GoJIL Vol. 12, No. 1 (2022)
Of Dark Clouds and Their Silver Linings: Crisis as Opportunity in the Economic and Social Rights Jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights
Caroline Omari Lichuma
We live in a world in crisis.
These crises are experienced globally, regionally, by individual States and mostly by individuals themselves. Despite our differences, we are all united by crisis. However, adopting a regional outlook, this paper focuses on Europe, which, like much of the rest of the world, has in recent times been buffeted by multiple crises ranging from the financial and economic crisis that begun in 2008, to the climate change crisis, to the migrant and refugee crisis, to the Brexit crisis, to the COVID-19 pandemic that has rocked the entire globe. In times of crisis, it is commonplace to turn to legal and institutional frameworks in the hopes of finding some reprieve. Within Europe, one such institution is the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). This Court, also known as the Strasbourg court, was established in 1959 under Article 19 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Despite its primarily Civil and Political Rights (CPRs) mandate, the ECtHR has in numerous cases proven to be fertile ground for planting the seeds of Economic and Social Rights (ESRs) protection, which is/was inevitable, given the widely accepted indivisible, interdependent and interrelated nature of all human rights, whether CPRs or ESRs. The ECtHR explicates that “the Convention is a living instrument which […] must be interpreted in the light of present-day conditions.” In the present day conditions of numerous crises that have only exacerbated the already precarious conditions of numerous vulnerable rightsholders in the family of European States, the question then becomes what jurisprudential trends, prospects and pitfalls exist for the ECtHR in its dynamic interpretation of the ECHR to include ESRs. In seeking answers to this question, this paper analyzes the ESRs jurisprudence of the ECtHR with the intention of illuminating how the Court has, and ought to utilize its institutional role as an enforcer of human rights in general and ESRs in particular in the quest to mitigate the effects on rightsholders, of the crises being experienced within Europe. At the heart of this inquiry lies the assertion that in line with the ECtHR’s ESRs jurisprudence thus far, which evinces a willingness on the part of the Court to vindicate ESRs in order to bring these rights to life for the vulnerable rightsholders who need them the most, the myriad crises currently plaguing Europe continue to create opportunities for the ECtHR to craft a principled and consistent ESRs jurisprudence while simultaneously respecting the margin of appreciation enjoyed by the respective European States. This paper does not analyze State responses under Article 15 of the ECHR, which specifically allows the High Contracting Parties to derogate from their obligations under the Convention in times of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation. Rather, the analysis will be restricted to the ESRs jurisprudence of the ECtHR in times of the specific crises outlined below and where the States in question have not made an Article 15 derogation. The paper will proceed in three parts. Part A will give a brief overview of how the ECtHR has vindicated ESRs through its interpretation of the primarily CPRs found in the ECHR. Part B will thereafter briefly analyze three specific crises that have shaped the more recent ESRs jurisprudence of the Court: the financial and economic crisis, the migrant and refugee crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, Part C will offer some tentative recommendations on the way forward, arguing that while some progress has been made by the ECtHR in centering ESRs as a very necessary part of its response to contemporary European and global crises, the battle is far from won.
European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR); Economic and Social Rights (ESRs); Crisis
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