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Exchange of views with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) on COVID-19 and Human Rights

27 April 2021
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Thank you.

It is a pleasure to join you today;

 

To outline some of the actions that our Organisation has taken so far in the fight against COVID-19;

And to look ahead at some of the issues that are likely on the horizon.

There can be no doubt that combatting the coronavirus is the immediate challenge of our times.

Not just here in Europe, but around the world.

Tragically, the pandemic has already claimed the lives of millions.

And it has disrupted the ways in which we live, work and learn, to the deep detriment of many people, and often at the expense not just of their physical health, but of their mental health too.

So, it is right that everyone plays their proper part in addressing these problems.

The Council of Europe’s role is to help our member states respond in ways that are effective and which uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law:

European standards to which each country has committed by its own free will.

These include the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, which details the right to protection of health.

Over the past year, we have been proactive in our approach.

Last April, I published a toolkit document confirming for national authorities that their public health related responses must be necessary, proportionate, and limited in duration.

Similarly, our Venice Commission has reinforced that any state of emergency must be subject to democratic control and has spelled out some of the principles, conditions and guarantees that should be maintained, including in the conduct of elections.

In fact, every part of our Organisation has addressed the consequences of COVID-19.

Examples include measures to guarantee citizens’ ongoing access to courts and justice during the pandemic;

Efforts by our anti-torture committee, the CPT, to ensure the safety and security of those deprived of their liberty;

And guidance to member states on issues ranging from the prevention of corruption and medical counterfeiting to data protection and media freedom:

All of which have posed new challenges in the current context.

We have also raised the alarm on new or amplified discrimination against minorities and minority language speakers, many of whom have lacked access to COVID-related information in their mother-tongue.

For them, and for the women and children who have been exposed to an increased risk of violence and sexual abuse, we have sought to ensure respect for our standards and to assist governments in sharing best practice.

The sad reality is that an increase in the rates of domestic abuse was predictable from the very outset of this crisis.

Periods of confinement mean that victims are often trapped with their abusers –

Unable even to call help lines.

And statistics from last year showed that as the rate of incidents rose, the number of phone calls for help fell.

A report by our monitoring body, GREVIO, published earlier this month, also laid bare the reality of this terrible increase in violence.

So, it is right that we support member states in learning from one another, including about the best ways to report and address violence in circumstances like these.

And right also that we continue to expand the circle of those member states that have ratified our specific treaty on this subject.

The Istanbul Convention remains the international gold standard on preventing violence against women.

And I have already spoken publicly about my deep disappointment over the recent decision by the Turkish government to withdraw from it.

The recent rise in domestic violence should in fact underline the need for action in every country, and I hope that all member states will ratify the Istanbul Convention as a matter of priority.

Of course, children have been disproportionately exposed to a further problem.

No education system was designed or fully prepared for the impact of coronavirus.

Blended education continues in parts of Europe, mixing face to face learning and online teaching.

And there will be further challenges regarding the design, assessment and recognition of qualifications.

 

The European Convention is clear that no person shall be denied the right to education.

 

But to deliver that right will require more innovative thinking and a determination to ensure that disadvantaged students do not fall behind because they lack support, equipment or internet coverage.

Education must be inclusive.

And this intention is fundamental to the Roadmap response that we have agreed.

At the Council of Europe, we have not only advised:

We have provided material support too.

For example, we have shared knowledge and offered temporary free access to guidance and standards from our Pharmacopeia for developers working on COVID-19 vaccines.

And we have issued guidelines to help them achieve quality control.

We have supplied protective equipment to prison services across Europe.

And the Council of Europe Development Bank has invested more than 3 billion euros in over 20 COVID-related emergency projects and issued Social Inclusion Bonds to help fund members countries’ mitigation of the pandemic’s social and economic effects.

We have been present where people need us, and we will carry that philosophy forward.

We need to.

Because the public health crisis is not static.

Rather, it is a moving target that poses new questions and challenges, including for our own Organisation.

Twelve months ago, the world was longing for effective vaccines.

Now, we are fortunate to have them, notwithstanding the difficulties that have plagued their roll out in parts of Europe, and from which lessons must be learned.

But would it be acceptable for countries to make vaccinations compulsory for everyone, or for specific groups only?

Could governments establish vaccine certificates that allow only those who have been inoculated to cross specific borders?

And might they set up domestic certification schemes that allow access to certain spaces for citizens who have had the jab, but deny it to those who have not?

Restaurants, cinemas, sports events and so on.

These are complex questions, with important human rights dimensions.

On the issue of compulsory vaccination –

The Oviedo Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine makes clear that, in principle, any medical intervention should be subject to a patient’s free and informed consent.

And the European Convention on Human Rights imposes a strict lawfulness and proportionality test for justifying mandatory measures in sensitive areas such as health.

Case-law from our European Court of Human Rights just this month did however confirm that compulsory vaccinations for children can be lawful for public health reasons.

This case was not related to COVID.

But it highlights the competing issues and the complexities that any government must consider when considering vaccination policy in the current, pandemic context.

When it comes to the question of so-called vaccine certificates or passports, it is understandable that people are looking for ways to live their lives more normally.

But unjustified differences in the treatment of people based on their health status may raise discrimination issues under both the European Convention and the European Social Charter.

This too is a complex and delicate balance.

That’s why I have recently sent an information document to our 47 member states’ governments highlighting the relevant human rights standards for addressing the issue of “vaccine passes”.

The document stresses that in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic there are real advantages to facilitating and harmonising the process for certifying that someone is vaccinated, immune or infection-free.

This is particularly true when it comes to making travel easier.

But using certificates to grant privileged access to places or services raises human rights issues and should be approached with caution.

Of course, it is in the first instance for national authorities and courts to assess compliance with these legal principles if such cases arise.

But I am very aware that these debates are live, that they relate to our mandate and that, ultimately, COVID-specific issues might arrive at the European Court of Human Rights.

Without question, developments will continue as individual states take unilateral measures of their own.

We are already seeing this.

And there are also efforts to co-ordinate at the international level.

Take, for example, the European Union proposal for a Digital Green Certificate.

It is intended to facilitate the safe and free movement of citizens within the EU.

And I know that a lot of work has gone into this initiative on which the European Parliament will vote this week.

We will continue to follow all of this, and to support our member states in finding solutions to these and other challenges in line with our common standards.

Prominent among these will be the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on Europeans’ social rights.

During economic downturns, there always lurks the danger of widening social divisions.

And there will be a premium on ensuring that we respond in a way that protects the rights, needs and dignity of those who have least.

So it is with this in mind that I will present tomorrow a number of specific proposals to our member states on how we can reinforce the European Social Charter system.

These are uncertain times.

But I am proud of the way that this Organisation has not allowed itself to be overwhelmed, but has instead pulled together and provided leadership in Europe in the areas we know best.

I have no doubt that the will exists to continue in that manner, with our 47 member states working in unity to ensure human rights, democracy and the rule of law are maintained in these and all circumstances, and to the benefit of every European.

After all, our standards are not designed for fair weather use.

They are intended to help us navigate the worst and most unexpected of circumstances.

And I have every confidence that they are fit for the task.