President of top European court says Turkey visit ‘learning experience’

Róbert Spanó, president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), said his September visit to Turkey had been a “learning experience,” speaking at the ECHR’s annual press conference in Strasbourg on Friday.

Responding to criticisms that he didn’t meet with Turkey’s some NGOs that requested time with him, Spanó said the ECHR will “continue to have a collaboration with the individual stakeholders,” but not during visits to member states.

“These visits for years have been organized in a particular fashion, they are meant primarily and primordially to discuss issues with the national authorities and the national judiciaries,” Spanó said.

The ECHR president cited time constraints during short visits to explain why he didn’t arrange for visits with NGOs in Turkey.

Instead, the ECHR has and will continue to invite NGOs to conferences to be held on the court’s campus, Spanó said. To this year’s biannual conference, the court has “already intimated to Turkish non-governmental organisations that they will be invited to come to the court, with others, to discuss matters of mutual concern.”

“It is incumbent on the court to assess that fact,” Spanó said, if the ECHR’s current way of handling issues becomes a cause for concern.

“Because the most important element for a court of law is to retain -always- the appearance and the actuality of independence and impartiality,” he continued. “The fact that a president of the court visits a member state has never – and can’t be a basis to call into question the independence and impartiality of the court or the president himself.”

During his visit, Spanó had received an honorary doctorate from Istanbul University, one of Turkey’s oldest higher education institutions that has been tainted in recent years due to a brutal purge of some 200 academics as part of the government’s crackdown on dissent in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

Spanó had also visited the southeastern Mardin province during his visit. In Mardin he visited a religious high school, championed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but didn’t meet with anybody from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Critics said at the time that the ECHR president should have met with representatives from the opposition to at least discuss high-profile ECHR cases involving Turkey.

In his speech at the press event, Spanó said democracy, independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law had been increasingly called into question at “both the European and global levels.”

According to the president, 70 percent of cases pending before the court came from four countries: Russia, with 13,650 cases; Turkey, with 11,750 cases; Ukraine, with 10,400 cases; and Romania, with 7,550 cases.

Spanó stressed the “binding and unequivocal obligation of each Council of Europe member state to implement ECHR judgments,” adding that compliance was fundamental to the system and “crystal clear” from a legal point of view.