The Strasbourg court judgement N.D. and N.T. v Spain : a carte blanche to push backs at EU external borders?

In this Working Paper Sergio Carrera examines the N.D. and N.T v Spain judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (EtCHR) of 13 February 2020. The Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg Court concluded that expedited expulsions to Morocco (pushbacks or ‘hot returns’) by Spanish authorities at the border fences in Melilla did not amount to a violation of the prohibition of collective expulsions under Article 4 Protocol 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Counterintuitively, the Court’s ruling is not a carte blanche for states to engage in automatic expulsions or push backs of irregular immigrants and asylum seekers at EU external borders. The Grand Chamber has confirmed that the notion of expulsion for ECHR purposes covers non-admission border management policies, and it applies to every individual irrespective of seeking asylum or not. It has also held that governments must not instrumentally frame certain parts of their territory through law as ‘non-territory’ to escape from their ECHR obligations in the context of border policies. The Grand Chamber has also demanded that States provide genuine and effective access to legal entry mechanisms for purposes of asylum and employment. The N.D. and N.T v Spain judgement is, however, fraught with legal inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies. It denies justice to voiceless victims of human rights violations. The ruling’s inconsistent legal argumentation leaves crucial nuances to avoid arbitrariness and rule of law violations in states’ border policies. By focusing on the individuals’ own conduct instead of the Spanish authorities’ compliance with the ECHR, the judgement displaces the individual from the heart towards the periphery of the ECHR system. It wrongly applies an ‘own conduct doctrine’ to human rights which are absolute in nature and accept no exception. The judges’ arguments are also factually wrong, chiefly in respect of the practical accessibility by the applicants to legal channels for admission to Spain. The Grand Chamber’s choice to first assess whether the individual is worthy of human rights contradicts Article 1 ECHR and the Strasbourg Court mandate to impartially and independently supervise States parties’ compliance with everyone’s human rights within their jurisdiction. The ruling provides an inequivalent level of human rights calling for lower protection standards in contradiction to those required by United Nations human rights bodies. It is also incompatible with the Spanish government’s obligations under EU law to comply with human rights in border control and surveillance policies, and the fundamental right to asylum.

Read the full EUI Working Paper.