What future for settlements and undertakings in international human rights resolution?

By Nino Jomarjidze and Philip Leach

Resolving problems through settlements and by eliciting undertakings from governments has become a significant feature of the Strasbourg landscape. At the European Court of Human Rights (the Court), the use of friendly settlements (agreed confidentially between the parties) has been on the increase. So too, for ‘unilateral declarations’ (UD) which are utilised by the Court to resolve cases on terms put forward by the government, and which are deemed acceptable by the Court, even in the absence of agreement from the applicant. In 2018, more than 3,000 cases were resolved either by settlement or by UD, a 34% increase from the previous year. Within that figure, the number of priority cases resolved in this way more than doubled in the same period. Indeed, in 2019 the ECtHR is trialling a new non-contentious phase in its proceedings, which means that when a government is notified of a case, the parties will have an initial 12 week friendly settlement phase, followed by a 12 week contentious phase. More than that, the Court registry will itself usually make a friendly settlement proposal setting out suggested terms.

Such alternative forms of dispute resolution have been relatively under-explored and deserve further scrutiny. A common feature of both friendly settlements and UDs is that governments will provide undertakings to take remedial steps, which become binding under international law. Their significant potential is reflected in the fact that such undertakings can go further than the ECtHR itself would go in its judgments. But whose job is it to assess whether an undertaking has been met, and what happens when governments do not comply? The Committee of Ministers (CM) has a supervision role vis-à-vis friendly settlements, but will rarely monitor UDs – only when they are incorporated into a judgment of the Court, rather than a decision. Continue reading