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European Commission on Human Rights / European Court of Human Rights  
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The European Commission on Human Rights (ECHR), a now-defunct part of the Council of Europe, became the first major international human rights organization to condemn . In the 1980s, it called for the recognition and protection of the rights of gay men and lesbians in Europe. The European Court of Human Rights, which replaced the Commission, has also helped enforce glbtq rights.

The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe is the oldest and largest union of nations on the continent. It formed in 1949, in the wake of World War II, as an effort to guarantee human rights and democratic freedoms among the nations of Europe. Begun with a membership of ten countries and headquartered in Strasbourg, France, it has now expanded to include 45 nations. The European Union is an entirely separate entity, although all of its members belong to the Council.

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The ECHR began to form on November 4, 1950 when the Council approved the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This document became the first international legal instrument to safeguard human rights.

The Convention contains articles that establish a right to life, a ban on torture, the outlawing of slavery, a right to liberty, minimum protections for those charged with a crime, a right to privacy, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. Article 12 established the right to marry for men and women according to national laws.

These rights did not expressly include the freedom to be . However, several of the provisions, notably the right to privacy, have been interpreted in a manner that gives protection to gay men and lesbians.

The Commission

To ensure the observance of the Convention, the member nations established the ECHR and a European Court of Human Rights on September 18, 1959. The ECHR received applications alleging violations of the Convention. Applications could come from nations, but most came from individuals unable to find satisfaction within their national legal systems.

The ECHR accepted cases only after all domestic remedies had been exhausted and within a period of six months from the date on which the final decision was taken. It charged no fees and did not require a plaintiff to hire an attorney.

The Commission either attempted to achieve a friendly settlement, issued an opinion on whether a breach of the Convention had taken place, or referred a case to the Court. Only the Court had the ability to reach judicial decisions.

The ECHR acted only when it received a petition. Throughout its history, it received relatively few requests for assistance. In the 1980s, queers became more aggressive about pursuing justice and the ECHR began to move.

In 1981, a gay man named Jeffrey Dudgeon asked the ECHR to decriminalize homosexual relationships in Northern Ireland. He charged that the Irish ban violated a person's right to privacy, contrary to the Convention. Dudgeon won. His victory forced the British government in Northern Ireland to legalize homosexuality in 1982.

The next successful gay rights ECHR case also involved the decriminalization of same-sex . In 1988, David Norris persuaded the ECHR to rule that the Republic of Ireland's prohibition of all homosexual acts was illegal.

Considering the strength of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, it is doubtful that homosexual relations would have become legal in that country without the intervention of the ECHR.

While it protected adult gays, the ECHR hesitated to allow minors the right to practice homosexuality. In 1983, British teenager Richard Desmond became the first person to take the United Kingdom to the ECHR over Britain's age of consent laws.

Unable to broker a compromise, the ECHR sent the Desmond case to the European Court of Human Rights. Desmond lost. The Court deferred to the right of each member state to fix its own minimum age for homosexual contact. It ruled that each nation was entitled to take into account the "moral interests and welfare of young people."

By 1997, the social climate in Europe had become friendlier to gays. Euan Sutherland, another British gay youth, attempted to use the ECHR to overturn the British age of consent.

Sutherland argued that the difference between the heterosexual and homosexual ages of consent affected his enjoyment of his human rights. He charged that Britain had violated the Convention with a discriminatory law that infringed upon his right to respect for a private life.

Sutherland won his case. The Commission became the first international body to recognize an adolescent male's homosexuality.

In its decision, the ECHR stated that it could not understand how the British practice of charging an adolescent with a criminal offense for engaging in homosexual relations served the purpose of protecting the youth. Despite the victory, Britain did not immediately reduce the age of consent.

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