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Chairman of the Ministers’ Deputies,
President of the European Committee of Social Rights,
President of the Conference of INGOs,
Distinguished guests and speakers,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I begin by paying tribute to Anna Rurka and the Conference of INGOs for organising this event and to the Greek Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers for supporting it.
To mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, it is our usual practice to gather around the Council of Europe’s commemorative stone, symbolising our refusal to accept extreme poverty.
But these are of course unusual times, and we are not able to stand together physically in that way.
So, this event shows our ongoing commitment to a principle that has taken on a new urgency in the current context.
The COVID-19 pandemic plunged social and medico-social services into crisis in many Council of Europe member states.
Certainly, none avoided the strain entirely.
And, having seen the rates of infection fall in late Spring, the harsh reality is that coronavirus is spreading again with predictable pressure on hospitals, services and the people who work there.
COVID-19 can strike anyone of course.
But there is evidence that poorer communities are among the hardest hit, and that some underlying health conditions are risk factors that correlate with poverty.
So poorer people are particularly reliant on overburdened services at this time.
I am sure that this issue will feature in the broader panel conversation today about how people can access their rights to services, why they may not, and how this might be addressed.
And from the Council of Europe perspective, we are keen to hear different points of view and ideas about what more we might do.
Certainly, we already engaged with the issue.
The Council of Europe is comprised of 47 member states in which a total of more than 830 million people live.
Each of them is covered by the human rights outlined not only in the European Convention on Human Rights but, crucially, in the European Social Charter too.
National authorities are obliged to make these a lived reality.
So, where individuals or minorities are blocked from accessing their rights, governments should clear the path.
Article 30 of the Social Charter to which the Chairman of the Ministers’ Deputies referred to on several occasions earlier is clear.
“Everyone has the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion.”
But the Charter doesn’t stop there.
There are also specific rights to education and employment; fair pay and social protection; housing, social security and – critically – “measures…enabling the highest possible standard of health available”.
These rights are listed separately, but they are interdependent.
When one fails, each of them is at risk.
And a life defined by opportunity and dignity requires them all.
This is true not only for individuals but for populations as a whole.
Unless social rights are observed, society cannot be fully integrated, as one, and at ease.
Yes, it is primarily for member states to ensure that the standards to which they have freely agreed are met.
But the Council of Europe remains active in helping them do so.
Just last month the Secretary General published a lessons learnt document on addressing public healthcare issues in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this, she announced the preparation of a new multilateral and multidimensional co-operation project.
This will address healthcare issues and devise effective, tailor-made solutions to be implemented at a national level with a view to promoting social rights and services.
More generally, she also emphasised the need for dialogue on social and economic rights in order to deal with the longer-term consequences of the pandemic.
Specific proposals will be made soon concerning the role and the place of the European Social Charter.
And the Council of Europe Development Bank has also responded to the public health crisis by scaling up its social investments in order to help member states fund the projects they need.
But our current action on social rights should not be seen only through the lens of coronavirus.
At our Ministerial Session in Helsinki last year, ministers “reaffirmed the importance of social rights across the continent”.
Since then we have worked to support additional ratifications of the revised version of the European Social Charter and its Additional Protocol on collective complaints;
We have published a second volume of our report on “Improving the Protection of Social Rights in Europe”, focusing on the sharing of good practice and ensuring greater legal certainty on the collective complaints procedure;
And our Committee of Ministers has discussed the implementation review of its Enter! Recommendation on access to social rights for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Social rights are a tool at the disposal of national governments for helping all people, in all circumstances, from all walks of life.
But it is those who are disadvantaged who are most in need.
We are fortunate to be joined by such high-quality speakers today, and I look forward to hearing their insights on how social and medico-social services can better ensure a route out of poverty – and what more we might do together to assist this.