The European Court on Human Rights is considering whether to accept a case alleging that a 1999 NATO attack on state television in Belgrade violated basic human rights by killing 16 people there. But lawyers for the 17 NATO countries named in the lawsuit say the court does not have jurisdiction in the case.
Prague, 25 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Judges from the European Court on Human Rights began deliberations yesterday on whether to admit a complaint against NATO's European members over a cruise missile attack on Belgrade's RTS state television in April of 1999.
The case was brought by relatives of the 16 people who were killed in the missile strike, as well as one survivor of the attack. Lawyers for the group argue that all 17 countries violated their obligations under the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights by allowing the attack to occur.
The 23 April 1999 attack on the Belgrade offices of Radio-Television Serbia were part of NATO's air strikes against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict.
Shortly after the missile strike, NATO said the state broadcasting facility was a legitimate target because of its propaganda role in the conflict. But there have been doubts about the legality of the attack in the absence of a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council.
Roderick Liddell, a spokesman for the European Court on Human Rights, told RFE/RL today that judges in Strasbourg must first resolve the issue of jurisdiction before they can consider the merits of the case.
"The issue that was pleaded by the parties at yesterday's hearing was the admissibility of the application. That is to say, whether for the purposes of this case, the applicants fell within the jurisdiction of the [17 accused countries that have signed the European Human Rights Convention]."
Liddell said he expects a ruling within several weeks on whether the case will be accepted.
"What happens next is [that] the court will deliberate on this issue of admissibility and, within a few weeks, deliver a decision on that question. If the case is declared inadmissible, then that will be the end of the story. There are no further proceedings possible before this court. If, on the other hand, it is declared admissible, the court will go on to consider the merits of the case as to whether or not there were grounds for finding a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights."
One unusual aspect of the case is that those who have issued the complaint are not from a country that has signed the European Human Rights Convention. "At the time [of the attack], and this is still the case, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was not a contracting state of the European Convention of Human Rights."
But there are decisions that could serve as a precedent for the European Human Rights Convention to be applied. One such case involves Turkish troops in northern Cyprus.
Turkey has signed the European Human Rights Convention, and the Strasbourg court has issued a ruling that obliges Turkish forces in northern Cyprus to respect the convention.
What remains unclear is whether NATO's air strikes against Yugoslavia are, in themselves, enough to bring the case into the jurisdiction of the European court. It also remains unclear whether individual member states of NATO can be held legally responsible for acts committed by the alliance as a whole.
Liddell explains that NATO's two members from North America -- the United States and Canada -- have not been named in the latest legal action: "Canada and the United States are not contracting parties to the European Convention of Human Rights, and therefore, there can be no question of them coming within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights."
Lawyers for the Yugoslav petitioners said yesterday that they will not speak outside of the courtroom about the case until a ruling is issued. Britain is making legal submissions on behalf of the 17 NATO countries named in the suit. Those attorneys also have declined to make any immediate comment.