European Court of Human Rights – Saadi vs. Italy

The European Court of Human Rights in the case Saadi vs. Italy (Application no. 37201/06, Judgment of the Grand Chamber of 28 February 2008) laid down important principles regarding the principle of non-refoulement on its absolute nature and on the incompatibility with it of diplomatic assurances.

138.  Accordingly, the Court cannot accept the argument of the United Kingdom Government, supported by the respondent Government, that a distinction must be drawn under Article 3 between treatment inflicted directly by a signatory State and treatment that might be inflicted by the authorities of another State, and that protection against this latter form of ill-treatment should be weighed against the interests of the community as a whole (see paragraphs 120 and 122 above). Since protection against the treatment prohibited by Article 3 is absolute, that provision imposes an obligation not to extradite or expel any person who, in the receiving country, would run the real risk of being subjected to such treatment. As the Court has repeatedly held, there can be no derogation from that rule (see the case-law cited in paragraph 127 above). It must therefore reaffirm the principle stated in the Chahal judgment (cited above, § 81) that it is not possible to weigh the risk of ill-treatment against the reasons put forward for the expulsion in order to determine whether the responsibility of a State is engaged under Article 3, even where such treatment is inflicted by another State. In that connection, the conduct of the person concerned, however undesirable or dangerous, cannot be taken into account, with the consequence that the protection afforded by Article 3 is broader than that provided for in Articles 32 and 33 of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (see Chahal, cited above, § 80 and paragraph 63 above). Moreover, that conclusion is in line with points IV and XII of the guidelines of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on human rights and the fight against terrorism (see paragraph 64 above).

139.  The Court considers that the argument based on the balancing of the risk of harm if the person is sent back against the dangerousness he or she represents to the community if not sent back is misconceived. The concepts of “risk” and “dangerousness” in this context do not lend themselves to a balancing test because they are notions that can only be assessed independently of each other. Either the evidence adduced before the Court reveals that there is a substantial risk if the person is sent back or it does not. The prospect that he may pose a serious threat to the community if not returned does not reduce in any way the degree of risk of ill treatment that the person may be subject to on return. For that reason it would be incorrect to require a higher standard of proof, as submitted by the intervener, where the person is considered to represent a serious danger to the community, since assessment of the level of risk is independent of such a test.


147.  The Court further notes that on 29 May 2007, while the present application was pending before it, the Italian Government asked the Tunisian Government, through the Italian embassy in Tunis, for diplomatic assurances that the applicant would not be subjected to treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Convention (see paragraphs 51 and 52 above). However, the Tunisian authorities did not provide such assurances. At first they merely stated that they were prepared to accept the transfer to Tunisia of Tunisians detained abroad (see paragraph 54 above). It was only in a second note verbale, dated 10 July 2007 (that is, the day before the Grand Chamber hearing), that the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs observed that Tunisian laws guaranteed prisoners’ rights and that Tunisia had acceded to “the relevant international treaties and conventions” (see paragraph 55 above). In that connection, the Court observes that the existence of domestic laws and accession to international treaties guaranteeing respect for fundamental rights in principle are not in themselves sufficient to ensure adequate protection against the risk of ill-treatment where, as in the present case, reliable sources have reported practices resorted to or tolerated by the authorities which are manifestly contrary to the principles of the Convention.

148.  Furthermore, it should be pointed out that even if, as they did not do in the present case, the Tunisian authorities had given the diplomatic assurances requested by Italy, that would not have absolved the Court from the obligation to examine whether such assurances provided, in their practical application, a sufficient guarantee that the applicant would be protected against the risk of treatment prohibited by the Convention (see Chahal, cited above, § 105). The weight to be given to assurances from the receiving State depends, in each case, on the circumstances obtaining at the material time.

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