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Saint Petersburg International Legal Forum

Online event 10 April 2020
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Address by Marija Pejčinović Burić, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

 

Dear Mr Medvedev,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I thank the Russian authorities for this timely opportunity to discuss ways of addressing the Covid-19 crisis.

The challenges it poses are numerous.

Of these, the danger to human life is the most urgent and we must do what we can to save as many people as possible.

But we must also act to mitigate other, and longer-term, implications.

The Council of Europe was founded in order to bring peace to Europe after two devastating world wars.

We do this by establishing better understanding and greater unity throughout our continent: by promoting
co-operation and assistance among our member states to resolve common problems.

This is the main lesson learned from the Great Victory, whose 75th anniversary we will mark next month.

Human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are the shared values that underpin the Council of Europe’s work.

And we uphold these by means of its treaties and mechanisms, forming a unique legal space from Vladivostok to Lisbon, with the European Convention on Human Rights at its core.

Our common legal standards are of great relevance during this current crisis.

 

Some core rights enshrined in the European Convention are not to subject to any derogation.

Others may be restricted, but only in a lawful and proportionate manner.

And we have just released guidelines to assist our member states in achieving that balance as they struggle with the current public emergency.

Because, while the virus is resulting in the tragic loss of life, we must nonetheless prevent it from destroying our way of life - our understanding of who we are, what we value, and the rights to which every European is entitled.

Foremost in our minds now are the rights to health and to equitable access to health care.

 

Both are set out in our conventions and often guaranteed, albeit in general terms, by national Constitutions.

We had considered that these rights were safe in Europe today.

But health systems in the most affected states have proven unprepared to respond to the emergency as we might have expected.

So we should look to employ our international mechanisms – the European Social Charter, the Moscow Convention on Medicrime and the Oviedo Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, as well as the European Pharmacopeia – to review and strengthen states’ capacities to comply with our common standards.

We are ready to assist them in this regard.

 

But we must also turn our attention to the situation facing vulnerable groups.

These include the gravely ill, people in extreme hardship, the elderly, and those deprived of their liberty, including many migrants.

Inadequate health care may impact some of these people so severely that they fall within the scope of “inhuman and degrading treatment”, as the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture warned at the very beginning of this crisis.

The Council of Europe must therefore enhance its legal tools and co-operation programmes in order to prevent and remedy what might be defined as ill-treatment.

 

We will also revisit our action on social cohesion and youth policy so as to spread best practices for the benefit of those in greatest need.

This brings me to another important point.

The Council of Europe’s role and approach on economic and social rights needs to be reviewed as Europe enters what is also clearly an economic crisis.

The full impact on business, jobs and prosperity cannot be known at this stage, but it will be significant, not least for small and medium enterprises.

Unemployment has already risen exponentially in many European countries that were considered wealthy and safe only weeks ago.

 

And we know that financial precariousness can lead to heightened vulnerability and social disruption.

We must therefore continue to work with our member states with a view to strengthening our mechanisms for the protection of social rights.

The last decade focused on the successful reform of the mechanism of the European Convention on Human Rights.

As a result, the European Court of Human Rights has become more efficient and more effective.

We now need to give as much attention to the European system of social rights protection.

 

Collective engagement and solidarity are what we need Europe-wide – and the Council of Europe will spare no effort assisting our member states in this respect.

We must also do everything possible to ensure that the epidemic does not lead to a weakening of the democratic foundations on which our civil and political rights and our freedoms rely.

Freedom of expression should be preserved, and any restrictions must be strictly proportionate to the legitimate aim of protecting public health.

This applies equally to freedom of conscience, freedom of association and the right to privacy.

Of course, the pandemic creates an extraordinary situation in our political life.

 

Civil and political rights remain in place but, objectively, there are obstacles to exercising some of them fully.

For example, in holding elections and referendums.

We have seen that the French government has had to postpone the second round of local elections.

Similarly, Armenia’s constitutional referendum has been postponed and the same thing has happened in the Russian Federation.

Concerning the proposed changes to the Russian constitution, the Council of Europe has been following closely the internal debate within the country.

 

And our Parliamentary Assembly requested an opinion from the Venice Commission on the draft amendments relating specifically to the implementation of decisions by international bodies.

There are other parts of the reform that might also benefit from the input and expertise of the Council of Europe.

That is why I have initiated a dialogue with the Russian authorities - so that we can progress further in our discussion on the reform - and I hope that this will be beneficial for Russia.

My last point concerns the crucial importance of access to official information and documents.

Freedom of expression is not the only condition for public scrutiny.

 

An informed public debate also requires access to official information and documents that guide the
decision-making process.

Whatever remedies or preventive measures are being considered during the crisis or after it, people must have information, and they must have a say.

We recently enhanced our work to promote public debate on the human-rights impact of biomedical developments and on the ways to make such debate effective and meaningful.

And we will go on to support an informed debate on other aspects of the current crisis and its consequences.

Whether they access information first hand, or through the work of journalists and others, the public must have access to information in order to foster trust.

 

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Solidarity is essential as we face the current crisis.

Europe, and indeed the wider world, have already been heavily affected, and the risk of further disruption is real.

States are doing their best to protect their citizens, but unilateral actions have limits.

So, there is an urgent need to co-ordinate states’ responses, to exchange good practice, and to help each other in the quest for a quicker recovery.

 

The Council of Europe was created 70 years ago to achieve “a greater unity between its members”: to rebuild Europe on the basis of common values and standards and through mechanisms that allow for mutual help and support.

Had it not been created then, we would have to create it today.

Let us exploit what we have to its full potential.