Forty years have now passed since the military take-over in Athens. The coup in the early morning of 21 April 1967 was a shock for democrats all over Europe: how was it possible that a simple group of colonels could wipe out democracy in one of the oldest member states of the Council of Europe? The shock deepened when it became known that the Greek parliament was closed and the political parties dissolved, that strict media censorship was introduced, that about 6,000 politicians, journalists, and others were taken prisoner and that many of them were tortured during interrogation.
A coup of this kind could of course not happen in today’s Greece and probably not in any other Council of Europe member state. This is partly due to the lessons learnt from the Greek tragedy during 1967-74. The anniversary this month offers another opportunity to reflect on what had gone wrong and what good examples were later set in the struggle for the return of democracy.
Though the colonels were political novices and made naïve, even ridiculous statements, they were well prepared in military terms, got quickly to grips with the state machinery and lacked no skill when launching their systematic terror. Obviously, the Greek army and security forces had not been kept under sufficient democratic control.
As a young member of Amnesty International I went to Athens soon after the coup in order to collect evidence about the torture. Already then I was struck by the widespread fear in the community. To testify to a foreign human rights organization involved a serious risk.
However, testimonies did come out and an inter-state complaint was submitted in the end of 1967 by governments in Scandinavia and the Netherlands to the Commission of Human Rights within the Council of Europe. The Commission concluded that the European Convention had been violated and the Greek junta decided in 1969 to leave the organization in order to avoid suspension.
However, torture continued and the colonels managed to stay in power for another five years, until July 1974. There were several reasons for this, but a major one was that the outside solidarity with the Greek democrats – though strong in several countries – was not shared by everyone. Not even the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe was unanimous in its condemnation.
The US government gave the junta political protection and the colonels’ Greece could therefore remain a member of NATO. Typically, the Greek democrats at the time appealed to European governments to try to convince Washington to stop supporting the junta or at least require an end to torture – but were most often met with silence.
The succeeding democratic regime in Greece reined in the military and security forces and put the colonels and some of the most notorious torturers to trial. However, there was little discussion about the external factor: the failure of the international community to use its influence to stop the junta.
In retrospect, the position of the Council of Europe Commission is a proud exception. Though the impact on the situation in Greece itself – for political reasons - came with delay, it did have an influence and a great moral significance for many Greeks. The case was the first significant inter-state application and was not tainted by a partisan political intent – the motive was clearly a genuine concern for human rights.
The “Greek case” also encouraged a discussion on better international mechanisms for the protection against torture. An agreement was reached in 1984 about a UN Convention with a special monitoring committee. Within the Council of Europe the Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment was adopted in 1987. Its monitoring committee, the European Commission for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is authorized to make in situ inspections and is still the most effective mechanism of its kind.
Such norms and monitoring procedures have a preventive influence and give protection against a breakdown of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. However, also in the future there will also be a need for political action from outside when the domestic remedies no longer function in a country. This is what many people in such countries expect and hope for.
The fact that some governments had the courage to submit a serious, non-partisan complaint against the junta was crucial for the Greeks and a boost to the European human rights system. However, it may be sobering during this anniversary to reflect on the fact that there have been few such inter-state applications since the “Greek case”*.
* Since it was set up in 1959, the Strasbourg Court has delivered judgment in only three inter-state cases: Ireland v. the United Kingdom (1978); Denmark v. Turkey (2000) and Cyprus v. Turkey (2001). A further 17 inter-state applications were dealt with by the former European Commission of Human Rights, which ceased to exist in 1999.