European Human Rights Law and Estonia: One- or Two-way Street?

Author:Julia Laffranque

The article discusses the impact of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘the Convention’) and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights on Estonian law. It gives historical background on the ratification of the Convention and its protocols by Estonia and describes the status of the Convention in the Estonian legal order. It then shows in more detail the impact of the case law of the Strasbourg Court on Estonia’s legislature, executive power, and judiciary and examines the case law pertaining in particular to the historical past, deprivation of liberty, prison conditions, fair trial and length of proceedings, retroactivity, and lack of foreseeability of criminal law, along with the case law on pluralism and civil rights, especially freedom of expression. In addition, the article focuses on the important issue of reopening of a case on national level once the European Court of Human Rights has... (see full summary)

Julia Laffranque
Judge, European Court of Human Rights
Professor of European Law, University of Tartu
European Human Rights
Law and Estonia:
One- or Two-way Street?
1. Historical background: Rati cation of
the convention and its protocols by Estonia
After re-gaining its independence in 1991, Estonia was eager to con rm the country’s historical belonging to
Europe and opened itself up to a democratisation process. All efforts were taken in order to return Estonia
to the family of democratic states governed by the rule of law and again join the international community,
including the Council of Europe (on 14 May 1993) and later on the EU (on 1 May 2004). European human
rights law as understood for the purpose of this article is above all the European Convention on Human
Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Convention) and the case law of the European Court of Human
Rights (the Court, the Strasbourg Court) in applying and interpreting it.
Lennart Meri, President of Estonia in 1992–2001, in the rst years of the re-established Republic of
Estonia (in the 1990s) pointedly warned that if we do not build a state governed by the rule of law, Estonia
will be as lonely as the Moon rotating around the Earth.*1
Estonia rati ed the Convention on 13 March 1996 and it became binding for Estonia as of 16 April 1996.
A reservation to the Convention was made by the Government of Estonia regarding Article 1 of Protocol No.
1 of the Convention as far as Estonian laws on property reform are concerned. The reservation turned out
to be a pragmatic choice, because in Estonia some property-reform-related issues are many years later still
not solved. In its decision in the case Shestjorkin v. Estonia,*2 which concerned the restitution of nation-
alised property, the Court examined Estonia’s reservation and found that it satis ed the requirements of
the Convention. The European Commission of Human Rights had already held the reservation applicable
and the application inadmissible in another Estonian property reform case.*3 Despite this reservation, the
case law of the national judiciary, especially of the Supreme Court and its Administrative Law Chamber, has
followed the principles of rule of law and found them to be applicable also in often both factually and legally
very complicated cases of privatisation. On the other hand, the Court has even without going necessarily
into the substance of the Estonian reservation accepted that the national authorities enjoyed a wide margin
of appreciation in regulating ownership relations that involved large-scale economic and legal reforms and
that the national authorities succeeded in striking a fair balance between the proprietary interests of the
persons concerned.*4
1 Available online at:
2 Shestjorkin v. Estonia, [dec.] No. 49450/99, 15 June 2000.
3 Vesterby v. Estonia, No. 34476/97, 1 July 1998.
4 See Poder and Others v. Estonia, [dec.] No. 67723/01, 26 April 2005.

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