High-level Conference on the “Implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights: Our shared responsibility”

Brussels , 

As delivered

Ministers, Your Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Convention on Human Rights is Europe’s promise.

It is the guarantee to 800 million people that their governments will uphold their universal human rights, safeguard the rule of law and strive to build vibrant and inclusive democracies.

The Rome declaration – adopted at the Ministerial Summit to mark the Convention’s 50th Anniversary in November 2000 – reaffirmed, and I quote: ‘…that the Convention must continue to play a central role as a constitutional instrument of European public order on which the democratic stability of the continent depends’.

Today, as economic uncertainty continues to grip much of the continent, as prolonged austerity continues to take its toll and as we see the forces of division, xenophobia and populism increasingly on the march, the Convention keeps us anchored to the values we share in these turbulent times.

Our mission is translating those values into the concrete, day-to-day protections people feel.

The European Court of Human Rights is of course central to this.

When I first took up the post of Secretary General, the Court was being overwhelmed by applications, threatening the individual right to petition – the very heart of the Convention.

Addressing this has been a priority for me.

I would like to thank Mr Dean Spielmann, President of the Court, as well as the judges and Registry, for their tremendous efforts in reducing the Court’s backlog.

Three years after the Brighton Conference, the figures are impressive:

At the beginning of 2012, there were 151,600 pending applications before the Court.

By January 2015, at 69,750 this figure had been cut by more than half.

Of course, this process is ongoing and challenges remain, in particular with regard to the backlog of well-founded cases, which is why we are encouraging governments to contribute to the Court’s special account, set up after Brighton.

But huge progress has been made.

This success is, in part, due to full use of the Single Judge procedure, introduced by Protocol 14, as well as the modernising and rationalising of the working methods of the Court and Registry.

And it is also thanks to reforms by member States, encouraged by the Committee of Ministers’ close supervision.

Bulgaria for example – facing numerous cases over the length of criminal proceedings – decided to get a grip on this problem:

It has successfully reduced the average times of proceedings and introduced direct compensation for affected parties.

The government has lessened the need for its citizens to come to Strasbourg.

Romania, too, has introduced compensation for individuals whose properties were nationalised under the previous communist regime.

Slovenia has done the same for so-called ‘erased persons’ who lost their permanent resident status following the country’s independence.

Italy has introduced a new complaints procedure for prisoners whose detention conditions don’t meet European standards.

In all of these cases and more, national governments are seeking to go to the root of a problem addressing the underlying causes of complaints before they get to the Court.

When Twitter was facing a ban in Turkey, contravening Article 10, the Right to Freedom of Expression and Information, why didn’t the case come to the European Court of Human Rights?

Because Turkey has its own constitutional court, now with its own individual right to petition, which was able to take a swift decision based on the European Convention on Human Rights.

Many of these reforms have been supported by Council of Europe advice, expertise and co-operation programmes and this is what we mean when we talk about shared responsibility – the theme of our conference over the next two days.

The European Court of Human Rights was never meant to act as a kind of lone policeman:

It wasn’t built to shoulder the burden of delivering the Convention.

It is there to step in when, for whatever reason, national implementation breaks down.

National authorities are the primary guarantors of these rights and freedoms.

For the same reason, there are also many instances of the Court giving states real flexibility in the implementation of the Convention, limiting the degree to which it imposes itself on national laws and practices, by respecting the principle of the margin of appreciation.

We see this particularly where an issue does not command a pan-European consensus and raises sensitive ethical questions.

In Evans v the UK, for example, the applicant, Mrs Evans, came to Strasbourg to try to stop the destruction of her embryos which had been fertilised via IVF treatment and then frozen, before she received treatment for ovarian cancer.

Her partner’s sperm had been used but after the relationship broke down he withdrew his consent for the procedure. 

The clinic was obliged to destroy the embryos under UK law and Mrs Evans sought to stop this by invoking, among other things, Article 8 and her Right to Private Life.

Many in the court, I know, felt a great deal of sympathy for this woman – who wouldn’t?

But the Court did not find in her favour.

It wisely decided that, on such a complex, moral question, where the rights of the would-be mother, the would-be father and the wider implications for future cases all needed to be weighed up and where there was no shared position among member States, it would be wrong to substitute its own view in place of the UK’s parliament.

Similarly in Lautsi and Others v Italy, the Court held that the decision over whether or not crucifixes should be displayed in classrooms should be decided by the democratic organs of the Italian state.

The same happened when the French government was challenged over its prohibition of burqas in public places.

These and many other examples from the Court display its sensitivity to national realities.

We in Strasbourg are extremely proud of what we do to advance the Convention but as international institutions we have our limits.

And there can be no substitute for States translating the Convention into their own laws and practices.

So today I urge all of our member States to step up efforts to implement the European Convention on Human Rights, making it the real law of the land, and dealing with the deep, structural problems which impede it.

In their last report, the Committee of Ministers underlined the persistence of such problems and the so-called ‘pockets of resistance’ that we see across numerous member States, from ongoing discrimination against Roma, to overcrowding in prisons, to excessive use of pre-trial detention, to name a few.

Each can only be solved by bold and creative action, led by member States, with full and active support from the Council of Europe.

The Committee of Ministers has already done a lot in the context of its supervision of the execution of judgments.

I will personally do my utmost in light of the role entrusted on me by the present Declaration.

And our Belgian Chair is absolutely right to bring us here to see how we can better work together.

Co-ordinating our efforts will be key, which is why I urge all member States to make sure that the person with responsibility for this in your governments has the right level of authority.

For our part, we will continue to work with our member States to help build the institutions and practices to deliver the Convention:

This is the overriding principle guiding our bilateral work.

And we know how crucial it is to help our States learn from each other’s experiences and keep up with developments in the law.

So we will make sure that the Court’s judgments and the Committee of Minister’s decisions are as accessible as possible.

The translation of judgments is crucial for that – and I should praise the efforts of the Human Rights Trust Fund for their work here.

I should also thank all of the states who have contributed to the fund and take this opportunity to urge others to do the same.

The HELP Programme – Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals – will also continue to train national courts and judges in the application of the Court’s rich case law.

And when we design co-operation activities in one State we will make sure that they draw on the experiences of others.

Albania, for example, has been facing numerous cases against it regarding the restitution of properties.

The new government came to us and said:

We want to solve this problem; we want to know what others have done and what works.

So the Council of Europe is now providing targeted support for the necessary reforms, funded through a voluntary contribution, which uses the lessons learnt by other States who have suffered – and overcome – similar problems.

I think there is a great deal of potential for sharing experiences in this way, and others.

It can make our efforts much more effective:

Activities funded by the Human Rights Trust Fund to support domestic execution processes have already shown this.

So in your discussions I ask you to consider this point as well as other concrete actions our member States need from us.

It might sound odd coming from the leader of an international institution, but when it comes to implementing the ECHR, the less Strasbourg is called upon the more we can claim success.

To achieve this a lot of work is still needed.

But – make no mistake – a lot has also been achieved.

The Council of Europe will continue to work with you day in, day out, to make the ideals embodied in our Convention real for millions of people.

A shared mission, with shared responsibility.

Thank you very much.