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European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

The European Convention on Human Rights was signed in Rome under the aegis of the Council of Europe on 4 November 1950. It established an unprecedented system of international protection for human rights, whereby individuals received the possibility of applying to the courts for the enforcement of their rights. The Convention, which has been ratified by all Member States of the Union, established a number of supervisory bodies based in Strasbourg. These were:

  • a Commission responsible for advance examination of applications from States or from individuals;
  • a European Court of Human Rights, to which cases were referred by the Commission or by a Member State following a report by the Commission (in the case of a judicial settlement);
  • a Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which acted as the guardian of the ECHR and was called upon to secure a political settlement of a dispute where a case was not brought before the Court.

The growing number of cases made it necessary to reform the supervisory arrangements established by the Convention. The supervisory bodies were thus replaced on 1 November 1998 by a single European Court of Human Rights. The simplified structure shortened the length of procedures and enhanced the judicial character of the system.

The idea of the European Union acceding to the ECHR has often been raised. However, in an opinion given on 28 March 1996, the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that the European Communities could not accede to the Convention because the EC Treaty did not provide any powers to lay down rules or to conclude international agreements on human rights.

The Treaty of Amsterdam nevertheless calls for respect for the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Convention, while formalising the judgments of the Court of Justice on the matter. As regards relations between the two Courts, the practice developed by the Court of Justice of incorporating the principles of the Convention into Union law has made it possible to maintain their independence and coherence in their work.

As of the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon on 1 December 2009, the EU Treaty now provides the legal basis for the Union’s accession to the ECHR. This will allow EU law to be interpreted in light of the Convention, and improve the legal protection of EU citizens by extending the protection they enjoy from Member States to acts of the Union.

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