Applications may be lodged by individuals, non-governmental organizations and groups of individuals.
Applications may be submitted by individuals. Minors are represented by their parents or legal guardians.
Non-governmental organizations have standing to introduce applications to the European Court of Human Rights. The only right under the Convention which is expressly conferred on legal entities is the right to peaceful enjoyment of possession (article 1 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR). This notwithstanding, other rights enshrined in the ECHR can be invoked by organizations or legal entities provided the nature of the right in question allows for it (for example, the prohibition of torture does not play a role for legal entities). Organizations within the meaning of article 34 include (but are not limited to) trade unions, political parties, legal entities, companies, foundations and associations.
An application by an organization may only be based on a violation of its own rights, not on an infringement on rights of individual members of the organization. For example, in Scientology Kirche Deutschlande.V. v Germany, the applicant was a registered association which was part of Scientology. It complained that a number of measures aimed at minimizing the influence of Scientology in Germany (including an information campaign with public warnings) violated rights of its members. The European Commission on Human Rights pointed out that an association as such was not entitled to base an application on a breach of rights of its members; it also stated that the applicant association had failed to identify the identities of the members it alleged to represent. Therefore it rejected the application as inadmissible.
Organization which have been founded to the very end of initiating proceedings for a specific groups of persons do not have standing to introduce applications before the European Court of Human Rights. For example, in Stichting Mothers of Srebenica v The Netherlands, the applicant was a foundation (‘stichting’ in the Dutch language) which had been founded in view of taking proceedings on behalf of relatives of persons killed in the massacre at Srebenica. They had initiated proceedings against the UN for its failure to protect the civil population of Srebenica before Dutch courts and complained, inter alia, that the diplomatic immunity of the UN deprived them of access to justice and effective remedies. The European Court of Human Rights rejected the application as inadmissible, stating that the applicants could not allege that its own rights had been violated.
Human rights organizations do not have standing to introduce applications regarding the violation of rights of persons or groups they are advocating for.
Organizations submitting applications to the European Court of Human Rights have to be non-governmental
The ECHR governs the conduct of states vis-a-vis everyone in their jurisdiction. It confers rights towards the state. It does not apply to the conduct of different state agencies or state entities towards each other. As a consequence of this, the right to lodge applications is accorded to non-governmental organizations only. Governmental organizations do not have standing to initiate proceedings before the Court. Entities which are sub-structures of the state or exercise public power cannot be considered victims of state conduct. This applies not only to central organs of the state, but also to decentralized authorities that exercise public functions, to local and regional authorities (Radio France v France, decision as to the admissibility, para 26), even if these organizations enjoy a certain degree of independence from the central power such as municipalities, provinces, cities etc.. In Bari, Sorrentino and MessiniNemagna v Italy, the municipality of Bari complained that the state of Italy had not provided any assistance to rebuild the opera house, which had burnt down. The European Court of Human Rights pointed out that provinces in Italy are public-law authorities which perform duties assigned to them by the Constitution and legislation and could therefore not be considered as non-governmental organizations. It ruled that the application was inadmissible.
Establishing whether or not an organization is to be considered as non-governmental may prove difficult if companies or other legal entities are concerned which are partly or wholly state state-owned. When assessing whether or not such a company or legal entity has standing to submit an application with the European Court of Human Rights, the Court has regard to the following criteria:
- The legal status and the rights this status gives the entity in question
- The nature of activities it carries out and the context in which they take place
- The degree of independence from state authorities
The ownership of an entity or company is just one factor to be considered when assessing whether it is a non-governmental or a governmental organization. Taken alone, it is not decisive. An entity may be fully state owned and still be non-governmental, while on the other hand an organization which is to a large portion in private hand may be governmental. For example, in Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line v Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights held that a company to 100 percent owned by the Iranian state was non-governmental. In this case, Turkish authorities had impounded a vessel which had been chartered by the applicant because of a suspicion that it carried smuggled arms. The applicant company was owned by the Iranian state. After domestic legal remedies challenging the confiscation had remained without success, it submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights. The respondent Turkish government claimed that the applicant had no standing, since it was state owned and therefore not a non-governmental organization. The Court pointed out that the applicant was subjected to private law and engaged in commercial activities. There was therefore no reason to treat it differently from other commercial companies.
By way of contrast, in Transpetrol v Slovakia, the Court held that a company was to be considered governmental although 49% of its shares were in private hand.
When scrutinizing the nature of activities and the context in which they are carried out, the European Court of Human Rights has regard to whether the organization or entity in question provides public services or fulfills public functions or is involved in activities which are to be considered private, such as commercial activities. Again, this is only one factor among others.
The independence from the state concerns the extent to which a state is able to exercise influence on a certain organization. An organization may be state owned and still be shielded from state influence in a fashion that justifies it to regard it as non-governmental. For example, in Radio France v France, the applicant was owned and funded by the respondent state, but controlled by an independent body which safeguarded it from direct influence and justified considering it a non-governmental organization.
Group of individuals
The notion group of individuals is overlapping both with individuals and non-governmental organizations. It has rarely been problematic in the Court’s jurisdiction.