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The European Convention on Human Rights under threat: a call to States’ action

The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, in his speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, talked about the European Convention on Human Rights, as “our best guidance in the many crises facing Europe” which is nowadays under threat. 

This speech, pronounced on 26 January in Strasbourg, is therefore an alarm bell that the Secretary General of the Council of Europe (COE) sounded for member States. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), defined as the compass of the 47 States, constitutes a transparent legal guide, which could respond to many of the challenges we are currently facing.

As underlined by Pierre-Yves Le Borgn’ in his report on the impact of ECHR in States Parties (2016), the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms has been strengthened at the domestic level thanks to the Convention and the Strasbourg Court’s case law. The report of the Rapporteur on the implementation of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, as stated by Thorbjørn Jagland, collected a number of silent successes in the implementation of democracy, freedom and rule of law in many countries.

There is, however, still a long way to go and the Convention represents a guideline for States Parties to confront new dilemmas. Mr Jagland, thus, welcome Mr Nicoletti proposal (Italy, Socialist Group) to organise a new summit of heads of State and governments to take new initiatives in response to the challenges for human rights and democracy in Europe.

Recalling at first the events in Cologne, on which light has still not been shed, the Secretary General of the COE emphasized the importance of sharing a common set of values defined “in black and white”. In particular, he evoked the Istanbul Convention (2011), which bans all kinds of violence against women. He then invited Germany to ratify it sending a reassuring signal on this issue.

According to Mr Jagland, the ECHR even regulates extremely sensitive matters, such as civil liberties and freedom of expression in the sphere of counter-terrorism, providing the basis for cooperation among States. As demonstrated by the Warsaw decision to recognise the authority of the Venice Commission of the COE and by the Polish collaboration with the European Commission in relation to the controversy surrounding the legislative reforms in Poland, “law can so often resolve differences and move us forward in a way that politics cannot”.

Despite these achievements, which recognise the pivotal role of the Convention, the system is facing “a growing political threat […] which should worry us”.

The Secretary General then enlisted some of these perils posed to the primacy of European Court of Human Rights whose jurisprudence derives from the ECHR. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Court’s judgement has sparked off an intense debate on the right to vote for prisoners. The Secretary General raised his concern on the argument according to which “a parliament’s previous rejection of a change in the law must automatically be the final word”. Furthermore, the Russian Federation’s new law could represent another menace, as the national Constitutional Court could declare that a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights cannot be applied in Russia.

Switzerland, on its part, is going to organise a referendum on the role of the international law in relation to national rules and Norway has recently adopted a resolution stating that international conventions have to comply with “new-realities”. Thorbjørn Jagland, another time, underlined his worries because “these discussions have started in these times as the Geneva Convention on refugees and the ECHR were written for sunny days”.

Nevertheless, the most worrying aspect is that there is an increasing number of States disregarding their obligations. The case of Azerbaijan, where the intellectual activist Ilgar Mammadov has been put in prison facing threats and ill treatment, is an example. Azerbaijani authorities have ignored several requests for his release by the COE even after the European Court of Human Rights ruling. The Court stated that he had been arrested without any evidence and that the actual purpose of his detention had been to punish him for political reasons. In this situation, the Secretary General underlined his commitment to this case invoking extraordinary measures to send a specific mission to Azerbaijan, according to Article 52 ECHR.

What is at stake is “the credibility of the whole Convention system” as the power of the highest Court of the ECHR is not always respected. All these outcomes cause real concern and the 47 States cannot stand by and watch, as the Convention cannot wait. Therefore, Mr Jagland called for urgency and leadership inviting each parliamentarian “to go home and be louder than ever in defending Europe’s human rights architecture”.

The Secretary General, on his part, will continue this defensive strategy within the COE itself and assisting member States.

Among its priorities, there is in fact the strengthening of the collaboration with Ukraine for the renewal of the country’s constitution and the decentralisation of power implementing the Convention. Consequently, regarding the status of Crimea, as the ECHR is applied in both Ukraine and the Russian Federation, the COE can monitor how the basic standards are applied. In this view, the Secretary General has appointed a Swiss diplomat, Gérard Stoudmann, to supervise a mission seeking “to protect the freedoms of the 2.5 million people living in Crimea”. The Swiss diplomat will provide the Secretary General with a report on the current situation, which will be discuss with the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly.

Another important issue for Mr Jagland is the refugee crisis. According to him, it is important to fight for granting basic rights to each individual on the European territory. In order to focus on developments on the ground, Tomáš Boček has been appointed as special representative of the COE looking at new legislation and intervention according to the Convention’s standards. Questioned by Mr Le Borgn’ (France, Socialist Group), the Secretary General confirmed that the number of migrant children undertaking a dangerous crossing through the Balkans is growing enormously. Thus, he called for strict enforcement of the Convention’s standards, which “apply to everybody and children in particular”.

The Secretary General also recalled the issue of foreign fighters in the fight against terrorism predicting the launch of new initiatives aimed at integrating young people “as democratic citizens in diverse societies”. He also evoked judicial independence, which presents a high level of weakness across all Europe, announcing the adoption of a pan-European action plan to reinforce it.

In the field of media freedom, Mr Jagland put the emphasis on the role of the COE recalling the creation of an online alert platform accessible to all journalists who encounters oppositions. State limits on media raise great concern in Turkey. As stated by the Secretary General, even if this country has recently been confronted with different terrorist attacks, it has to reply respecting the Convention values and the rule of law leaving room for different and dissenting opinions. Therefore, he is open to dialogue with Turkish authorities to “show the world that human rights in Turkey are not in permanent reverse”.

His meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed a cooperation agreement with the COE to work on the subject of the Turkish legislation in the field of freedom of expression and the practices of the courts and prosecutors. Interviewed by the Turkish representative of the Socialist Group, Utku Çakirözer, the Secretary General announced new important events: “We are gathering judges and prosecutors to discuss the standards in the Convention, the perception of what freedom of expression is according to European standards, and the case load of the Court. […]I hope that that work will bring fruitful results.”

In conclusion, Europe is now facing many dilemmas as reported by Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland. The ECHR represents a solution to tackle these challenges, as it is “the most sophisticated system of international co-operation anywhere in the planet”. All European States have to stand up for something and this should be the Convention, “a set of liberties that all in Europe must enjoy – no ifs, no buts, no cultural relativism”. It has just to be respected and implemented at all levels.


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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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