Victims of ‘vulnerability’: Balancing protection, privacy and participation of child victims in X and Others v. Bulgaria

By Prof. Dr. Ton Liefaard[*], Jessica Valentine (LL.M)[†] and Lisanne van Dijck[‡]

‘This is a sad case’ begins the joint partly concurring and partly dissenting opinion of Judge Spano and others in the case of X and others v. Bulgaria. The judgment, delivered by a Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 2 February 2021, certainly concerns sad circumstances: three children (siblings) were abandoned by their mother and placed in an orphanage in Bulgaria where they were allegedly victims of sexual abuse before being adopted by an Italian couple. The separate opinion notes the case concerns ‘some of the most vulnerable of applicants that have come before this Court’. The applicants allege that, following their claim that they had been subjected to sexual abuse at the orphanage, the Bulgarian authorities failed in their positive obligation to protect them against that treatment and in their obligation to conduct an effective investigation into those allegations.

In a divided judgment, the Grand Chamber ultimately found that the Bulgarian authorities had breached their procedural obligation under Article 3 of the ECHR, which requires authorities to conduct an effective investigation into arguable claims of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. Although the Bulgarian authorities had taken a series of investigative steps, the Grand Chamber ultimately found that these had not met the required level of ‘effectiveness’. One of the reasons for this was a failure to take any steps to involve the victims in the investigation (§208). In its interpretation of Article 3, the Grand Chamber took into account other applicable international instruments and in particular the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (the ‘Lanzarote Convention’).

The joint separate opinion by Judge Spano and others suggests that the majority’s desire to respond to the applicants’ ‘sad story’ leads it astray (§2). The decision, according to this opinion, potentially exposes future child victims to excessively intrusive and unreliable investigative measures (ibid). We argue below that the dissenters’ reading risks overlooking the procedural rights of children.

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