their commitment to take in 500 Syrian refugees, but to take in even more and to remove all barriers, such as the obligation to have an airport transit visa, which undermine their chances of being granted asylum. The Commissioner also calls on the authorities to improve the living conditions of migrants in Calais and to afford them greater protection against violent xenophobic attacks.
Commissioner Muižnieks urges France not to adopt or implement legislative or other measures to accelerate asylum procedures still further, until the structural problems in the national asylum authorities have been resolved. He underlines the need to improve the effectiveness of remedies in the asylum and immigration field, by expediting the introduction of suspensive appeals against all decisions taken in these matters, including overseas. In addition, he recommends that the authorities improve the legal aid and procedural guarantees offered to immigrants and asylum seekers and cease the practice of holding hearings by the ‘liberties and detention judges’ in the annexes of regional courts located in the immediate vicinity of administrative detention centres or waiting zones.
High levels of anti-Gypsyism have prevailed in France for a very long time, and the Commissioner calls on the authorities to firmly tackle hostile speech and acts directed at migrant Roma and Travellers, including on the Internet. He recommends that the authorities put an end to the discriminatory system applied to Travellers, provide appropriate camping areas and ensure effective access to education for the children of Travellers by promoting solutions more in keeping with their lifestyle.
Like Travellers, migrant Roma continue to be targeted and stigmatised by hate speech emanating from certain politicians and by sometimes harmful media coverage. They are also the victims of violence perpetrated by individuals and at times even by members of law enforcement agencies, in particular during forced eviction operations. The Commissioner also underlines the urgent need to guarantee Roma access to healthcare, education, housing and employment, and to conduct public awareness-raising activities to combat stereotypes and prejudice against Roma and Travellers.
With regard to the situation of persons with disabilities, the Commissioner notes that despite a well-developed legal framework and the priority given to independence and social inclusion, these are not always guaranteed in practice. “There is an urgent need to rectify a situation which continues, de facto, to perpetuate the social exclusion and marginalisation of persons with disabilities. The serious delays in ensuring that public places are accessible and the shortcomings in the arrangements concerning guidance and support for these persons should be dealt with as a matter of priority.”
The Commissioner is also concerned that thousands of persons with disabilities are obliged to leave France to find more appropriate solutions to their situation abroad, particularly in Belgium. He also condemns difficulties in access to employment and the discriminatory conditions applying to workers with disabilities within certain specialised facilities.
Lastly, while welcoming the measures adopted to promote the education of children with disabilities in mainstream schools, the Commissioner notes with concern that no education solution has yet been found for some 20,000 of these children, and particularly for those with autism spectrum disorder. “The authorities should step up their efforts to ensure that all children receive appropriate education. The authorities should also attach priority to setting up local services promoting the social inclusion of people with disabilities, and improve the support provided to those with autism, in particular by making greater use of educational, behavioural and developmental methods in the care they are given.”
Link to press release & docs: http://bit.ly/1FmkGZ9