This article argues that understanding the role of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR or the Court) to be that of a guardian of discourse would respect legitimate disagreement among pluralist democracies, while enabling the Court to safeguard human rights in a meaningful and effective way.
From the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR or the Convention) and the Court's jurisprudence, three basic standards of review can be distilled: First, wherever the Convention's requirements are sufficiently concrete, the Court holds contracting states to well-established standards. Second, when applying broad, abstract and relative Convention rights, the Court safeguards the practical rationality of a democratic decision-making discourse under the rule of law – a substantive review standard that is influenced by procedural factors. Third, the Court also needs to check the facts underlying the case, in order to render its control effective.
By setting ‘soft’ precedent in the form of factors that guide future decision-making without entirely prejudging it, and by taking into account second-order reasons concerning its legitimacy to intervene, the Court is acting as a second player in states’ decision-making discourse. Its task is not to replace the institutions originally responsible for taking the decision, but to ensure that they conform to their own role.