Looking Back at the Decade of Rule of Law Forums in South East Europe

(7th of November, 2023) The 10th Annual Rule of Law Forum is set to take place on November 10th and 11th, 2023, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over the past decade this  milestone event, established in 2014, has grown into a crucial platform for promoting the European Convention on Human Rights, encouraging regional judicial cooperation, and supporting the process of EU integration in South East Europe. 

Throughout this decade, the Rule of Law Forum has evolved, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of human rights and the rule of law. From deliberating the protections of judicial independence and impartiality, to timely discussions on safeguarding human rights in times of emergency, the Forum consistently focused on addressing critical issues at the core of the judiciary, making it one of the most important events of the year that gathers members of the judiciary, lawyers, legal practitioners, and NGOs in the region. 

But, how did we get here? Join us on a journey through time as we celebrate a decade of promoting the rule of law in South East Europe. 

The journey of the Rule of Law Forum began with a simple idea – to improve the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights in South East Europe. 

“Both the AIRE Centre and Civil Rights Defenders were deeply involved in promoting the Convention. Civil Rights Defenders was dedicated to translating entire judgments and creating thematic publications, while the AIRE Centre took on the role of creating summaries of judgments, maintaining a database, and more”, said Goran Miletić, Director for Europe and MENA at Civil Rights Defenders.

“However, we realised that there was still a problem when it came to the users of our materials. With their day-to-day work, many people did not have sufficient time to read lengthy judgments and find essential information. This led us to search for innovative ways to promote the Convention, making it accessible and interactive for stakeholders in the region, including legal practitioners and experts”, explained Miletić.

“We founded the regional Rule of Law Forum back in 2014, and we had three key objectives. First one was to facilitate national implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Second, help countries in the region in the process of the EU integration by helping them to fulfil rule of law criteria. Finally, and very importantly, to facilitate regional cooperation, to facilitate the exchange of best practices, and to facilitate the building of links between professionals of the region”, said Biljana Braithwaite, Western Balkans Programme Director at the AIRE Centre.

Year after year, this Forum is attended by judges from the highest courts, Ombudsman, judicial training institutes, government agents, international and non-governmental organisations from South East Europe.

“We have been very fortunate to be able to bring the most esteemed judicial experts to the region. For instance, in 2019 we had the honour of having the Right Hon The Lord Reed, President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, in 2020 and 2021, we were joined by Robert Spano, President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) at the time, who also continued to support the Forum in 2022 after his presidency, and in 2020 we were also joined by Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe”, explained Braithwaite.

Robert Spano, Former President of the ECtHR, noted that judicial dialogue is one of the most important features of the Court’s policy of external outreach. 

“We are a system in which the ECtHR is a safety valve. It is an international court which only deals with relatively few cases, although there may be many in number. Most of the cases where human rights are protected are at the domestic level. It is the domestic judges that are the first Strasbourg judges”, said Spano

“I think the achievements made over the past years in this Rule of Law Forum are very much important for us to be able to meaningfully engage with each other, for us to be able to answer questions which judges present to us, so that we can create mutual awareness, that we can create trust, that we can understand that we are really all in this together, we feed off each other’s strengths and we also try to enhance and remedy our weaknesses”, he further explained. 

Even at the time of crisis, the Forum continued to provide a much needed platform for  discussions and dialogue, as well as cooperation and joint action among nations to address the complex human rights amid the challenges.

“It is extremely important that we still have possibilities to meet and to exchange views and to talk about such important issues affecting our societies in the Council of Europe region, and beyond. In a crisis like the one we are have been we have been experiencing member states commitment to human rights are put to most stringent tests”, said Dunja Mijatović in her keynote speech at the Forum held in 2020, weeks after European countries began providing lockdowns due to COVID 19 global pandemic, in which she called for greater solidarity, trust, and transparency among governments to protect and uphold human rights effectively.

As the Forum celebrates a decade of  progress, it continues to evolve, with the 10th Annual Rule of Law Forum now imminent.

This year’s Forum will focus on the topic of “Balancing Data Protection with Transparent Justice: The European Legal Framework”. Discussions will centre around the protection of Article 8, the right to respect for private and family life, in the context of judicial proceedings, taking account of the safeguards required under Article 6, the right to a fair trial. This includes balancing the requirement for judicial transparency with the requirement to protect the right to private life of parties to proceedings, considering when it is appropriate or necessary to anonymise judgments and if and when is it permissible to admit and/or rely upon intercepted, electronic communications evidence. These issues are topical across Europe, as ever-evolving technology continues to transform how we investigate and prosecute crimes and how we conduct judicial proceedings.