European Court of Human Rights
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) held on January 17 that a United Kingdom prisoner’s “whole life” sentence does not violate Article 3 (the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) where the Secretary of State’s discretion to reduce the sentence is bound by domestic law that recognizes the binding nature of the ECHR and ECtHR jurisprudence. See ECtHR, Hutchinson v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 57592/08, Judgment of 17 January 2017, para. 72. The decision contrasts with a prior Grand Chamber judgment in which the Court found a violation of Article 3 because, the Court found, the United Kingdom’s law offered no possibility of review or release for life sentences except in very limited circumstances. See ECtHR, Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], nos. 66069/09, 130/10, and 3896/10, ECHR 2013, Judgment of 9 July 2013, para. 130.
The change in jurisprudence is attributable to domestic courts’ clarification of the law, which the Grand Chamber now views as compliant with the ECHR because it meets the relevant standards for the possibility of release and review. See Hutchinson v. the United Kingdom, Judgment of 17 January 2017, para. 70. Specifically, U.K. law allows the Secretary of State to reduce a life sentence at any time on compassionate grounds, which, the State claims, encompass more than end-of-life situations and will be interpreted in line with the ECHR. See id. at paras. 15, 56. A dissenting opinion criticized the Grand Chamber for “backtracking” on Vinter and Others. Read more
European Court of Human Rights
Credit: David Betzinger/ Council of Europe
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) unanimously held last week that requiring two Muslim girls below the age of puberty to participate in a school’s compulsory mixed gender swim class did not violate their parents’ right to religious freedom under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). See ECtHR, Osmanoǧlu and Kocabaş v. Switzerland, no. 29086/12, Judgment of 10 January 2017. In its January 10th decision, the ECtHR heavily deferred to the State’s policy and findings in prior national proceedings, particularly with regard to Switzerland’s conclusion that the compulsory swim course was necessary for the social integration of students of foreign origin and equality between the sexes. In weighing the interests of the State and the parents, the Court noted that significant accommodations – such as full-body swimsuits – were available to mitigate any negative impact on the parents’ freedom of religion. See id. The ECtHR ruling is the first to address the narrow issue of religious freedom protections within the context of a compulsory school sporting activity requiring the exposure of the body. [Huffington Post] Read more
The petitioners’ representatives at the Inter-American Commission
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently released a decision vindicating the rights of two undocumented workers in the United States whose employers denied them medical benefits and wage replacement after they were injured on the job, in a context of domestic jurisprudence and policy limiting labor protections for undocumented migrants. See IACHR, Merits Report No. 50/16, Case 12.834, Undocumented Workers (United States of America), 30 November 2016. The IACHR ultimately found that the U.S. violated the workers’ rights to equality before the law and social security benefits enshrined in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (American Declaration). See id. This significant decision is the first to address the employment rights of undocumented migrants in the Americas and builds on the IACHR’s doctrine related to discrimination on the basis of immigration status. It includes a list of recommendations to the U.S. to ensure policies and practices that promote equal treatment and due process for undocumented workers. See id. Read more
The Inter-American Court hears from the parties in I.V. v. Bolivia
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) examined for the first time the issue of informed consent to medical treatment and forced sterilization, in its judgment in I.V. v. Bolivia, released last week. [IACtHR Press Release (in Spanish)] The case involves a Peruvian refugee who was sterilized by a tubal ligation performed without her informed consent in a Bolivian public hospital in 2000, resulting in permanent loss of her ability to conceive a child. See I/A Court H.R., I.V. v. Bolivia. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 30 November 2016. Series C No. 329, paras. 64-65 (in Spanish). I.V. had been admitted to a public hospital to give birth and was sterilized, immediately after doctors performed a Caesarean section, purportedly to prevent potential complications if I.V. were to become pregnant again in the future. See id. at paras. 63-64.
The IACtHR’s judgment expands the Court’s jurisprudence on the principle of informed consent, the (infrequently cited) right to dignity under the American Convention on Human Rights, and a State’s obligation to ensure adequate training for medical professionals. The IACtHR affirmed that informed consent is an essential precondition to medical treatment that is based on respect for individuals’ autonomy, dignity, and freedom to make their own decisions. See id. at para. 159. The International Justice Resource Center (IJRC), together with the International Human Rights Clinic at Santa Clara University, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Court which provided supplementary analysis on these concepts and the human rights implicated by forced sterilization of women, a practice that is regrettably common in the Americas and throughout the world. Read more
Palais des Nations
Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
In the month of January, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the European Committee of Social Rights will convene to assess States’ compliance with their human rights obligations by reviewing State reports and assessing individual complaints. In addition, three UN special rapporteurs will conduct country visits and the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice will meet privately. The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Situations will meet to review communications alleging gross human rights violations. Finally, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will hear two cases – one concerning the extradition of a British national to the United States and one concerning a welfare recipient’s freedom to choose her place of residence.
UN treaty body sessions may be watched via UN Web TV and public hearings of the European Court can be viewed on the Court’s website. To view human rights bodies’ past and future activities, visit the IJRC Hearings & Sessions Calendar. Read more
The UN holds an event on the International Day of Older Persons
Credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton
The Inter-American human rights system will soon welcome the entry into force of the world’s first binding convention on the rights of older persons. Costa Rica deposited its ratification of the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons on December 12, 2016. [OAS Press Release; IACHR Press Release] Costa Rica is the second OAS Member State—following Uruguay—to ratify the Convention, which allows it to enter into force thirty days after Costa Rica’s deposit of ratification. See OAS, A-70 Signatories and Ratifications. While various non-binding principles and monitoring bodies address the human rights of older persons at the regional and universal levels, the Convention is the first treaty to expressly and exclusively protect this population.
The purpose of the Convention is to recognize, promote, and protect the rights of older persons, generally defined as people aged 60 or older, and establishes that as people age they should continue to enjoy and exercise all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other segments of society. To this end, the Convention draws on existing principles established in nonbinding, or soft law, instruments to enumerate 26 protected rights and also establishes a follow-up mechanism to monitor the implementation of the commitments under the Convention, which includes a reporting procedure and the ability of individuals to submit petitions alleging violations of the Convention to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). See Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons (adopted 15 June 2015, will enter into force January 2017), A-70. Read more