Annual Conference of the Russian Regional Human Rights Ombudsmen
The Council of Europe was built out of the rubble of the Second World War.
Its founding text is the European Convention on Human Rights, and it is home to the European Court of Human rights.
A Court to which any individual living within Council of Europe territory can complain, if they feel that their Convention rights have been breached.
I, as Secretary General, along with the governments of our 47 member states, act as joint guardians of this Convention system.
A system which upholds the liberties of 820 million people…
The Russian Federation is as an important member of the Council of Europe, indeed I see it as an essential member.
Essential to the pan-European deal which says that our continent is strongest, safest and most prosperous when all of our nations work together for stability and peace.
The lesson of European history, particularly in the darkest moments of the 20th Century, is that we are one continent – our fates deeply interlinked.
Russia has always shaped European history, has always been a part of Europe.
But, as we can see on the news every day, Europe is staring into a period of fragmentation.
Dividing lines are re-emerging, and confrontation simmers in many European societies. Poverty, inequality, badly managed immigration – all are feeding frustration and xenophobia. In many states we see a resurgence of nostalgic nationalism and the impulse to turn inwards.
No nation is immune. And it does not bode well for human rights.
Some countries clearly face greater challenges than others. But almost all are experiencing their problems, whether in their judiciaries or in the protection of free media; whether in the treatment of minorities and the inclusion of newcomers; whether because they are responding to the growing, and very real, terror threat in ways which disproportionately curb liberty.
Europe is not divided into countries which have human rights problems and those which do not. Many of these are common challenges, and they require a collective response.
I would like to pay tribute to Russia’s regional ombudsman for your efforts to defend and promote human rights – efforts which help make the communities you serve become more stable and secure.
Perhaps you don’t see yourself as providers of stability. But all those who help strengthen freedom and democracy do so, by acting as a check on power and by enabling citizens to express their views and differences peacefully.
It’s democratic security – the concept on which the Council of Europe was created. The idea that peace is best maintained when the exercise of power is limited and held to account. And that our societies are made more, not less, resilient, by transparency, political pluralism and democratic dissent.
This is what the Council of Europe wants for all of our member states.
20 years ago, the Russian Federation became the 39th member of our Organisation.
In the intervening years, much has been done to translate common, European standards into Russian law, most significantly through the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, and around 60 other subsequent treaties.
We appreciate, for example, our successful cooperation with the Russian authorities on important reforms to legislation, including the civil and penal codes and the codes of civil and criminal procedure. We are also supporting the Ministry of Sport’s anti-doping strategy.
At the same time, however, we have concerns, and I repeated them in my meetings yesterday, about the situation for civil society in Russia – something I know that many regional ombudspersons care about deeply.
Active civil society does exist, and it is populated by many passionate and effective actors and campaigners.
But, it is also true that these organizations frequently operate in a tense and difficult environment, where they are fearful of the consequences of speaking out against the authorities.
And we know that the situation in the regions, in which you conduct your important, daily work, is often even more problematic than in the capital.
The “Foreign Agents” law, which targets NGOs in receipt of foreign funding and who conduct so-called “political activities”, clearly aggravates this situation. It is discriminatory, it is regressive and it has a chilling effect on civil society at large. For all these reasons, it damages Russia’s international reputation.
I understand that the debate on this law is still very much alive. I strongly hope that the authorities, including the Duma, will now be more receptive to the Council of Europe’s suggestion to change it. The law on “undesirable organisations” raises concerns of a similar nature.
Of course, no country and no international institution is perfect, and it is right that we too look for ways to improve.
At the Council of Europe, we have worked hard to become more efficient and at our Court the backlog has been largely cleared.
We have also ensured that our monitoring bodies look, systematically, at all of our member states, and they judge each state’s compliance with our standards according to the same, rigorous criteria.
Ultimately, however, the success of our Convention system depends on the commitment of our member states. They have a collective responsibility to uphold the Convention.
I say this because today we are witnessing a growing tendency, in Europe and elsewhere, to question international treaties and international courts.
Both have long had their critics.
But it is striking to see the ease with which politicians of all variety, from all corners of Europe, now openly challenge the international rule of law, or blame international institutions for problems at home.
At the Council of Europe, when states fail to execute judgments of the Strasbourg Court, they undermine the entire human rights protection system.
Article 46 of the Convention clearly says that all contracting parties shall undertake to abide by the rulings of the Court.
If one-by-one, states begin to pull at this thread, eventually the system will unravel.
In this context, I have some concerns over Russia’s Constitutional law on the execution of the decisions of international courts, which was adopted a year ago.
According to the law, should the Constitutional Court find that a decision of an international court contradicts the Constitution, it may rule that the execution of this decision is entirely or partly impossible, and thus, no action aimed at its execution can be taken.
Such a conflict is yet to arise with the European Court of Human Rights and we hope that it will not.
And I hope that, before we find ourselves in such a situation, Russia will have found opportunities to make clear its commitment to the binding nature of the Court’s judgments.
If Russia does this, I am certain that others will follow.
Which is perhaps the best point for me to end on: Russia’s influence and its ability to shape the wider European picture.
We never forget this in Strasbourg: Russia’s power to set the mood in Europe, and to set an example to many others.
The country is consistently willing to engage in constructive dialogue with us – even at difficult moments – and we are grateful for it.
In these fragmented times, I want our partnership to be a source of encouragement for all those still seek a Europe free of dividing lines, strengthened by co-operation, in which millions of people benefit from being part of a common, legal space.
We achieved important things together in the last twenty years. There is much more that I hope we will do in the coming years, for the people of Russia and for the rest of Europe too.