Hearing at the European Parliament – LIBE Committee: “The situation of fundamental rights in the EU: how to strengthen fundamental rights, democracy and rule of law”

Brussels , 

Mr Chairman,

Rapporteur Louis Michel,

►      Let me first introduce the institution I represent: the Council of Europe is the continent's leading human rights organisation. It includes 47 members, 28 of which are members of the Union Union. All Council of Europe member States have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights oversees the implementation of the Convention in the member States. Individuals can bring complaints of human rights violations to the Strasbourg Court once they have exhausted all possibilities of appeal in their member State.

► The European Court of Human Rights is complemented by other institutions such as the Human Rights Commissioner, who is present here today, or the Venice Commission, our expert body on constitutional matters which offers legal advice to countries throughout the world.

►      The Council of Europe promotes human rights through legally binding conventions and  monitors member State's implementation of these standards through specific independent specialised monitoring bodies such as the European Committee of Social Rights,  the CPT/Anti-Torture Committee, the GRECO/Group of States against Corruption or the GRETA/Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

►      Cases of non-compliance are  determined by these monitoring bodies and solutions on how to remedy them are proposed to member States.

►      To strengthen the existing system, the 47 Ministries of Foreign Affairs, last May, invited me to present on a regular basis an overview of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe, based on the findings of the monitoring mechanisms. We are developing an analysis identifying major human rights challenges in each and every Council of Europe member state. This will feed into a report on the state of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe, to be presented next year. This report will reflect the standards set by our organization, be based upon the findings of our monitoring mechanisms and will also suggest concrete measures of cooperation to address these challenges.

►      To sum up, the Council of Europe provides benchmarks, indicators and concrete assistance and all 47 Ministers have just decided to strengthen this system.

►      I support every effort of EU institutions aimed at strengthening the EU capacity to contribute to the protection of human rights and the rule of law, within and also outside its member states.

►      We indeed have the joint responsibility of strengthening the existing human rights protection system in Europe and of ensuring coherence.

►      It is important that these facts are taken into consideration when making a proposal to create a new EU mechanism.

►      Let me also underline that developing parallel systems could inevitably risk weakening the existing mechanisms and create new dividing lines in Europe. It could lead to confusion and to forum shopping.

►      It would risk undermining the very foundation of the effectiveness and legitimacy of the human rights protection system, namely one set of rules for all.

►      How can we avoid duplication ?

The future EU initiative should take into account, base itself upon and co-operate with the Council of Europe.

  • We have a responsibility to ensure coherence. Therefore, it is important to aim for greater involvement of the EU in the Council of Europe monitoring bodies and work, as already recommended by the European Parliament in 2010. The European Parliament indeed has already indicated that the overall human rights protection system of the Council of Europe needs to be strengthened and that accession to the ECHR constitutes an essential first step, which should be completed by EU accession to, inter alia, the Revised Social Charter. It also called for EU accession to Council of Europe bodies such as the CPT /anti-torture committee, ECRI – anti-racism commission, and the CEPEJ – judicial system evaluation mechanism.

►      Ultimately, full coherence of human rights standards in Europe can only be ensured by the accession of the EU to the ECHR. We count on the European Parliament's support in this respect.

►      If the future framework will take into account, base itself upon and co-operate with the Council of Europe, we can all say that we have strengthened the current human rights protection system, and we can be proud of this achievement.

►   Finally, let me inform you that I also shared these concerns with President Barroso and Vice President Reding. I made it clear to them as well that in proceeding with this initiative, the EU should rely and base itself on the existing Council of Europe standards, instruments and data.

►      I would also like to add a few words in relation to the recent revelations made by Edward Snowden concerning mass surveillance. This issue might raise important human rights issues in our member States, especially related to the right to privacy as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe Data Protection Convention.

The principles set by the European Court of Human Rights are very clear:

The Court recognizes that democratic societies find themselves threatened by highly sophisticated forms of espionage and by terrorism, with the result that the Sate must be able, in order to counter such threats, to undertake the secret surveillance of subversive elements operating within its jurisdiction.

However, States cannot do whatever they want to defend national security.

They must operate within strict parameters. As a  minimum, three safeguards should be provided:

  • First, secret surveillance systems must be set out in a law that must be precise and clear as to the offences, activities and people subjected to surveillance, must set out strict limits on its duration, as well as rules on disclosure and destruction of surveillance data;
  • Second, procedures should be put in place to ensure the proper examination, use and storage of the data obtained, and those subjected to surveillance should be given a chance to exercise their right to an effective remedy;
  • Third, the bodies supervising the use of surveillance should be independent and appointed by and accountable to Parliament rather than the executive.