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Opening of the conference “The European Convention on Human Rights: its Application, Successes, Challenges and Opportunities”

Valletta 7 November 2022
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As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

 

 

Distinguished guests and speakers,

Ladies and gentlemen,

 

The European Convention on Human Rights and the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg have changed Europe.

Consider the impact of the judgments of the Court in harmonizing legislation in our members states over the decades. This is the main reason why Europe has been able to build a unique and unprecedented system for the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law on our continent.

No other continent has ever achieved this.

Of course, the implementation of Court judgments is an obligation that falls upon every member state. But, at the same time it is a collective and shared responsibility.

The readiness to do so, is built upon political will and an awareness of its importance by governments, jurists and academics that are committed to upholding the Convention-system and are doing what has to be done to put its principles into practice.

So, I congratulate the Maltese authorities and the University of Malta for hosting this Conference – because you have, through this seminar, highlighted what is the essence of the protection of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe today.

But it is not enough that only government officials and professionals are engaged and understand.

That is just one part of the challenge.

The story of the European Convention and the Council of Europe is a remarkable story of victories won, year by year, bit by bit, by citizens across our continent.

But, the dilemma is that very few of our citizens know about it.

That this is the situation in Malta, in Norway, in Ireland – and throughout all of Europe.

Citizens are often unaware of the finer parts of this protection system – and how it continues to transform the lives of individual human beings on our Continent.

We must change that.

We must get better at telling the Council of Europe story –

A story that is told in words, but which comes alive in personal testimonies.

Those who have won cases before the Court are real people, each with their own unique story.

Stories of hope, and promise, and progress.

And they need to be heard.

In part, this is of course a responsibility of the Council of Europe itself.

We need to show the value of our work and how it has had a major impact.

So that we can re-earn the trust and support that are crucial for our very own existence, as an international organisation.

And so that we can continue to develop the tools required to protect and promote people’s fundamental rights.

Not for our own sake – not for any institution – but for the citizens themselves.

That’s why we have launched a visibility project – the Council of Europe Days.

We are encouraging all our 46 member states to hold an annual event that will show the impact of our work on lives lived in Europe.

And the main aim is to see how we can reach out to ordinary citizens – and in particular our youth - and engage them, make them believe and understand that together we can make a difference.

The precise themes will vary from country to country.

But the underlying message is the same.

The European Convention belongs to each and every one of us  –

Belongs to you and me.

And it has, time after time, transformed the lives of so many for the better.

I look forward to Malta – as well as all our other member states – hosting such events in the years to come –

And I am greatly encouraged by this one.

Because raising awareness with this particular audience – this informed group – is itself important to the implementation of the Convention –

And it equips you, in turn, to play your part in giving human rights the visibility they deserve.

How might you do that?

Which human rights stories might you tell?

Many of you will have your own ideas about that.

Case studies that have touched your soul or stayed with you for whatever reason.

Certainly, there are many from which to choose.

Perhaps the case of Nahide Opuz –

Where the Strasbourg Court ruled that Türkiye had not done enough to protect Nahide and her mother from her violent and abusive husband –

A man who had done his family terrible harm.

Then there is the case won by Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans, which led to the UK abolishing the use of corporal punishment in state schools.

The extraordinary case of Norris v Ireland which led to the full legalisation under Irish law of homosexual acts between consenting adults.

The case of Andrzej Leszczak which found that the Polish authorities had not given proper reasons for detaining Mr Leszczak for three years –

And contributed to Poland putting in place reforms to reduce violations of the right to liberty.

And finally the case of whistle blower Brigitte Heinisch –

A nurse who was fired for saying that practices in the old people’s home where she worked were putting patients at risk –

Her victory in the Strasbourg Court led her to receive compensation at home in Germany.

These are only a few examples, but there are thousands.

Of course, every country has had cases brought against it.

So, let me also say a few words here about Malta.

In the 55 years since the European Convention entered into force here, this country has implemented 111 cases.

And while national authorities may have found these difficult at the time, it is clear that they have significantly advanced justice in the interests of Malta’s people.

Let me give you just a few examples also here:

As many of you will know, the journalist Michael Falzon was fined by a Maltese court for defamation because of an article that he wrote about a well-known politician.

But the Strasbourg Court found that Mr Falzon’s criticism of the politician was legitimate and in the public interest –

And it led, rightly, to Malta changing its laws on libel and slander.

Maltese law was also changed as result of the case of M.D. and Others versus Malta.

MD lost custody of her children after the authorities found that she had not protected them from her abusive partner.

When she then left that partner and tried to get her children back, she discovered that under national law she had lost custody of them forever.

This too was found to be a breach of human rights law –

And it led to changes that now better protect family life here in this country.

Real cases, real lives, real improvements.

Of course, the Convention and the Court do not work in isolation.

We have a range of monitoring bodies to help us.

Each helps to identify where there are problems in ensuring human rights, democracy and the rule of law –

So that these in turn can be fixed.

And this applies not only to the Convention itself but also for the other, specific legal instruments that draw from the Convention’s principles in order to address specific problems.

For example, GREVIO, our Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence monitors the implementation of our Istanbul Convention –

A treaty that was inspired by the terrible case of Nahide Opuz that I mentioned a moment ago.

Because of GREVIO’s work, many European governments have changed their criminal laws and now offer specialist support services for victims of sexual violence.

Similarly, the expertise of our Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, GRETA, has helped many states to change their laws, often adopting new measures to tackle this crime both within their borders, and across them.

Thanks to GRECO, our Group of States against Corruption, bribes of foreign public officials in international deals are no longer tax deductible as business expenses.

More than that, they have now been criminalised.

And because of the work of our Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism, MONEYVAL, virtual currencies have been subject to needed anti-money laundering measures.

These monitoring bodies are at work constantly, quietly helping member states across Europe –

Including, again, Malta.

One recent instance arose two years ago, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic –

And during an influx of migrants to this country.

A visit by the CPT, our European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, found that many vulnerable people were being held in de facto detention, in closed conditions, for periods of up to seven months.

These included pregnant women and new mothers, and infants and small children.

The Maltese authorities reacted to the CPT’s findings, and rightly so.

They transferred many of these people to open centres, such as the Hal Far Tented Village and to accommodation in the community.

They provided appropriate conditions, with adequate support, and financial assistance.

So, what can we draw from all of this?

That there are continuous challenges to ensuring that people experience their fundamental rights in Europe today –

That the action required of governments, judiciaries and others is often complex, daunting and politically challenging –

But that rising to those challenges and taking that action is always the right thing to do.

Implementing the Convention changes lives, saves lives. Upholds and sustains our democracies.

And it is our shared duty not only to make it happen but to highlight the benefits so all can see and understand.

Governments that make the effort deserve praise.

Lawyers and academics who raise the issues and solve the problems are vital.

And citizens should not only have access to their human rights, but should know about what this really means for them, their loved ones and the communities and societies in which they live.

The European Convention on Human Rights was created in the wake of two devastating world wars.

But it is as important and relevant now, as it was seven decades ago.

This Conference is a signal that you want to convey that message and that you are ready to give both effect and visibility to Europeans’ rights.

I salute and thank you for that commitment.

And a last appeal from me, organise such a conference every year, make it a tradition – over the next decade. Because people need to know and we need to be reminded.

 Thank you for your attention.