ECHR Judge Helen Keller in an interview

Dec 18 2017

Prof. Dr. iur. Helen Keller LL.M. is Judge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg and Chair for Public Law and European and Public International Law at the University of Zurich.

In connection with her role as the official lecturer during the XXIst Executive M.B.L.-HSG graduation ceremony on 2 December 2017, we have taken the opportunity to ask her a few questions:

You became judge at the European Court of Human Rights in 2011, after having conducted several research projects in the area of human rights. What attracted you to the field of human rights?

I developed an interest in human rights law when conducting research on Courts and how they apply international law. As I have also researched a lot on environmental law, I have a certain affinity towards protective rights. From there it was a short step to engaging more deeply in the area of human rights law.

What do you consider your biggest achievements in your position up until now?
I contributed to changing the outcome of several cases at the European Court of Human Rights – for what was, at least in my opinion, the better result.

Considering the rise of social “unease” due to immigration and the fragility of democracy around the world, what is the role of the ECHR today?
Regarding sensitive issues such as immigration, the Court has to achieve a fine balance between avoiding national opposition and defending the protective standards enshrined in the Convention. In this balancing act, the Court has to respect the minimal protective standards that are at the core of the Convention.

With the increasing use of technology - i.e. Internet, social media, etc. - and with cases such as Big Brother Watch, Egill Einarsson v. Iceland, do you foresee a shift in the ECHR case law?
As a judge, I cannot make prognoses on how the Court’s jurisprudence will change as this might affect the perception of my impartiality in future cases.

Given your past focus on environmental law, how do you see the relation between environment and human rights?
The effects of climate change will constitute one of the biggest challenges to the respect of human rights in the decades to come. One of the most visible issues will concern global migration. Due to the fact that entire regions, like the Sahel, will suffer from desertification and other climate-related phenomena that destroy the livelihoods of its inhabitants, many will be forced to migrate. This will raise difficult questions regarding the rights of these migrants. It is, however, only one example as climate change concerns a broad range of issues.

Your court is more and more dealing with business law cases. Do you think that this tendency will continue?

Businesses are slowly but surely discovering the value of human rights, especially of those that guarantee the functioning of a liberal society. Notably the right to private property and to a fair legal proceeding are important for businesses, as can be seen in the Yukos v. Russiacase. In its judgment, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay EUR 1.9 billion to the shareholders of Yukos as it had found that Russia had violated the rights to the protection of property and to a fair hearing.

With 3 years remaining in your mandate at the ECHR, is there anything in particular you would like to achieve or to see done while you are there?

Around 700 people work at the Court and therefore I can only make a small contribution to its functioning. In any case, it is and should not be the purpose of a judge to implement his or her own agenda but to apply the Convention in a legally sound manner.

You obtained your doctorate in 1993 and did an LL.M. at the Collège d’Europe in Bruges, Belgium in 1995. What was your main motivation to do an LL.M.? Was it mainly to gain another qualification in order to advance your career, or did you want to broaden your personal horizons with an international education?

The decision to do an LL.M. at the Collège d’Europe was made relatively spontaneously: After holding a presentation on European Law at a conference I was offered a scholarship to study in Bruges. The presentation did not only spark my fascination for European Law but also enabled me to deepen my knowledge in this field in the context of the LL.M. Therefore I did not hesitate to take this unexpected opportunity.

To what extent has the LL.M. program influenced some of your career decisions?

To a major extent. During my LL.M. in Bruges, I met Prof. Joseph Weiler who encouraged me to continue my postdoctoral studies at Harvard Law School. At Harvard, I was able to continue my research on the European integration – a field of study in which the Americans interestingly excelled at the time.

The Executive M.B.L.-HSG – as an alternative to the traditional LL.M. - is an extra-occupational program, which is taught entirely in English and has been on the market for more than 20 years. The program is equally aimed at lawyers and non-lawyers and combines business and law aspects. It functions as a ‘Flying Classroom’ with 9 different program locations on 3 continents and a ‘Global Faculty’, which consists of European, American, Chinese and Japanese professors, lawyers, in-house counsel, judges, politicians, high officials, managers and economists. Our candidates come from all over the world. In today’s globalized world, what kind of added value do you see in a program such as the Executive M.B.L.-HSG?

The added value stems from several sources: Firstly, the diverse backgrounds of the candidates make discussions in classrooms more interesting and instructive. Business lawyers need to have an understanding of other disciplines. The points of view of fellow students from other disciplines is certainly a plus in this regard. Secondly, the course contributes to forming a useful professional and personal network around the globe. Lastly, business (law) is done differently all over the globe, the development of a certain cultural sensitivity is therefore crucial.

From your position and experience, what would you suggest to the current candidates to help them make the most of postgraduate studies in general and the Executive M.B.L.-HSG program in particular?

I would recommend going beyond improving the skills required by business lawyers in the narrow sense but instead profiting as much as possible from the above-mentioned added values of the course: Get an inter-disciplinary perspective, form an international professional and personal network and increase your cultural sensitivity of how international business (law) is done in different parts of the world.