Delphi Economic Forum – “Human Rights and the COVID-19 Pandemic”

(videoconference) 11 May 2021
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As delivered


Congratulations to the organisers of this sixth Delphi Economic Forum for ensuring that it could take place in hybrid format, given the current global circumstances.

It is important that events like this go on, so that ideas can be shared on the many challenges that face our world.

Of course, COVID-19 is at forefront of these.

And it is on that subject that I will speak today, with a particular focus on the social dimension of the crisis:

Outlining some of the actions that the Council of Europe has taken in this area -

And looking at some of the issues on the horizon.

There can be no doubt about the scale of the problems.

COVID-19 has claimed millions of lives.

And it has disrupted the ways in which we live, work and learn, to the deep detriment of many people.

My Organisation’s role is to help our member states respond in ways that are effective and which uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law:

Standards to which each country has committed by its own free will.

These include the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, which details the right to protection of health.

Over the past year, we have been proactive in our approach.

Last April, I published a toolkit document confirming for national authorities that their public health related responses must be necessary, proportionate, and limited in duration.

Yes, governments have a positive obligation to protect life;

Yes, this may require measures to help particular groups and those who are severely ill.

And yes, our Oviedo Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine implies that measures should be taken to prioritise and protect those in high risk groups and vulnerable situations.

But those steps must be taken in parallel with other human rights concerns that rightly constrain states’ actions.

Our Venice Commission has reinforced that any state of emergency must be subject to democratic control and has spelled out some of the principles, conditions and guarantees that should be maintained, including in the conduct of elections.

In fact, every part of our Organisation has addressed the consequences of COVID-19.

We have, for instance, raised the alarm on discrimination against minorities and minority language speakers, many of whom have lacked access to COVID-related information in their mother-tongue.

For them, and for the women and children who have been exposed to an increased risk of violence and sexual abuse, we have sought to ensure respect for our standards and to assist governments in sharing best practice.

The sad reality is that an increase in the rates of domestic abuse was predictable from the very outset of this crisis.

Periods of confinement mean that victims are often trapped with their abusers –

Unable even to call help lines.

And statistics from last year showed that as the rate of incidents rose, the number of phone calls for help fell.

A report by our monitoring body, GREVIO, published earlier this month, also laid bare the reality of this terrible increase in violence.

All of this points to the importance of expanding the membership circle of our Istanbul Convention, which remains the international gold standard on preventing violence against women.

Of course, children have been disproportionately exposed to a further problem.

No education system was fully prepared for the impact of coronavirus.

Blended education has been common, mixing face to face learning and online teaching.

And there will be further challenges regarding the design, assessment and recognition of qualifications.

The European Convention on Human Rights is clear that no person shall be denied the right to education.

In addition, our European Social Charter includes a general right to education and requires states to establish and maintain an education system that is free of charge.

But to deliver that right will require more innovative thinking and a determination to ensure that disadvantaged students do not fall behind because they lack support, equipment or internet coverage.

Education must be inclusive.

This is fundamental to the Roadmap response that we have agreed.

At the Council of Europe, we have not only advised:

Our Development Bank, for instance, has invested more than 3 billion euros in COVID-related emergency projects and issued Social Inclusion Bonds to help fund mitigation of the pandemic’s social and economic effects.

But this public health crisis is a moving target that poses new questions.

Twelve months ago, the world was longing for effective vaccines.

Now we have them, notwithstanding the difficulties that have plagued their roll out and from which lessons must be learned.

At the Council of Europe, we have been clear that everyone should have a fair opportunity to receive a safe and effective vaccine:

And while our Bioethics Committee has pointed out that scarcity of supply makes it necessary to prioritise groups and reduce transmission, severe illness and deaths –

It is equally true that there must be no discrimination, for example against migrants, asylum seekers, or homeless people.

Indeed, where there are administrative barriers to their inoculation, these should be removed.

On the issue of compulsory vaccination –

The Oviedo Convention makes clear that, in principle, any medical intervention should be subject to a patient’s free and informed consent.

And the European Convention on Human Rights imposes a strict lawfulness and proportionality test for justifying mandatory measures in sensitive areas such as health.

Case-law from our European Court of Human Rights just last month did confirm that compulsory vaccinations for children can be lawful for public health reasons.

This case was not related to COVID.

But it highlights the competing issues and the complexities that any government must consider when considering vaccination policy in the current, pandemic context.

That’s why I have recently sent an information document to our 47 member states’ governments highlighting the relevant human rights standards for addressing the issue of “vaccine passes” which is currently being debated in many European countries.

And only last week, our data protection and bioethics committees produced complementary statements that provide member states with further guidance to ensure that any actions governments take in this area are compliant with human rights standards.

We will continue to support our member states in finding solutions to these and other challenges in line with our common standards.

Prominent among these will be the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on Europeans’ social and economic rights.

During financial downturns, there always lurks the danger of widening social divisions.

And the threat that these will erode social cohesion and trust in democratic institutions.

So, there will be a premium on ensuring that we protect those who have least.

The European Social Charter should be the load star that guides member states in achieving this.

It is clear about governments’ obligation to maintain high and stable levels of employment;

To secure just working conditions, including fair pay for precarious work and low-paid workers;

And to ensure equal opportunities in employment, with equal pay for women and men.

Particular attention must be paid to the situation faced by vulnerable groups identified by the Charter.

These include children, older people, and those with disabilities.

They have already suffered most during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And they must not now pay a higher cost when it comes to the social economic fall-out.

This is a call for decency in the hardest of times.

And it was with this in mind that I recently made specific proposals on how we can reinforce the European Social Charter system.

What we need is a renewed political commitment to the social and economic rights enshrined in the Charter;

A better and more effective monitoring system at European level than the one we currently have;

And a common reflection about emerging social and economic challenges which have come to the forefront because of the pandemic, including those relating to the environment.

I am proud of the way that the Council of Europe has provided leadership in the areas that we know best.

Our standards are designed to ensure that human rights, democracy and the rule of law prevail in the most difficult circumstances and to the benefit of all Europeans.

They are fit for that task.

And, as events have proven, multilateralism must remain at heart of addressing what is a very international crisis.