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128th Session of the Committee of Ministers

Elsinore , 

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I would do with pleasure what you have invited me to do, namely to draw up a report for the Helsinki Ministerial next year when we have the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe. This is actually what I proposed when we had an informal retreat with Ambassadors a couple of months ago, where I said that we have a lot to celebrate. But we should also use this opportunity to consolidate the Organisation, and to look to the future and set a new agenda for the coming years for the Council of Europe. I think we need it.

But we do indeed have a lot to celebrate. Today we have a common legal space that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok, from the high North to the South Caucasus. It’s a great thing for Europe. We have a European Convention on Human Rights that protects over 830 million people, and we have a European Court of Human Rights to which, ultimately, each of these people has a right of appeal, unprecedented in history and unprecedented in the world today. Ten years ago, the Court was in deep crisis with an increasing backlog of cases. But from a high watermark of 152,000 pending applications, that number has been reduced by almost two thirds. Similarly, the total number of judgments pending execution is declining, down by a quarter over the previous 12 months alone. This did not come about by accident. Working methods in the Court have been reformed. We, as the Council Europe, have deployed our expertise in member states to help them to bring their legislation into line with the European Convention on Human Rights. We have mobilised extra-budgetary resources in the order of €60 million to that end, and I would like to thank the member states sitting here, and the European Union, for giving us the possibility to do this.

So the system is stronger than ever. However, dark clouds have gathered over the Council of Europe. We are witnessing an outright rejection of the authority of the Court and the Committee of Ministers from one member state. One member state has reduced its contribution overnight with immediate effect, and one member state is not paying its contribution. The delegation of this country in the Parliamentary Assembly cannot vote for the election of judges, the Human Rights Commissioner and, if it continues, will not vote for the new Secretary General either. Everybody understands that this situation cannot continue.

That’s why there is a need not only for celebration when we come to Helsinki. There is a need too for consolidation. When we come together there next May I hope that the member states will be ready to reaffirm our values and recommit to the essentials of our Convention system, recognising that every member state must benefit from the same rights that come from the same obligations. We are upholding a judicial system that cannot have a member half in and half out. We cannot uphold this judicial system if the member states do not fully recognise the authority of the Court and the authority of the Committee of Ministers to implement the judgments. That is clear.

The supremacy of the rule of law and the need to execute the judgments of the Strasbourg Court in good faith must be reconfirmed by member states when we have the 70th anniversary. At Helsinki, the celebration of this anniversary must also set the agenda for the coming years.

First, we must go back to our roots, laid down in the most fundamental Articles of the Convention: those Articles that can never be derogated from – not even in a time of emergency – namely Articles 2, 3 and 4.

What more can we do to secure these Articles? On the death penalty, not all states have ratified Protocols 6 and 13. We must do more to ensure there is no torture on this continent, and we should probably set up a rapid reaction force when there are allegations of torture. We should also look at what we can do to tackle the growing – and horrifying – menace of forced labour. Children, women and migrants are normally the victims. We should recall that the Congress in Vienna in 1815 abolished slavery. But now a modern form of slavery is returning to our continent. It should be for us to do whatever we can with our legal instruments and legal standards to combat this evil. So we should be able to come together at the Helsinki Ministerial and say that Europe is a continent free not only from the death penalty and from the shame of torture, but also a continent free from modern slavery too.

So let us stick to our roots, but let us also look to new issues.

Over the coming years the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will pose ever more questions over how to protect people’s human rights. When driver-less cars crash, who should take responsibility for the lives that are lost? Or, when a smart algorithm fails to see a cancerous growth on a lung x-ray, who is to blame? We must set new legal standards where new technologies create regulatory black holes. And we can therefore play the same leading role as we did when we drafted the Data Protection Convention, which was impossible to draft at the global level. But we could do it.

We did the same with the Cybercrime Convention. It was impossible to get such a Convention at the global level, for certain political reasons. But we were able to draft a strong Cybercrime Convention, which became a point of reference for the whole world. By the way, many countries from outside the Council of Europe area have joined it.

I believe that we can play the same legal role when it comes to setting up new legal standards that are necessary because of new technological developments. So this could be a good way to mark the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe that we will celebrate together next year.

I would end by saying the following.

Yes, there are dark clouds over the Council of Europe, but let us not be victims of an ever-worsening international climate. Let us set a positive agenda. Let us focus on what unites us: on what is our mandate, namely to protect human rights for individuals on this continent. And on what is stated in Article 1 of our Statute, namely to achieve greater unity among member states. We can achieve that by implementing the judgments of the Court. By doing that, the legal systems in our member states are merging and therefore contributing to what is said in Article 1: achieving greater unity. This is our mandate, and this is what we call democratic security. By merging our legal systems, having the same rights in our member states, we contribute to peace and security on this continent. Let us therefore do all we can to keep everybody in this Organisation in the tent, so that we can safeguard this legal space, from Vladivostok to Lisbon, from the high North to the South Caucasus.

The international organisations that were established after the war were intended to avoid new conflict on this continent. Intended to settle conflicts in a peaceful way, let us not use these organisations as a platform for doing the opposite, namely to increase tensions. Unfortunately, this is rather what I’m seeing today. We should use the Council of Europe for what is said in the Statute, namely to achieve greater unity among our member states.