Interview with Mr Christos Giakoumopoulos, Director of Human Rights
Raoul Wallenberg Prize 2016
1. The issue regarding migration has always been very important to the Council of Europe, and it is even more important in today’s context, when the challenge of the refugee flow has become particularly difficult to address. In which respect is the Council of Europe’s approach specific and different compared to other international organisations?
The Council of Europe has neither the role nor the competence to manage the flow of refugees. Our Organisation’s vocation is rather to ensure that management of migratory flows is in conformity with member states’ commitments in the human rights field. The main preoccupation of the Council of Europe is to make sure that adopted policies are in line with the standards related to human rights protection, and that commitments taken by the member states by virtue of certain treaties, like the European Convention on Human Rights or the European Social Charter, are respected as regards the management of migratory flows.
The Council of Europe’s role in crisis situations is to recall member states of their obligations, especially those related to the ECHR. The Secretary General addressed at a very early stage an appeal to the member states’ authorities with the encouragement to respect their commitments. The Organisation has an impressive arsenal of bodies monitoring member states’ obligations, such as the European Court of Human Rights, the Committee for Prevention of Torture, the European Committee of Social Rights, which scrutinise the situation on the ground to identify points on which States’ behaviour fails to be in line with their commitments. In cases when certain dysfunctions have been established by the Council’s monitoring bodies, governments are expected to take appropriate measures to solve the problems.
2. One can presume that this challenge is all the more serious in a context of crisis, like today’s refugee crisis?
Yes, because in such situations member states are expected to act rapidly and under pressure. In this domain the Council of Europe can provide member states with a valuable assistance – not only by identifying problems to be solved but also offering comparable experiences and bringing good practices in the field.
Today’s crisis linked to the unprecedented migratory flows doesn’t reveal solely States’ attitude vis-à-vis the refugees problem, but also casts a particular light on the moral values of our society. What is at stake in the context of the present day crisis is not only respect for legal commitments, but also our societies’ capacity to act in accordance with the values of our civilisation, such as respect of freedoms, solidarity, non-discrimination. The major risk for our societies now is to betray these values and suffer a failure in both political and moral fields.
This is why it is important today to remark and encourage the civil society’s reaction in our member states, to see how it has taken the lead vis-à-vis authorities’ actions that sometimes are a bit slow or not very well coordinated. Civil society has assumed the role of a guardian of our essential values and has committed to provide persons in need – in this precise case the refugees – with the support these persons are entitled to be offered, according to international treaties and States’ commitments.
In this context, it is important that the Council of Europe recognises civil society’s actions. As an example, I can refer to the fact that the Council of Europe has attributed this year’s Raoul Wallenberg Prize to Agkalia, a small Greek NGO, which provided efficient and excellent support to refugees arriving on the Island of Lesvos that has become an access point to Europe for refugees and asylum seekers.
3. Beyond the monitoring of member states’ commitments, what concrete actions does the Council of Europe propose in the assistance domain, in order to help and encourage its members to respect their own commitments?
What the Council of Europe can do is to assist member states to take measures which are in conformity with their commitments. What does this mean concretely? Firstly, to make sure that the legal, regulatory, administrative, institutional and other arsenal, which are put in place to tackle the refugee crisis, is in line with the commitments of the member states. I refer in particular to legal expertise which has to ensure the respect of the ECHR, of the European Social Charter and other instruments. Secondly, to provide member states with the experience of “good practices”, but also of “lessons learned”, in order to avoid past errors. And thirdly: to support authorities to implement adequate policies facilitating the respect of their commitments, i.e. the respect of human rights, by delivering to these authorities necessary training.
This training is particularly crucial today, in the context of the refugee crisis, because one can observe that there is a large number of public service staff involved in the management of this crisis whilst it is not trained at all for this particular task. It is not only the asylum authority that has to deal with this specific issue but also an increasing number of cost-guards, border-guards, the police, and sometimes even the army. In order to avoid as much as possible the risks to which asylum seekers are exposed, it is necessary to provide all these State’s employees with a minimum of training, or at least to assist public authorities to organise adequate training.
I take this opportunity to wish our web readers an excellent New Year 2016. I hope that human rights protection will become an absolute priority in all our member states, both for the public authorities and for civil society.