RHINO wins right to exist: An Interview with Mr. Pierre Bayenet

By the ICHRP Team

On October 11th 2011 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) released its decision on the legality of RHINO (Retour des Habitants dans les Immeubles Non-Occupés), a community organization formed to represent members of the largest squat in Geneva. Ordered to disband by the Canton of Geneva for its role in defending the occupation of an unused building, RHINO had its assets, totaling over 79’000 Swiss Francs, seized on the grounds of being at “unlawful” organization for promoting and defending unlawful occupations of property. The court found that the dissolution violated the article 11 (Freedom of association) rights of the squatters and ordered compensation totaling 65,651 Euros (EUR) in respect of pecuniary damage and EUR 21,949 for costs and expenses.

Mr. Pierre Bayenet, council for RHINO before the ECtHR, commented on the case in a short interview with the ICHRP.

ICHRP: Please explain briefly the case and the decision.
Mr. Bayenet: In 1989, many buildings in central Geneva were left empty. The local government tolerated illegal occupations of these buildings, due to the severe and ongoing housing crisis. The biggest squat of Geneva opened in November 1998, until its eviction 19 years later, in May of 2008.

One of the tools the squatters used to manage their housing was an association called "RHINO" - every squatter would contribute CHF 100.- every month to this association, which was to promote and protect their rights. The Association’s purposes included finding and paying lawyers to act in Court in defense of the squatters. After some successful legal action, the landlord thought it would be a great idea to have the Courts close down the association and seize the money, which they did. It is against this decision that a case was filed at the ECtHR.

The ECtHR leaves the question open as to whether or not the goal of this decision was legitimate. It states however that it was anyhow not necessary in a democratic society. Importantly, the ECtHR also ordered the government of Switzerland to return the money seized from the squatters and their association.

ICHRP: Why is squatting a human rights issue? What should be the place of squatter’s rights in law?
Our aim was a simple one: no one should be evicted if he or she is not given or cannot find alternative housing. This is the core of a right to housing. A second important claim was that no one should be evicted without a court order. This second claim in regards to RHINO is still pending before the ECtHR.

ICHRP: In what ways do you think the decision will have further implications for freedom of association issues in Switzerland, particularly for squatters’ associations?
Since 1989, the government has "cleaned up" all squats. There is currently no living squat movement in Geneva. Unfortunately, the decision will probably not be used to help alleviate the ongoing housing shortage.

However, there has been a tendency in Switzerland to limit the core democratic freedoms - free speech, freedom of demonstration and the like. Freedom of association is one of the core democratic freedoms and this court victory will help us fight back against those restrictions.

ICHRP: The Canton of Geneva was historically relatively liberal in its approach towards squats, a position that has been reversed in recent years. How do you think the outcome of this case will affect the Canton’s approach towards squats and squatting culture in the future?
The economic situation has very much evolved. There are few empty buildings, except business premises which were never allowed for squatting. The backlash towards squatters has been extreme. I do not think that this will change soon.

ICHRP: The delay in removing the squatters after the dissolution of RHINO was emphasized in the decision. Why was this important to the case?
This was key to the case. The government of Switzerland tried to argue that the dissolution of RHINO was necessary in order for the squatters to be evicted (and therefore necessary to protect the landlord’s legitimate interests). We always argued that the actual aim of the dissolution was to seize the money, so that the squatters could not defend themselves properly in Court. The ECtHR concluded that there was no link between the dissolution and the eviction, rejecting the State's claim that the dissolution led to the eviction.

ICHRP: Please explain the other pending case, over the legality of the actual eviction itself. Which Articles does the case rely on, seeing as the right to housing is not included in the European Convention? What are its chances of success in your opinion?
The other claims are based on articles 6 and 13 (right to a fair hearing and right to an effective remedy). The eviction was carried out on a mere police order, even though there was an eviction case pending in Court. This is a clear infringement of article 6 and in the principle of the separation of powers. The squatters were prevented from defending their rights in Court, and were deprived of their right to due process. I am very hopeful that we will win this second application.

About the Interviewee:

Pierre Bayenet graduated from the University of Lausanne in 2000. He obtained a Master of Laws (LL.M.) at King's College, London, in 2001. After an internship at the Amnesty International UN Office in Geneva and following his legal training, he was admitted to the Geneva Bar in 2004 and founded his law firm in 2005.

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