By William Horsley
But its future is now the subject of a highly sensitive debate that is also seen as a litmus test of Russia’s long-term commitment to human rights and democracy.
The court’s 10,000 rulings have held member states to account for unlawful killings, stifling freedom of expression and a host of other abuses – to the acute discomfort of the countries involved.
All 47 members of the Council of Europe have incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights in their national laws, accepting that the court’s rulings are final and must be obeyed.
The court sees itself as “the conscience of Europe”.
But its machinery for delivering human rights justice is badly clogged up. A record 120,000 cases are waiting to be dealt with, and the backlog is growing all the time.
Commonly it takes six years or more after a case is registered for a judgement to be made.
Critics say that justice delayed is justice denied, and the system is in crisis.
Race for reform
Judge Francoise Tulkens from Belgium, one of the most experienced of the 47 national judges, says it is natural that the case load has grown as the population of Council of Europe member states has expanded to 800 million.
So what is the real problem? Judge Tulkens says it is the persistent failure of some countries to implement the court’s rulings about basic human rights standards, as they have pledged.
States’ behaviour in response to fears about terrorism has also made the work of the court “more difficult”.
Observers now see the court’s mounting problems as a race to get quick agreement on reforms and to win genuine acceptance of the rules by Russia, which joined the Council of Europe in 1996.
Russia faces the largest number of cases pending before the court – 28% of the total.
And for the past three years Russia alone has blocked a package of reforms – which the other member states have ratified – to streamline the court’s procedures.
The reforms, known as Protocol 14, would cut down the number of judges on panels charged with deciding issues such as the admissibility of cases.
They would also usher in new rules to ensure that states implement fundamental changes to national laws or practices ordered by the court.
Experts say the changes would speed up the handling of cases by up to 25%.
But in December 2006 the Russian parliament, the Duma, refused to ratify Protocol 14.
Vladimir Putin, the then Russian president, blamed the decision on what he called the “politicisation” of some court judgements against Russia.
The president of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, Rene van der Linden, responded firmly that if the Strasbourg court rules in favour of a citizen whose claim has not been satisfied in the courts of his country, that should be seen as a decision to protect the citizen, not an attack on the state concerned.
More than 120 judgements against Russia relate to severe human rights abuses in Chechnya, such as extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances. All concern events from 2003 or earlier.
Karinna Moskalenko is a lawyer who represents claimants in some high-profile cases against the Russian state, including the family of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
In March this year Ms Moskalenko won a case concerning “zachistka” operations by security forces to clear an area of supposed terrorists.
The complaint – Khalitova v Russia – was brought by the widow of a man shot dead by Russian soldiers six years ago while gathering wood outside his village in Chechnya.
In that judgement, as often before, the court also found Russia in violation for failing to provide effective remedies for the complaint in is own courts.
The point reflects Judge Tulkens’ diagnosis, that for Europe’s human-rights-protection system to work well, national courts must implement the general measures contained in rulings from the court.
The court’s dilemma will soon be the focus of close international attention.
A conference in February next year in the Swiss town of Interlaken will draw up a “roadmap” for strengthening the court’s defence of human rights.
Intense contacts with Russia are under way, and there are quiet hopes that it might at last ratify the Protocol 14 reforms.
President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken of the need to end “legal nihilism” and bolster the independence of the courts in Russia.
Senior court officials are adamant that Russia is not being singled out for criticism. Turkey, Romania and Ukraine also stand out for the high number of complaints made by their own citizens.
This year, 16 states took a lead by adopting an interim set of reforms, called Protocol 14 bis, pending more ambitious reforms.
Global political tensions may yet intrude.
In January, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly is likely to debate a new resolution to withdraw Russia’s membership credentials over its actions in the breakaway parts of Georgia and its failure to comply with last year’s ceasefire agreement.
The head of the Russian delegation, Konstantin Kosachev, has said Russia could leave the Council of Europe if such a motion were adopted.
On the eve of International Human Rights Day (10 December) it appears that the future of Europe’s unique system of upholding human rights standards backed by a powerful court of law, the European Court of Human Rights, is at stake.