126th Session of the Committee of Ministers

Sofia , 

Check against delivery


You should have by now received my annual report on the State of Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law across Europe.

It’s sobering reading.

Across the continent we have found holes in the systems of checks and balances meant to restrain executive power. Too many judicial systems suffering from political interference and corruption. Half of member states failing to guarantee the safety of journalists. Growing problems for freedom of expression on the Internet. In some states, freedom of assembly under serious attack.      

Checks and balances such as these are the cornerstone of democratic security. Where they are weak, we cannot prevent corruption or the mismanagement of power. And where power is not kept in check, where citizens cannot have confidence in their institutions, their courts, their media – instability and upheaval are never far away.

Equally troubling, at a time of great anxiety in Europe – fuelled by the economic crisis, the terrorism crisis and the refugee crisis…

…my report also found widespread weaknesses in the rules and practices which underpin social inclusion. 

Anti-discrimination laws not being implemented, for example. The same, predictable groups subjected to prejudice and exclusion – Roma, migrants, refugees, LGBT. So if you look at the pan-European picture, we now have a double-whammy:

On the one hand, problems with our systems of checks and balances, undermining trust in state institutions.

On the other, weaknesses in our policies for cohesion, at a time of fear and uncertainty.

And who benefits?



Extremists and xenophobes.

The forces which have emerged in almost all member states – and which are themselves a threat to responsible government and stability.

The question is: how do we respond?

My counsel to you today is that we must renew our efforts to address the shortcomings which exist…

…working together to boost human rights, democracy and the rule of law across Europe.

My report sets out what this means in practice. Let us rebuild confidence in institutions and in politics in this way. The worst response, by contrast, is to meet populism with populism – because where does that end? In some states we are seeing a new and dangerous tendency towards legislative nationalism.

In particular, as governments try to deal with the refugee crisis and the terror threat, we increasingly see laws being proposed or adopted which brush international obligations to one side.

In others, we now see the European Convention on Human Rights and the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights openly challenged – with some invoking the supremacy of national constitutions, or parliaments, or public opinion instead.

But the Convention system hinges on Article 46, which all States have signed up to, and which says that they will ‘undertake to abide by the final judgement of the Court’.

Take this away, and the entire system begins to unravel.

If this is allowed to happen, the loss to Europe will be immense.

It is only because of our Convention system that – even in these difficult times – in Europe we have a set of common legal standards to guide us.

The Convention is the pan-European ideal – and it remains an inspiration across the world. It safeguards the rights of 820 million people. It enables 47 states to move as one when faced with grave threats to their shared security.

Thanks to our common standards and co-operation, for example, Europe is now leading the fight against foreign terrorist fighters: because we were able to negotiate the first international treaty criminalising the relevant acts, and in just seven weeks.  

The Convention system keeps the doors of diplomacy open, even at the most strained moments between member states.

It got us into Crimea to monitor the human rights situation there – the first international organisation to set foot on the Peninsula in 18 months.

And, as we look ahead, the Convention will be an invaluable tool in managing Europe’s increasingly diverse societies – not least as we integrate migrants and refugees.

Because the rights and freedoms which it contains are not only the basis of a contract between citizens and their governments. They also constitute a contract between the different members of a society: they are the values all must respect, irrespective of background, culture or faith.

So let me end with my two asks for you today.

First, back my report in order to strengthen democratic security across member states. It contains many important recommendations, from a comprehensive programme of judicial reform; to codifying for the first time, international standards relating to mass surveillance; to creating new standards to protect freedom of expression online; to measures to help integrate migrants and refugees.

And I have a political ask too: be louder and clearer than ever in your commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and Strasbourg Court. They cannot be taken for granted and the system is only as strong as the political will behind it – which only you can provide.