Minority associations win repeated victories in Strasbourg but will Greece ever comply with the relevant judgments? – Part I

by | Jul 1, 2022

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About Stephanos Stavros

Stephanos Stavros is a human-rights lawyer who has worked for the ECtHR and other Strasbourg-based monitoring mechanisms, including the ECnHR where he dealt with the Home of Macedonian Civilisation case. The views expressed are, of course, personal.

Image Description: A picture of the Strasbourg Court

Like any other European state, Greece is home to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. That their members complain – domestically and in Strasbourg – about “the way they have been treated” should come as no surprise to any seasoned human-rights observer and cannot, per se, constitute a stain on the country’s reputation. It is rather Greece’s reaction to a series of ECtHR rulings finding a violation of Article 11 ECHR (freedom of assembly and association) that gives cause to worry. Not only does this reaction (largely dictated by a narrow understanding of the ‘national interest’) risk harming the country’s standing in a key multilateral forum, the CoE, where it should be holding the high moral ground. It could also contribute to undermining “our” regional human-rights system’s overall credibility, at a critical moment in its history. And this would clearly be a loss for everyone.

The first ECtHR ruling condemning Greece in an Article 11 minority case, Sidiropoulos and Others, dates to 1998. It concerned the turning down by the Greek courts (in ex parte proceedings) of a request to “register” an association (of Greek citizens of Slavic descent living in the Greek province of Macedonia) called the Home of Macedonian Civilisation. The CoE CM rather generously attributed the Article 11 breach to an “isolated error” and considered that “disseminating” Sidiropoulos and Others among national judges was enough for Article 46 ECHR purposes (this being the provision that renders Strasbourg judgments binding and entrusts the CM with the supervision of their implementation). However, the above awareness-raising efforts, quite obviously, bore no fruit and, soon afterwards, the Greek courts turned down a second request for the registration of the same association. This, of course, led to a second Greek defeat in Strasbourg in 2015. The CM had to start another (formally new) round of supervision, but since 2019 the case lies dormant. This is when its fate was somehow linked to that of a set of applications concerning the non-registration or disbandment of Turkish-minority associations in Greek Thrace, which had resulted in three more Strasbourg convictions for Greece in 2007 and 2008 (Bekir-Ousta and Others, Emin and Others and Turkish Union of Thrace and Others).

The Turkish associations cases have been pending in the CM for 14 years now. Enforcing the relevant judgments has become a true headache for the ECHR system. The CM has issued two interim resolutions – in 2014 and 2021 – warning Greece of the potential effects of non-implementation. And the ECtHR has rejected two new complaints (applications No. 55557/12 and 73646/13 and No. 7050/14) about the refusal of the Greek authorities to put matters right (on the ground that these are questions for the CM; cf., however, Stoyanov and Tabakov (no. 2)). The latest CM decision (adopted in June 2022) has been prompted by the fifth judgment of the Greek Court of Cassation (CoC) in the case of the disbanded association, the Turkish Union of Thrace. By this judgment (dated 29.6.21) the CoC refused to reopen ex parte proceedings leading to the union’s dissolution despite the enactment by Parliament of law no. 4491/2017 with the express purpose of making this possible (infra).

As the CM observes, there is little in the CoC judgment that has not been already examined by the ECtHR. In fact, contrary to what the CoC thinks, there are Turks in Greek Thrace. The Muslim minority there (also protected by the 1923 Lausanne treaty) is composed, according to all serious accounts including that of the Greek MFA, of persons of Turkish ethnic origin (i.e. Turks), Slavs (called Pomaks) and Roma. The fact that some of its members (prompted or aided by Turkey) wish to portray the minority as a monolithic group, identifying itself as Turkish, which is moreover subject to human-rights violations, may not justify repressive measures in a democratic society. Similarly, a Turkish minority NGO should be allowed to promote a Kemalist (secular) ideology and exclude from its membership those who do not agree (see Vlahov v. Croatia). And Muslims who do not consider themselves Turks or do not share the Kemalist ideology may form other associations. In short, none of the above CoC arguments holds water considering what the ECtHR has found in Bekir-Ousta, Emin and Turkish Union of Thrace.

See Part II of the post here.

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