A global approach to human rights case law

Sketching out our vision on how and why to connect case law from human rights mechanisms across the globe.


It is a vision, but it is becoming reality already – a platform that brings all international human rights case law together in one place. In this post, we sketch out why it is important, how it can be done and why sense-making should be the guiding principle.

How long does it take to find all cases on freedom of religion that have been brought before international human rights bodies? It will not take long to find those from Europe, using the HUDOC search engine for European Court of Human Rights decisions. It will take longer for others. And it will take ages to go through all of them.

Yet, even when you went through every single database, you cannot be sure that you found everything. The reason is that they are using different terminologies, different keywords, different ways of indexing. In short, they are like silos, they look the same from the outside, yet what’s inside is organised according to idiosyncratic schemes. What is more, the content from each silo is kept separate from that of another. To become master of the silos and find all the cases on freedom of religion, you will probably have to do a doctorate, as HURIDOCS Co-founder Hans Thoolen in a recent interview suggested.

Smoothly interconnected case law databases

That makes it unnecessarily hard for lawyers to use human rights case law in their daily work. Most will stick to the databases they are familiar with, because it simply is too time-consuming to go beyond them. This is why we think there is a need for one that brings it all together – with good indexing, coherent and clear keywords and innovative ways of linking information that help to make sense of it.

The benefits are manifold. Lawyers will be able to find cases faster, more reliable and go beyond what they already know. It will make their work easier, but of higher quality. Moreover, it will encourage international dialogue on the interpretation of provisions, as different decisions regarding similar problems will be brought together in one place.

Yet, this is a serious challenge, as such a human rights case law platform needs to ensure it encompasses all available decisions, make them accessible and then provide tools that help to make sense of them.

A global network of partners

To ensure all of this, it is important to work with all the necessary stakeholders, to establish standards on how the single bits of information should be organised. This is why we closely work together with human rights bodies and NGOs from all over the world. Such an undertaking cannot be made by one actor, it is a common effort that needs a facilitator.

Results are visible. With the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights we created a database of their case law that can serve as a prototype. With CEJIL, we are working on doing something similar for the Interamerican system, bringing together the work of the Commission and the Court, which is now kept separate. With the CCPR centre, we are in discussions to do similar work for the case law from UN institutions. For the European Court of Human Rights, Oleg Burlaca, a developer with whom HURIDOCS has been working for a long time, developed a database that is currently in beta-status.

Working together on that is important, because it will help to ensure that all decisions are available and new ones will be brought in the right format, indexed, tagged. It is also an important part of agreeing on taxonomies, on standards that resonate with peoples’ work.

Tedious work, so everything can be found

This is closely intertwined with the second important aspect of such a platform – it has to promote accessibility. Not only do all decisions need to be findable in theory, but that also must be the case in practice. It has to be made sure that when a lawyer is looking for a set of cases, she will find all relevant ones, irrespective of linguistic ambiguities. To ensure this, a simple search engine is not enough, as it needs to be complemented by categories, in which the cases are grouped (similar to the search we implemented on the website of the International Commission of Jurists).

For that to work, all cases have to be manually indexed by humans, as there is no algorithm, which works consistently and gives the certainty that no case is overlooked or categorised wrongly. It may be tedious to all this work, but it matters, because only this ensures quality. HURIDOCS is in a unique position to be the driving force behind that with decades of experience of establishing standards in human rights work and recent very successful developments of tools, databases and websites with human rights organisations and courts.

Encouraging sense-making

Finally, to fully use the potential of such a database, there has to be the icing on the cake, the system must allow and encourage sense-making. It is crucial, as it allows new ways of thinking about single cases – and the violations they are about.

There are various ways of how sense-making can be built into the system. One is visualisation, e.g. a map that brings together information on which states domestically criminalise torture and which have ratified international conventions, all linked with the relevant cases. Such a map enables thinking about the bigger picture, as it quickly makes accessible; however, the fragments, are still readily accessible.

Visualisation is one way, we are thinking of more and want to talk about them in the future. However, we are open for suggestions, as we constantly try out new ideas.

To sum up, our vision is to build a database that brings together all the case law of international human rights bodies. It will be the first to make human rights case law available in a coherent manner, break new grounds in terms of accessibility and on top of that will encourage sense-making by adding tools that help the user to go beyond the text. Therefore, it will be more than a tool for finding, as it will foster international legal dialogue and help spread information beyond single systems or regions. In short, it will be the end of the silos in which information is kept today and the beginning of a truly global approach to human rights case law.

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