Address to the High Level Segment of the United Nations Human Rights Council

Geneva, Switzerland , 

Mr President,

Honourable Chair,

Distinguished delegates,


I am honoured to address you today on behalf of the Council of Europe.

The United Nations and the Council of Europe are tied together by history and purpose.

In particular I would like to highlight the role of the Council of Europe in implementing UN standards in Europe. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights, which set up a huge machinery of monitoring bodies and the European Court of Human Rights meaning that 800 million people can apply to the Court if they believe that their own authorities are not in compliance with the convention's standards, is unprecedented in history.

The findings of our monitoring bodies are widely used in the United Nations, especially in the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) and UN treaty bodies.

I also very much appreciate our co-operation in the field, such as the implementation of UPR recommendations in areas where the Council of Europe has relevant capacities.

Still scarred by war, our founding fathers understood that lasting peace had to be built on solid foundations: on democracy, human rights and rule of law. We have to a large extent been successful.

It does not mean that we do not have problems.

Today, I would like to outline what I believe are the three most pressing challenges that we are facing currently in Europe, and probably also beyond this continent.

The first challenge is the fight against corruption and other forms of misuse of power. Corruption is a threat to democracy and it undermines citizens' trust in the rule of law.

According to recent data, almost three quarters of the citizens in Europe perceive corruption as a major problem in their country and almost half think that the level of corruption has risen over recent years.

The first precondition for fighting corruption is a trustworthy, effective and independent judiciary. The problems in this sector are many. Some have lengthy proceedings, in other countries the judiciary is corrupted or controlled by the executive power.

Only hard work on reforms and practices that slowly will develop an independent judiciary will make a difference.

Fighting corruption also requires genuine freedom of expression. Without free and independent media the system of check and balances cannot function and there can be no effective safeguards against the misuse of power and incompetent governance.

Similarly, there can be no effective fight against corruption without a genuinely autonomous parliament that is willing and able to control the executive power. Unfortunately, too many parliaments in Europe have immunities that make it attractive for powerful people, particularly in business, to seek a seat in parliament.

The second priority focus should be the fight against intolerance and hate speech. Also this evil is widely spreading and is, as always, the first sign of something more worrying ahead.

This concerns the hottest issue in the public debate across Europe, namely what is our identity. If it ends up in an increasing divide between "us" and "them", Europe is heading for more violence.

The third priority is closely connected to this, namely the protection of minorities. In this respect I would like to highlight the situation of the Roma people.

In many parts of the continent, Roma continue to live in appalling housing conditions which violate the European Social Charter, attend segregated schools and classes, and are victims of violence or hate speech.

Roma are often vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation. Their life expectancy is ten years below the general average, while poverty keeps many Roma children in the streets rather than in school.

This situation is the result of decades, even centuries of discrimination. The economic crisis is also a fertile ground for anti-Roma rhetoric by populist politicians, deepening prejudice and making it more difficult for Roma to take their equal place in society.

This rise of anti-Gypsyism and racial violence towards Roma in Europe is deeply worrying. As from 2014 the transition measures introduced when new member states enter the EU will be phased out. From 2014 all EU citizens will be able to travel and work freely throughout the European Union, which may lead to more Roma people leaving their difficult conditions at home. This may in turn lead to increased tensions and more racism if authorities do not prepare themselves for this development.

Many countries have national plans or strategies for the social inclusion of Roma. But Roma inclusion efforts are bound to fail if they overlook the link between social inclusion and anti-discrimination. Strategies for Roma inclusion should include measures to address anti-Gypsyism. We need to change attitudes among the non- Roma population.

Mr President, distinguished delegates,

In the end I would like to highlight the fact that a number of Council of Europe human rights treaties complement UN standards.

Together they form an unprecedented and effective legal framework to protect human dignity.

All these treaties have an integrated approach including prevention measures, protection of victims and prosecution of offenders. They are all open to accession by non-European member states. 

Let me give you a few examples:

Children's Rights: the Lanzarote Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse is the first treaty containing measures to eliminate all forms of sexual violence against children, including those committed using the internet.

Trafficking in human beings - one of the great human rights causes of our time. Our Convention on action against trafficking in human beings today binds 39 countries across Europe. Thanks to its independent monitoring mechanism, we have come to understand better the dynamics of this problem, which as a matter of fact has reintroduced slavery.

Violence against women: Although only adopted in 2011, the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence has become a reference worldwide. It has become an efficient tool to prevent and combat this scourge.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We – the Council of Europe and the UN – were based on the belief that some rights are natural rights - rights that come from the fact that you are a human being. They are universal. Every nation state has a different history and a different culture, but no country is so different that one can argue that one cannot uphold these natural rights.

As a consequence of the Second World War, the world has to move from nationalism to internationalism. By adopting the UN charter that gave the Security Council responsibility for world peace and security, and adopting the universal declaration for human rights, the sovereignty of the nation state was restrained.

During the last century another paradigm shift took place in most countries. The nature of the state transformed from having a role of protecting itself from the people to taking the role of protecting people's basic rights.

As part of the process of civilization following the Second World War, we have also seen a significant reduction in the use of the death penalty – these are efforts we must continue. Our aim must be the complete abolition of the death penalty globally. The death penalty does not belong to the 21st Century.

The most successful states on earth today are the ones which protect people's liberties. Yes, one can probably achieve a temporary success by suppressing freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of media, and access to independent judiciary – but when such checks and balances are not in place, we always end up with corruption, as well as misuse and mismanagement of power.

This knowledge is the logic behind the human rights and the rule of law system we have in Europe. As the United Nations and the Council of Europe are tied together by history and purpose, we must be tied together in reforming and reinforcing the existing Human Rights – system. Not only in Europe, but beyond.

Thank you.