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European Rights Court Facing Huge Backlog

Half a century after its creation, the European Court of Human Rights is facing an enormous backlog of cases, posing a major constraint to what is described as the world's most powerful human rights court. European justice ministers are meeting in Switzerland to try to find a solution.

Justice ministers from the 47 states belonging to the European Court of Human Rights will try to resolve a number of issues. As of January, more than 119,000 cases were pending before the court, based in Strasbourg, France. Plaintiffs often wait for years before their cases are heard. And many applications are discarded for not meeting the court's jurisdiction.

Switzerland called the ministers' meeting in the Swiss resort of Interlaken to establish new mechanisms to reform and streamline the court.

Alan Mendoza, president of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based policy institute dealing with human rights and democracy issues, says there are essentially two ways to streamline the court. "Either they can change its procedures and actually boost its staff - more like an organizational change, which will enable it to respond quicker to matters brought before it," he said.

Mendoza says another option is to change the scope of the cases brought before the court so it focuses on broader social issues or those that affect several states.

During its 50 years, analysts say the European court has been a powerful voice for justice and human rights. Many of the most recent cases have come from Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and Romania. And they cover issues like book banning in Turkey, child custody in Italy and the disappearances of Chechen rebels.

"The European Court of Human Rights is quite a powerful institution ... it is the most powerful court in the world because the measures are at least in theory binding on all members ... so in theory individuals can bring cases against their governments," said Anthony Dworkin, an expert on international justice for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

And Dworkin says, a number of governments have complied with rulings against them. Analysts also note the court has tackled deeply controversial issues, such as religious and homosexual rights and counterterrorism laws.

The court has delivered more than 10,000 judgments since its last reform in 1998.