AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF
Application no. 66783/01
by Ib MELCHIOR
The European Court of Human Rights (Third Section), sitting on 2 February 2006 as a Chamber composed of:
Mr B.M. Zupančič, President,
Mr L. Caflisch,
Mr C. Bîrsan,
Mr V. Zagrebelsky,
Mrs A. Gyulumyan,
Mrs R. Jaeger,
Mrs I. Ziemele, judges,
and Mr V. Berger, Section Registrar,
Having regard to the above application lodged on 21 December 2000,
Having deliberated, decides as follows:
The applicant, Mr Ib Melchior, is an American national who was born in 1917 and lives in Los Angeles.
He was represented before the Court by Mrs Huntemann, a lawyer practising in Berlin.
A. The circumstances of the case
The facts of the case, as submitted by the applicant, may be summarised as follows.
1. Background to the case
In 1937 the applicant’s father, then a Danish citizen, owned an estate of one hundred hectares in Chossewitz/Niederlausitz (hereinafter the “Chossewitz estate”), on the territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The applicant’s father emigrated to the United States of America (USA) in 1939 and obtained US citizenship in 1947. The Chossewitz estate was initially leased to the German Department of Agriculture and Forestry in the Soviet-Occupied Zone (Deutsche Verwaltung für Land- und Forstwirtschaft in der sowietischen Besatzungszone), which was subsequently appointed as a trustee. In 1956 a legal-entity certificate (Rechtsträgernachweis) was issued, declaring the Chossewitz estate to be the property of the GDR (Eigentum des Volkes). When his father died in 1973, the applicant inherited the Chossewitz estate as well as the entitlement to claim any compensation that might be paid by a government in respect of the estate. The applicant subsequently declared before the Danish Consulate in Los Angeles that he wished to renounce his hereditary rights in favour of his sister, a Danish citizen. In 1995 the applicant withdrew the renunciation with his sister’s consent.
In the 1970s the GDR went into bilateral negotiations with the Kingdom of Denmark over unresolved financial and property issues. In 1976 the Danish government declared the Chossewitz estate as property requiring compensation by the GDR.
Between 1984 and 1987 the GDR concluded several “Lump Sum” Agreements (Globalentschädigungsabkommen) with Western European States. The GDR thus concluded with the Danish government, on 3 December 1987, an Agreement under which the GDR was to pay the amount of 19 million Danish kroner (DKK) on the basis of unresolved property and financial issues. The Agreement entered into force on 1 March 1988. After German reunification, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) succeeded to that treaty pursuant to Article 12 of the German Unification Treaty (Einigungsvertrag) in conjunction with the proclamation of 15 October 1992 on the expiration of international agreements between the GDR and Denmark (Bekanntmachung über das Erlöschen völkerrechtlicher Übereinkünfte der DDR mit Dänemark).
During the negotiating of the relevant Lump Sum Agreement, the two States disagreed on whether four particular estates, among them the Chossewitz estate, should fall within the scope of the Agreement. The GDR delegation was of the opinion that, because of its size, the Chossewitz estate had to be regarded as Großgrundbesitz (land which comprised more than one hundred hectares and which was situated in the Soviet-Occupied Zone of Germany after the Second World War), and, being covered by the land reform (Bodenreform), would not give rise to compensation. The GDR further argued that the estate had become its property (Eigentum des Volkes). All claims that the two delegations did agree upon had been added to a list prepared by the Danish delegation which was distributed upon the conclusion of the Agreement. Because of the above-mentioned dispute, the Chossewitz estate had not been included on that list.
Article 6 of the Lump Sum Agreement provided that all unresolved property and financial issues between the parties should be settled exhaustively and with final effect upon entry into force of the Agreement. The desire to settle these issues comprehensively had also been expressed by the two States in the Preamble to the Agreement.
Upon her application, the applicant’s sister received, from the lump sum, an amount of approximately 100,000 German marks (DEM) in respect of the Chossewitz estate.
2. Proceedings before the German courts after reunification
In 1992 the FRG was registered as the owner of the Chossewitz estate in the land register. The applicant subsequently instituted proceedings for the return of the property. On 18 December 1996 the Frankfurt an der Oder Regional Court ordered the FRG to return the Chossewitz estate and to approve the rectification of the land register. The court found that the applicant’s claim had not been extinguished by the Danish government’s payment of around 100,000 German marks, under the Lump Sum Agreement, to his sister. The court held that the Lump Sum Agreement only concerned claims of Danish citizens with regard to property situated in the GDR, whereas the applicant held US citizenship.
On appeal by the defendant, the Brandenburg Court of Appeal, on 8 May 1998, quashed the Frankfurt an der Oder Regional Court’s judgment of 18 December 1996 and dismissed the applicant’s claim. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal noted that the Frankfurt an der Oder Regional Court had not been provided with the relevant and decisive facts regarding the Lump Sum Agreement. Even though his father’s property had not been formally expropriated by the GDR, the applicant’s claim had been extinguished by the entry into force of the Lump Sum Agreement which also comprised the Chossewitz estate, despite the fact that the latter had been the subject of debate between the two parties to the treaty. In return for the payment of the lump sum by the GDR, the Danish government had waived any claims of its citizens regarding property situated in the GDR.
Applying Articles 31 et seq. of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 23 May 1969 (the “Vienna Convention”), the Brandenburg Court of Appeal found that the Agreement also comprised the Chossewitz estate. Even though the Brandenburg Court of Appeal noted that this conclusion could not be derived directly from the wording of the Agreement, the interpretation of Articles 2 and 6 in conjunction with the Preamble showed that the two States had opted for a final and exhaustive solution to all property issues. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal considered the materials from the negotiations and found that the Danish government had not been content with the original amount of compensation proposed by the GDR delegation. The Danish delegation had insisted that compensation was also to be paid in respect of the four estates which were the subject of debate, in order to avoid any liability for damages in relation to the individuals who claimed to be the owners of these estates. The GDR had thus raised the lump sum by a fixed amount (a so-called Restsumme), which would enable Denmark to pay compensation to each of the individuals who claimed to be the owners of the disputed estates once the claimants from the list distributed upon the conclusion of the Agreement had been satisfied. In raising the amount of the lump sum by the Restsumme, the GDR did not have to give up its legal view on those estates and avoided recognition of corresponding claims. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal held that the fact that the Chossewitz estate had not been included in the list of claims did not prove that it was not covered at all by the Agreement, but rather that compensation had been paid from the Restsumme.
The Brandenburg Court of Appeal also considered
a statement on the matter by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs
(which the applicant had submitted) but found that, even though the
Ministry had suggested a different assessment of the Agreement, it was
based on the same facts and consequently did not lead to a different
interpretation in the present case. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal
noted that, on the contrary, the statement had been submitted together
with a report of the Committee in charge of distributing the lump sum
to the legitimate claimants. In that report,
the Committee explained that it had informed the claimants in respect of the four estates at issue, among them the applicant’s sister, that their claims could be satisfied by the Restsumme. The claimants had not objected to this procedure. Moreover, the Brandenburg Court of Appeal regarded the fact that the applicant’s sister had accepted and received an amount from the lump sum as a further indication that the Chossewitz estate had been covered by the Agreement. Taking into account the relatively high amount of the lump sum, a proper reading of Articles 2 and 6 showed that the Agreement was not only binding under public international law upon the two States parties, but that it had also settled, with final effect, private claims of Danish citizens against the GDR. The distribution of the lump sum to the claimants would have been incomprehensible if they had retained their private claims against the GDR.
The question of the validity of the applicant’s renunciation of his hereditary rights in 1973, in favour of his Danish sister, was not decisive in the view of the Brandenburg Court of Appeal. Because of the then existing political situation, the applicant, as a US citizen, could not have expected the conclusion of a similar lump sum agreement between the USA and the GDR. The renunciation had represented the applicant’s only option if his family were to receive some compensation in respect of the Chossewitz estate through the Danish government. The fact that he had only withdrawn the renunciation in 1995, after the historical context had changed, proved that the applicant had originally accepted that the payment from the lump sum to his sister settled all claims in respect of the Chossewitz estate with final effect. Irrespective of his US citizenship, the Agreement was therefore also binding on him. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal further found that it did not matter whether or not the Agreement had been incorporated into the domestic law of the GDR in accordance with the applicable provisions.
The Federal Court of Justice dismissed the applicant’s appeal on points of law on 22 April 1999. The applicant subsequently brought proceedings for restitution and submitted material that he had previously submitted only to the Federal Court of Justice. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal dismissed his application on 26 November 1999. The applicant did not lodge an appeal on points of law against the judgment of 26 November 1999.
On 4 October 2000 the Federal Constitutional
Court refused to admit the applicant’s constitutional complaint. It
did not rule on whether the applicant had exhausted all available remedies
before the ordinary courts in view of the possibility of lodging an
appeal on points of law against the 26 November 1999 judgment of the
Brandenburg Court of Appeal.
The Federal Constitutional Court found that the Brandenburg Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the Lump Sum Agreement, which after reunification had also become binding on the FRG, had not violated any of the applicant’s fundamental rights. It stated that, in principle, it was for the ordinary courts to apply and interpret international treaties, subject to review by the Federal Constitutional Court which would apply the same standards as for the review of the application of domestic law by the ordinary courts. It found that the right of property, as enshrined in Article 14 of the German Basic Law, was not applicable on the territory of the former GDR. Hence it reviewed the judgments of the Brandenburg Court of Appeal from the angle of the prohibition of discrimination (Gleichheitsgrundsatz) under Article 3 of the German Basic Law in conjunction with the principle of the rule of law (Article 20 § 3 of the German Basic Law). The Federal Constitutional Court found that there would have been a violation of Article 3 of the German Basic Law only if the interpretation of the ordinary courts had been manifestly erroneous. This had not been the case.
The Brandenburg Court of Appeal’s view that the applicant’s property claim had been extinguished upon the entry into force of the Agreement had been based on the principle of diplomatic protection whereby, through the person of its nationals, a State can assert its own right to ensure respect for the rules of international law. Therefore, Denmark’s waiver of the property claims in return for receiving the lump sum was valid under international law for the applicant as well as the claimants, irrespective of whether or not Denmark had been entitled to make the waiver under domestic law. Moreover, the Brandenburg Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the Lump Sum Agreement and its application of Articles 31 et seq. of the Vienna Convention could not be regarded as arbitrary. Referring to a judgment of the International Court of Justice (South West Africa cases, Preliminary Objections, ICJ Reports 1962, p. 336), the Federal Constitutional Court stated that the object and purpose of an international treaty could take priority over its wording. In so far as the applicant complained about a breach of Article 31 § 2 (a) of the Vienna Convention, because the non-inclusion of the Chossewitz estate in the list of claims had not been regarded as decisive by the domestic courts, the Federal Constitutional Court held that the applicant had failed to demonstrate that the list had become an integral part of the Agreement. It found that the Brandenburg Court of Appeal had sufficiently considered the list when dealing with the purpose of the Agreement and the course of its negotiation. The Brandenburg Court’s reasoning on the applicability of the Agreement to the applicant’s case as well as its analysis of the negotiations leading to the Agreement, in particular the fact that the GDR did not recognise the applicant’s sister’s claim while Denmark, at the same time, had to insist on the claim in order to avoid its own liability, was regarded as being in accordance with Article 3 of the German Basic Law (prohibition of discrimination).
B. Relevant domestic and international law
1. The Lump Sum Agreement of 1987 between the GDR and Denmark
Pursuant to its Article 2, the Lump Sum Agreement covers property and financial claims of Denmark as well as of Danish citizens and legal persons with regard to property which was under GDR administration, provided that they were so entitled both on 8 May 1945 and on the date of the signing of the Agreement. Article 1 provides for the payment of DKK 19 million by the GDR to Denmark as compensation for the property and financial claims covered by Article 2.
Under Article 6 all unresolved property and financial issues between the parties were to be settled exhaustively and with final effect on the entry into force of the Agreement. In the Preamble to the Agreement, the two States expressed the desire for a comprehensive settlement of these issues.
2. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
Article 31: General rule of interpretation
“1. A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.
2. The context for the purpose of the interpretation of a treaty shall comprise, in addition to the text, including its preamble and annexes: (a) any agreement relating to the treaty which was made between all the parties in connection with the conclusion of the treaty; (b) any instrument which was made by one or more parties in connection with the conclusion of the treaty and accepted by the other parties as an instrument related to the treaty.
3. There shall be taken into account, together with the context: (a) any subsequent agreement between the parties regarding the interpretation of the treaty or the application of its provisions; (b) any subsequent practice in the application of the treaty which establishes the agreement of the parties regarding its interpretation; (c) any relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties.
4. A special meaning shall be given to a term if it is established that the parties so intended.”
Article 32: Supplementary means of interpretation
“Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31: (a) leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure; or (b) leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable.”
The applicant complained under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 about the judgment of the Brandenburg Court of Appeal of 8 May 1998 and the subsequent decisions by the German courts which upheld that judgment.
The applicant complained that the judgment of the Brandenburg Court of Appeal of 8 May 1998 and the subsequent decisions by the German courts infringed his right of property, as guaranteed by Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, which provides:
“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.
The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.”
The applicant argued that, by pretending to be the legitimate owner of the Chossewitz estate and denying him his right of registration at the land registry, the FRG had interfered with his right to property. He claimed that by inheritance he had become the owner of the Chossewitz estate and had not lost ownership through either a renunciation or the issuance in 1956 of the legal-entity certificate, which declared the Chossewitz estate to be the property of the GDR. His claim had not been covered by the Lump Sum Agreement between Denmark and the GDR. The estate had not been on the list of properties distributed during the negotiations, and the Agreement was not applicable to him as a US citizen. Moreover, the Agreement would not concern any private-law claims. At the time of the signing of the Agreement in December 1987, he himself, not his sister, had been the legitimate owner of the Chossewitz estate. Denmark had lacked any personal jurisdiction over him and had therefore not been entitled to waive any of his claims against the GDR. The applicant further claimed that Article 31 § 1 of the Vienna Convention required the Brandenburg Court of Appeal to base its interpretation of the Agreement primarily on its wording. Article 6 of the Agreement did not extend the scope of the provisions but merely concerned claims of one of the parties to the treaty against the other.
The Court recalls that Article 1 of Protocol
No. 1, which guarantees in substance the right of property, comprises
three distinct rules (see James
and Others v. the United Kingdom, judgment of 21 February
1986, Series A no. 98, pp. 29-30, § 37). The first, which is expressed
in the first sentence of the first paragraph and is of a general nature,
lays down the principle of peaceful enjoyment of property. The second
rule, in the second sentence of the same paragraph, covers deprivation
of possessions and subjects it to certain conditions. The third, contained
in the second paragraph, recognises that the Contracting States are
entitled, among other things, to control the use of property in accordance
with the general interest. The second and third rules, which are concerned
with particular instances of interference with the right to peaceful
enjoyment of property, must be construed in the light of the general
principle laid down in the first rule (see, among other authorities, Iatridis
v. Greece [GC], no. 31107/96, § 55, ECHR 1999-II).
As to whether or not there was interference, the Court notes that an applicant can allege a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 only in so far as the impugned decisions related to his “possessions” within the meaning of this provision. “Possessions” can be either “existing possessions” or assets, including claims, in respect of which the applicant can argue that he or she has at least a “legitimate expectation” of obtaining effective enjoyment of a property right. By contrast, the hope of recognition of a property right which it has been impossible to exercise effectively cannot be considered a “possession” within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (see von Maltzan and Others v. Germany, (dec.) [GC], nos. 71916/01, 71917/01 and 10260/02, § 74, ECHR 2005, and Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein v. Germany [GC], no. 42527/98, §§ 82 and 83, ECHR 2001-VIII).
In the instant case the Court must therefore first consider the applicability of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. To that end it must examine whether the applicant had a “possession” within the meaning of that Article.
As the Federal Constitutional Court pointed out, the Lump Sum Agreement between the GDR and Denmark of 1987 became legally binding on the FRG after German reunification pursuant to Article 12 of the German Unification Treaty, in conjunction with the proclamation of 15 October 1992 on the expiration of international agreements between the GDR and Denmark.
In its judgment of 8 May 1998, the Brandenburg
Court of Appeal found that the applicant’s property claim for restitution
of the Chossewitz estate had been extinguished with the entry into force
of the Lump Sum Agreement on 1 March 1988. Between the applicant and
the FRG it was disputed whether or not the Agreement had covered the
Chossewitz estate. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal held that, even though
it was not clear from its wording, the estate fell within the ambit
of the Agreement.
It based its judgment on the interpretation of Articles 2 and 6 in conjunction with the Preamble to the Agreement, as well as on an analysis of the available documents concerning its negotiation. This finding was confirmed by the Federal Court of Justice in its decision of 22 April 1999 and by the Federal Constitutional Court on 4 October 2000.
In that connection, the Court recalls the fundamental
principle, established by its case-law on the interpretation and application
of domestic law, that it is not its function to deal with errors of
fact or law allegedly committed by a national court unless and in so
far as they may have infringed rights and freedoms protected by the
Convention (see, among many other authorities, Streletz, Kessler and Krenz v. Germany [GC], nos. 34044/96/01,
35532/97 and 44801/98, Reports
of Judgments and Decisions 2001-II, § 49, and Schenk
v. Switzerland, judgment of 12 July 1988, Series A no.
140, p. 29, § 45). It is primarily for the national authorities, notably
the courts, to interpret and apply domestic law (see, mutatis
v. Switzerland, judgment of 25 March 1998, Reports
of Judgments and Decisions 1998-II, p. 541, § 59). In
its decision of 4 October 2000,
the Federal Constitutional Court stated that the interpretation and application of international treaties which are binding on the FRG is in the first place the task of the ordinary courts, subject to review by the Federal Constitutional Court which will apply the same standards as for the review of the application of domestic law by the ordinary courts. Given that the Lump Sum Agreement between the GDR and Denmark became part of the domestic law of the FRG in accordance with Article 59 § 2 of the German Basic Law, the Court finds that the interpretation and application of the Agreement was primarily up to the domestic courts.
In its judgment of 8 May 1998, the Brandenburg Court of Appeal conducted a thorough review of the facts of the case and the applicant’s arguments before finding that the Lump Sum Agreement did cover the Chossewitz estate. It explained in detail why that estate was covered despite the fact that compensation for it had been subject to argument between the two parties to the treaty and despite its absence from the list of claims that had been distributed by the Danish delegation towards the end of the negotiations. It elaborated on numerous documents submitted by the applicant. Moreover, it pointed out that the two parties to the Agreement had raised the lump sum in order to settle financial and property issues also with regard to the four estates which were not on the list (among them the Chossewitz estate), the reason being that a final settlement had to be reached on these estates without forcing any party to give up its position. The Brandenburg Court of Appeal concluded from the relevant documents that the compensation paid to the applicant’s sister had been taken from this additional amount, the so-called Restsumme.
The Brandenburg Court of Appeal’s application of Articles 31 et seq. of the Vienna Convention, the influence of the Lump Sum Agreement as an international treaty on private-law claims, and the fact that the applicant’s claim came under Danish jurisdiction, were confirmed in a detailed decision by the Federal Constitutional Court.
That court supported the view that the applicant’s property claim had been extinguished upon the entry into force of the Agreement through the principle of diplomatic protection. In particular, the Federal Constitutional Court stated that the Brandenburg Court of Appeal’s interpretation of Article 6 of the Agreement as comprising all financial and property claims between the parties, including those that were disputed, was unobjectionable from a constitutional point of view.
Having regard to the above, the Court finds that the interpretation by the Brandenburg Court of Appeal of the Lump Sum Agreement and the confirmation of that interpretation by the Federal Constitutional Court were comprehensible and cannot be considered as either manifestly erroneous or arbitrary. Indeed, that interpretation, though not based on the express terms of the Agreement, was in harmony with the latter’s object and purpose, which was to settle exhaustively, definitively and comprehensively all unresolved property and financial issues between the Contracting Parties, and also with ‘their subsequent practice relating to the Agreement, since compensation was effectively paid to the applicant’s family (Article 31 § 1 of the Vienna Convention). It is also confirmed by the Agreement’s preparatory work (Article 31 § 2 of the Vienna Convention), since the course of the negotiations clearly shows that the Chossewitz estate was to be included among the objects for which compensation had to be paid. The Court therefore concludes that the applicant has not demonstrated that he had a legitimate expectation of restitution of his property within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. Consequently, the decisions of the German courts did not amount to an interference with the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions, and the facts of the case do not fall within the ambit of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
It follows that the applicant’s complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 is incompatible ratione materiae with the provisions of the Convention, within the meaning of Article 35 § 3, and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 § 4.
For these reasons, the Court unanimously
Declares the application inadmissible.
Vincent Berger Boštjan
MELCHIOR v. GERMANY DECISION
MELCHIOR v. GERMANY DECISION