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Gasparini v Italy and Belgium, App. No. 10750/03, Admissibility Decision, European Court of Human Rights, 12 May 2009

Tobias Lock

Relevance of the case

Gasparini is relevant in that it extended the Bosphorus presumption to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).1 It also refined the requirement that the violation must have occurred within the jurisdiction of the member state by introducing the notion of a ‘structural lacuna’.

I. Facts

The applicant was an employee of the NATO. He had brought proceedings before the NATO Appeal Board (NAB) concerning an increase in his pension contributions, which he contested. These proceedings remained unsuccessful. Before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) the applicant did not challenge the substantive outcome of the proceedings but complained that the procedure before the NAB was incompatible with art. 6(1) European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees a fair trial. He claimed in particular that the proceedings had not been held in public even though art. 6(1) ECHR expressly stipulates that everyone is entitled to a public hearing. He also claimed that the members of the NAB were not impartial as they had been chosen by the North Atlantic Council, the decision making body of NATO.

II. The legal question

The main legal questions in this case were whether the alleged violation of the ECHR stemming from the NAB’s rules of procedure were attributable to the respondent states given that none of their institutions had been involved in the case at hand and, if so, whether the presumption formulated in Bosphorus was applicable to NATO.

III. Excerpts

The Court recalled its decisions in Bosphorus v Ireland2 and Behrami and Behrami v France and Saramati v France, Germany, and Norway[1] [2] [3] before embarking on a discussion whether the Bosphorus presumption could be applied.4 It held:

La Cour constate quen lespece, contrairement a la situation dans les affaires Boivin et Connolly precitees, le requerant allegue expressement que le mecanisme de reglement des conflits du travail interne a l’OTAN n’accorde pas aux droits fondamentaux une protection « equivalente » a celle assuree par la Convention. En effet, l’interesse conteste des caracteristiques intrinseques a ce systeme, a savoir l’absence de publicite des debats devant la Commission de recours de l’OTAN, prevue par l’article 4.71 de l’annexe IX au reglement applicable, ainsi que la procedure de nomination des membres de cette Commission telle que decrite par l’article 4.11 du meme instrument (voir la partie « Droit international pertinent » ci-dessus). Des lors, contrairement aux affaires Boivin et Connolly, ou il n’y avait pas lieu de se livrer a un tel examen puisque les requerants mettaient en cause, non pas une lacune structurelle du mecanisme interne concerne, mais une decision particuliere prise par l’organe competent de l’organisation internationale en cause, la Cour considere qu’il lui faut rechercher si le mecanisme de regle- ment des conflits conteste dans la presente affaire, a savoir la voie de recours devant la CROTAN, est entache d’une « insuffisance manifeste », ce qui renverserait en lespece la presomption de respect par les Etats defendeurs de leurs obligations au titre de la Convention.

La Cour estime qu’elle doit examiner la question en tenant compte des principes developpes dans sa jurisprudence concernant les juridictions nationales des Etats defendeurs. A cet egard, elle observe cependant que son controle en vue de determiner si la procedure devant la CROTAN, organe d’une organisation internationale ayant une personnalite juridique propre et non partie a la Convention, est entachee d’une insuffisance manifeste est necessairement moins ample que le controle qu’elle exerce au regard de l’article 6 sur les procedures devant les juridictions internes des Etats membres de la Convention, lesquels se sont obliges a en respecter les dispositions. Pour la Cour, il lui faut en realite determiner si, au moment ou ils ont adhere a l’OTAN et lui ont transfere certains pouvoirs souverains, les Etats defendeurs ont pu, de bonne foi, estimer que le mecanisme de reglement des conflits du travail interne a l’OTAN n’etait pas en contradiction flagrante avec les dispositions de la Convention.

Quant au grief relatif a la publicite des debats, la Cour a rappele a de nombreuses reprises dans sa jurisprudence relative aux procedures devant les juridictions nation- ales des pays membres que la tenue d’une audience publique constitue un principe fondamental consacre par l’article 6 § 1. Cela etant, cette disposition n’exige pas necessairement la tenue d’une audience dans toutes les procedures. [...]

Quant a la presente affaire, la Cour constate que l’article 4.71 de l’annexe IX au reglement du personnel civil de l’OTAN prevoit expressement que « les seances de la Commission de recours ne sont pas publiques ». Cette disposition est cependant fortement nuancee par l’article suivant, qui dispose que les parties au litige peuvent « assister aux debats et developper oralement tous arguments a l’appui des moyens invoques dans leurs memoires [ainsi que] se faire assister ou representer a cet effet soit par un membre du personnel civil ou militaire de l’OTAN soit par un conseil choisi par eux ». De maniere generale, la Cour observe que la CROTAN a a connaltre du contentieux du travail entre les instances dirigeantes de l’OTAN et le personnel civil employe par cette organisation. Il s’agit donc de litiges en matiere civile qui, en general, portent sur des questions d’ordre technique et exigent une decision rapide, ainsi que l’illustre du reste l’affaire du requerant dans laquelle celui-ci contestait l’augmentation du taux de sa contribution au regime de pensions des agents de l’OTAN. Enfin, la Cour releve que, dans sa decision du 4 septembre 2002 deboutant le requerant, la CROTAN a justifie l’absence de caractere public des debats par la necessite d’« en preserver la serenite dans le contexte specifique d’une organisation telle que l’OTAN (...) ».

Au vu de l’ensemble de ces elements, la Cour estime que les deux Etats defendeurs, au moment ou ils ont approuve le reglement sur le personnel civil, ont pu conside- rer a bon droit que le type d’affaires dont la CROTAN a a connaitre pouvaient etre examinees et tranchees par elle de maniere adequate dans le cadre de la procedure prevue par le reglement applicable, et, qu’eu egard a l’ensemble des dispositions de ce reglement, notamment a l’article 4.72 precite, les exigences d’equite etaient satisfaites sans la tenue d’une audience publique. Sans examiner plus avant le cas d’espece, elle releve qu’il ressort de la decision de la CROTAN et des autres elements du dossier que l’absence de publicite n’a en rien nui a l’equite de l’ensemble de la procedure.

Quant au grief du requerant tenant a la partialite alleguee des membres de la Commission, la Cour remarque d’emblee, a la lecture de l’article 4.11 du reglement pertinent que les trois membres de la CROTAN, qui sont designes pour trois ans par le Conseil de l’Atlantique Nord, doivent etre des personnes entierement exterieures a l’OTAN et dont la competence est « etablie ». Elle observe par ailleurs que, contraire- ment a ce qu’affirme le requerant, il ressort clairement de l’article 4.21 que les recours soumis a la CROTAN doivent etre diriges contre des decisions des chefs des organ- ismes de l’OTAN, qu’ils appliquent ou non des decisions du Conseil de l’Atlantique Nord (voir la partie « Droit international pertinent » ci-dessus). Dans la decision dont le requerant fait grief en l’espece, la CROTAN rappelle d’ailleurs expressement qu’elle « ne peut connaitre directement d’une decision du Conseil de l’Atlantique Nord ». La Cour observe par ailleurs que tout requerant peut, conformement a l’article 4.16 de l’annexe IX au reglement sur le personnel civil, invoquer une presomption de par- tialite et demander que la composition de la Commission de recours soit modifiee. Elle constate a titre incident que le requerant ne s’est prevalu, a aucun moment, de cette possibilite au cours de la procedure devant la Commission. Quoi qu’il en soit, elle considere ici aussi que, eu egard a l’ensemble des dispositions reglementaires per- tinentes, les deux Etats defendeurs ont pu juger au moment de l’adoption du reglement applicable que celui-ci instituait un tribunal conforme aux exigences posees par l’article 6.

Compte tenu de ce qui precede, la Cour estime que les deux Etats mis en cause ont pu a bon droit considerer, au moment ou ils ont approuve le reglement sur le personnel civil et ses annexes par l’intermediaire de leurs representants permanents siegeant au Conseil de l’Atlantique Nord, que les dispositions regissant la procedure devant la CROTAN satisfaisaient aux exigences du proces equitable. Aucun element susceptible de contredire ce constat n’a ete porte a la connaissance de la Cour. Elle en conclut que la protection offerte au requerant en l’espece par le mecanisme de reglement interne des conflits de l’OTAN n’etait donc pas entachee d’une « insuffisance manifeste » au sens donne a ce terme dans l’arret Bosphorus, particulierement dans le contexte specifique d’une organisation telle que l’OTAN. Des lors, elle considere que le requerant n’est pas fonde a faire grief a l’ltalie et a la Belgique d’avoir souscrit a un systeme contraire a la Convention, et que la presomption de respect de celle-ci par ces deux Etats n’a pas ete renversee.

IV. Commentary

A remarkable aspect of Gasparini is that it was the first judgment in which the Court was willing to hold Convention parties responsible for an act by an international organization with members that are not bound by the Convention. The USA and Canada are not bound by the Convention, but the alleged procedural deficit in the Staff Rules of NATO would be attributable to them as well. If the Court had found a violation of the Convention, it would thus have held these countries indirectly responsible for the violation of a human rights treaty to which they are not parties. This would have raised interesting issues concerning the extraterritoriality of the Convention.

However, the true significance of the Gasparini judgment lies elsewhere. Despite its brevity, it is a decision which is difficult to follow as it is neither well-drafted nor well-reasoned. It is significant for the manner in which it applies the Bosphorus presumption to an organization that is not the EU. Furthermore, it introduces important distinctions regarding the requirement of state involvement as a precondition for an alleged violation to have arisen within the jurisdiction of the respondent state.

A. Application of the Bosphorus case-law

It is recalled that in Bosphorus the ECtHR considered the responsibility of a member state of the EU for state action triggered by its obligations under EU law. The Court introduced a rebuttable presumption that a member state has complied with its obligations under the Convention provided that the organization itself ensures a protection of fundamental rights equivalent to what the Convention requires and if that member state had no discretion when carrying out its obligations. The presumption can only be rebutted if this protection was manifestly deficient.[4]

The Court’s extension of the Bosphorus presumption to NATO came as a surprise. While it must be admitted that in Bosphorus the Court had deliberately not restricted the presumption to the EU by making repeated references to international organizations in general, it must be considered that it was adopted very much in recognition of the EU’s supranational character and the high level of human rights protection afforded by the CJEU (cf. discussion on Bosphorus). This is also evident from subsequent decisions concerning the applicability of the presumption. In particular, in Michaud the Court seemed to consider it as almost indispensable that the ECJ had made a ruling in the same case and approved of the measure at hand.[5] There has hitherto been not much evidence of the fact that NATO offers an equivalent protection to what is required by the ECHR, yet the Court seemed to take this as a given. Interestingly, in a more recent decision the

Court refused to extend the presumption to the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Regime.[6]

Apart from the question whether it is appropriate to extend Bosphorus to NATO, the Court’s decision was doctrinally unsound in that the Court did not fully apply the two stages of the Bosphorus test. Rather, the Court only considered the second stage of the test concerning the rebuttal of the presumption by asking whether in the present case the mechanism for conflict resolution was manifestly deficient. At no point in the judgment did the Court state that NATO generally offers a protection equivalent to that offered by the Convention. This is striking as the test of whether there was a manifestly deficient protection is designed to be a difficult one to meet. As the Court made it clear in Bosphorus, it requires a dysfunction of the mechanisms of control of the observance of Convention rights.[7] [8] Such a high threshold is only justified where the organization normally offers an equivalent protection, so that the ECtHR can relax the intensity of its oversight. Only then can the ECtHR tolerate deficiencies in the human rights protection, which are not manifest. When establishing that the EU offered such an equivalent protection in Bosphorus, the ECtHR argued at length that this was the case (see discussion of Bosphorus case). No such argument was made in Gasparini.

Moreover, the Court seems to have ignored the more general principle of responsibility of members of an international organization formulated in Matthews v United Kingdom.9 It is recalled that Bosphorus is only applicable to secondary EU legislation and only where the member state has no discretion. The main reason why the Bosphorus presumption does not apply to violations originating in the EU Treaties itself is that there is no judicial remedy against them under EU law. The ECJ only has jurisdiction to declare acts of secondary EU law to be incompatible with the EU’s founding Treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Considering that there is no possibility to challenge the Staff Rules of NATO within NATO, the Court ought to have applied the Matthews doctrine whereby it has full jurisdiction to review whether the rule complained of is in violation of the Convention.

In addition, Gasparini seems to introduce a different rationale for the Bosphorus presumption. The Court stated that it would have to determine in reality if the defendant states, when joining NATO, were able to consider in good faith that the internal mechanism for the solution of labour conflicts was not in flagrant contradiction to the Convention. This suggests that it would no longer be necessary that the human rights protection provided by an international organization is actually equivalent to that under the Convention at the time of the alleged violation, but rather that the test would be whether at the moment of joining an organization, the Convention Parties concerned had acted in good faith. The crucial time for the Court’s assessment thus seemed to be the moment of accession to NATO. However, this is in contradiction to Bosphorus, where the Court clearly assumed that the crucial time for the Court’s assessment of whether the presumption applies is the time of the alleged violation and not the time of accession to the organization. Whether or not a member state had bona fide considered that the protection offered would not be in violation of the Convention should thus not determine the applicability of the presumption.

B. The requirement of state involvement

A further important aspect of the Gasparini decision concerns the requirement of state involvement in order to satisfy art. 1 ECHR, which contains a threshold requirement limiting the applicability of Convention rights to persons within the jurisdiction of one of the contracting states.10 It is argued here that the Court’s finding of state involvement in Gasparini has made this area of the case law even more complex. A brief overview of some cases preceding and some cases following Gasparini follows to demonstrate this point.

The Court distinguished Gasparini from two of its earlier decisions, Boivin v 34 Member States of the Council of Europe11 and Connolly v 15 Member States of the EU.12 Boivin was an employee of Eurocontrol, an international organization of which the thirty- four respondent states were members. He complained of his removal from the post of head accountant before the International Labour Organization Administrative Tribunal, which had jurisdiction to hear the case. Claiming violations of arts, 6, 13, and 14 ECHR he alleged a number of procedural violations, such as inequality of arms, lack of an effective examination of his claim, and insufficient reasoning in the judgment. His case remained unsuccessful. The ECtHR distinguished the case from Bosphorus because ‘[a]t no time did [the respondent states] intervene directly or indirectly in the dispute, and no act or omission of those States or their authorities can be considered to engage their responsibility under the Convention’. It held that the applicant’s complaints were directed against the decision of the Administrative Tribunal and not against a measure by the respondent states so that the applicant could not be considered to have been ‘within the jurisdiction’ of these states for the purposes of art. 1 ECHR/3 The Court thus established a requirement of state involvement in order to be able to hold a member state of an international organization responsible for the acts and omissions of that organization.

Connolly confirmed this approach in respect of member states of the EU and with regard to a court which is an institution of the organization. Connolly had been dismissed from his post as an official of the European Commission for having published a book that was highly critical of the European Monetary Union and its underlying political motivation. He unsuccessfully took his case to the EU’s courts before complaining to the ECtHR.14 He argued that in the proceedings before the Court of Justice he should have been allowed to respond to the submissions of the Advocate General.

‘0 It is phrased: ‘The High Contracting Parties shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention.’

11 App. No. 73250/01, 9 September 2008. 12 App. No. 73274/01, 9 December 2009.

'3 cf. Boivin (n. 11).

14 cf. Case T-203/95 Bernard Connolly v Commission of the European Communities [1999] ECR II-443; Case C-273/99 P Bernard Connolly v Commission of the European Communities [2001] ECR I-1575.

The ECtHR ruled that the alleged violation could not be attributed to the member states since the applicant had not been in their jurisdiction as art. 1 ECHR requires. It is thus clear from Connolly that for a member state to be responsible for violations of the ECHR rooted in EU law, there has to be member state action (the approach in Connolly and Boivin was later confirmed in Rambus Inc. v Germany15 and Beygo v 46 Member States of the Council of Europe).16

The requirement of state involvement is an important clarification of the basic tenets of Matthews, the leading case in this field (cf. chapter 6.3 on the Matthews case). In Matthews the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber had held that parties to the ECHR were allowed to transfer competences to international organizations, but that their responsibility continued after such a transfer/7 By considering some degree of state involvement as a requirement for this responsibility to arise, Boivin and Connolly created a gap in the protection of fundamental rights reminiscent of that in Behrami and Saramatil

Interestingly, in Gasparini the Court distinguished Boivin and Connolly and found sufficient state involvement. It drew a line between actual decisions by the organization and deficiencies in the protection of fundamental rights, rooted in a structural lacuna of the internal mechanism for conflict resolution. Where a structural lacuna exists, the violation is attributable to the member state. This distinction is very subtle and fails to fully convince given that the differences between the cases are minimal. For instance, Connolly could have also been interpreted to involve a structural lacuna in the procedure of the Court of Justice given that the Statute of the Court of Justice is part of EU primary law. In this connection it is an obvious flaw of Gasparini that the Court did not further define what it meant by a structural lacuna/9 It thus added considerable confusion to the case law in this area. It remained unclear what exact parameters would be used to determine the existence of state involvement.

Moreover, in drawing this distinction, the ECtHR failed to consider its earlier decision in Biret.20 In that case the Court had held that the lack of access to a court or tribunal before which directives could be directly challenged was due to an alleged deficit in the Community judicial order and thus could not be attributed to the respondent states. This should have been considered a structural lacuna so that Gasparini can hardly be squared with Biret. Moreover, as pointed out above, even if one accepted the approach in Gasparini, the further question of differentiating it from Matthews arises.

Gasparini has been cited in a number of subsequent decisions concerning the requirement of state involvement for an alleged violation to have occurred within the jurisdiction of the respondent state according to art. 1 ECHR. Chapman v Belgium concerned another labour dispute between NATO and one of its former employees. In contrast to Gasparini, Chapman brought his labour case before a Belgian court. For

‘5 App. No. 40382/04, 16 June 2009. ^ App. No. 36099/06, 16 June 2009.

!7 cf. Matthews v United Kingdom para. 32. 18 cf. ch. 6.6 on the Behrami case.

‘9 cf. C. Ryngaert, ‘The European Court of Human Rights’ approach to the responsibility of Member States in connection with acts of international organizations’ (2011) 60 International & Comparative Law Quarterly 997, 1005.

20 See Etahlissements Biret et CIE S.A. and Societe Biret International v 15 EU Member States App. No. 13762/0, 9 December 2008.

this reason, the Court was able to hold that ‘the impugned decision was taken by an organ of the respondent State, namely the Brussels Employment Appeal Tribunal’ so that there was sufficient state involvement to satisfy art. 1 ECHR.[9] [10] In a similar vein, the Court had decided in Kokkelvisserij that a request for a preliminary reference from a court of an EU member state was sufficient state involvement allowing the applicant to invoke deficits in the procedure before the CJEU.22 This suggested a rather low threshold for the requirement of state involvement. However, the Court did not consider the conclusion by The Netherlands of an agreement with the UN, that the headquarters of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia be based in The Hague, sufficient involvement to bring decisions of that tribunal within the jurisdiction of The Netherlands” A perhaps useful distinction from the former cases could be that there was no direct relationship between the fact that an international organization or court was based in a country and the decisions of that court, whereas both in Chapman and Kokkelvisserij the very case on which the complaint was based had been heard by a domestic court.

The preceding discussion has thus shown that the case-law on the responsibility of member states for violations of the Convention by international organizations is not yet fully settled. Moreover, the Court in Gasparini displayed some insecurity in the application of the Bosphorus presumption. It can only be hoped that the uncertainties and contradictions identified will be removed in the future.

  • [1] The author would like to thank Ariadne Panagopoulou for invaluable research assistance.
  • [2] App. No. 45036/98, ECHR 2005-VI. з [Gc] App. Nos. 71412/01; 78166/01 (2 May 2007).
  • [3] 4 cf. discussions in ch. 6 on the Bosphorus and Behrami cases.
  • [4] cf. Bosphorus v Ireland (n. 2), paras 155-7.
  • [5] cf. Michaud v France App. No. 12323/11, ECHR 2012; see also the discussion in ch. 6.5.
  • [6] cf. al-Dulimi and Montana Management Inc. v Switzerland App. No. 5809/08 (26 November 2013).
  • [7] cf. Bosphorus v Ireland (n. 2), para 166.
  • [8] App. No. 24833/94, ECHR 1999-I (cf. discussion in ch. 6.3).
  • [9] cf. Chapman v Belgium App. No. 39619/06, 5 March 2013, para. 44.
  • [10] cf. Kokkelvisserij v Netherlands App. No. 13645/05, 20 January 2009. 23 cf. Galic v Netherlands App. No. 22617/07, 9 June 2009, para. 46.
 
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