Ryssdal started judicial work as a junior district judge in Norway in 1940. A judge by day, by night he played an active role in the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation, which led to his being detained from December 1943 until his country was liberated. The experience of living under totalitarianism, enduring deep injustice and imprisonment, he spoke little about; but it was reflected in his later judgments and speeches about the purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights.
After the Second World War, Ryssdal had a meteoric legal career, working successively for the state and as an advocate in private practice, culminating in serving in the key administrative role as Secretary General in the Ministry of Justice. In 1969, he became Chief Justice of Norway's Supreme Court, a post he held for some 15 years. In 1973, he first became a Judge of the European Court of Human Rights. At that time the court had few cases, averaging around one a year; just 17 rulings had been delivered when he joined the court. In 1979, his fellow judges elected him Vice-President of the court and in 1985 he was elected its President.
The volume of cases before the court increased massively during the 25 years Ryssdal served as Judge and particularly during his presidency. By his death some 733 judgments had been delivered, some 632 when he was President.
At a ceremony to honour his memory last week, Rudolf Bernhardt, Vice- President of the court, did not exaggerate in describing Rolv Ryssdal's position as unique in the history of any international court and in stating, "Rarely can one man have played such a prominent role in a system of justice, be it international or national."
A number of features stand out from Ryssdal's presidency. He had a fine legal mind, of course, but above all he displayed the balance and good sense which mark out the best judges. His period as President coincided with new states becoming party to the Convention on Human Rights; some of these had grave human-rights problems. On such cases, the court has been firm in upholding the international standards which the convention was created to provide.
Ryssdal played a pivotal role in promoting institutional reform, which comes to fruition this November with the establishment of the full-time court. Ryssdal pressed for all the standards in the convention and its protocols to be accepted, including Protocol No 6 on the abolition of the death penalty. He frequently stressed the importance of domestic judges' being able to give effect to fundamental rights themselves.
At a public lecture in London 18 months ago, Ryssdal answered criticism of some in Britain that the European Court of Human Rights had overstepped its remit or misjudged the correct balance between public interest and protection of the individual. He stressed that many of the cases which came to Strasbourg from the United Kingdom only did so because our judges could not apply the convention directly. He strongly favoured their being permitted to do so, stressing that it was best for balancing rights and the public interest to be done at the national level. I know that he was personally delighted that this will happen soon in the UK when the Human Rights Bill is enacted.
Rolv Einar Ryssdal, judge: born Bergen, Norway 27 October 1914; Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Norway 1969-84; Judge, European Court of Human Rights 1973-98, Vice-President 1981-85, President 1985-98; married 1954 Signe Stray (two sons, one daughter); died Oslo 18 February 1998.Reuse content