The Compass of Europe – Athens Democracy Forum 2020

Athens 30 September 2020
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Dear Minister Varvitsiotis,


Dear Achilles Tsaltas,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to address the Athens Democracy Forum, albeit, as this year’s theme suggests, under new abnormal circumstances. The pandemic is having a profound impact on the way we live, work and meet, but it must not stop us in our efforts to protect democracy and to promote our common values. Even before the pandemic, we were witnessing growing risks to human rights and the rule of law in Europe. Some of these risks have been exacerbated by the virus and, in some instances, by the way governments have responded to it.

I will come to COVID shortly, but allow me first to mention an important European anniversary: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the European Convention of Human Rights. The founding of the Council of Europe in 1949 and the conception of the European Convention just one year later in response to World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust are undoubtedly among Europe’s greatest achievements. The Convention laid the foundation for the successful European co-operation and integration that followed.

However, it seems to me we may be in danger of losing sight of this historical achievement and of its continuing relevance today. Let me explain what I mean. 

With the fall of the Berlin Wall the nations that had been separated by totalitarian rule were able to reunite within the European family.

The Council of Europe embraced enlargement, an historical achievement and monumental peace project and, until the beginning of the millennium, the Organisation passed a series of important milestones in the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Europe became a death penalty free zone - with the notable exception of Belarus - which I hope will eventually follow the path to democracy, abolish capital punishment and finally join our organisation.

More than 20,000 judgments of the European Court of Human Rights have been implemented, improving people’s lives across the continent. We developed a compendium of some 223 legally binding conventions on issues ranging from child protection to data protection and cybercrime. Our Venice Commission has become the most respected group of constitutional experts in the world, providing independent advice to over 60 countries. And we created strong monitoring bodies such as the anti-torture committee CPT and our anti-corruption body GRECO, among many others, to oversee how member states are meeting their international commitments.

Looking back at that period, Europe’s institutions were confident, forward looking and largely undisputed. But Europe has changed and its challenges have become more complex.

Unfortunately, over recent years we have seen backtracking on human rights and the rule of law – a major concern of the 47-nation Council of Europe: Some states need to be reminded in no uncertain terms that the rulings of the Strasbourg Court are binding and must be implemented. Others reject the opinions of the Venice Commission. States who less than a decade ago fully endorsed the Istanbul Convention - our gold standard treaty to combat violence against women - are considering whether to abandon it.

And, worst of all, we see a resurgence of racism, intolerance and antisemitism in Europe, often fuelled by online hate speech and followed by heinous crimes, such as the attack on the synagogue in Halle in Germany on Yom Kippur.

These are dangerous trends, and their cumulative effect is a gradual erosion of the foundations on which post-war Europe was built. Today, we clearly cannot take our rights and freedoms for granted; rather, now is the moment in which to reinforce and reinvigorate them.

So how should we stem the tide? Just as there is no single cause of the backlash, there is no simple fix. It certainly can’t be fixed with a tweet. Naming and shaming might get us into the headlines, but, on the whole, it won’t help us greatly to solve the kind of problems we are confronted with today. Our approach must be engaging and convincing. Our response must be based on the legal standards of the Human Rights Convention.

When it comes to non-compliance, the organisation can trigger an infringement procedure which could potentially – and only after several clearly defined steps - lead to suspension of membership or expulsion. The reintroduction of the death penalty would be one red line, the repeated unwillingness or refusal of a state to implement the Court’s judgments would be another.

Sanctions, however, should remain the exception, because these go against the logic of dialogue and co-operation on which our organisation is based, and which should prevail and lead us to the results we seek.

For example, as part of our rapid response to COVID last April, we provided governments with a toolkit and guidance to ensure that the measures taken by authorities to fight the pandemic don’t unduly risk the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights. At the same time, we warned of an increase in domestic violence and put forward a series of recommendations to help women in distress. The CPT has kept a close eye on the conditions in which prisoners are kept during the pandemic. We have launched many more COVID-related initiatives with the aim of maintaining the necessary balance between public health and individual rights.

Beyond COVID, I have proposed a number of strategic priorities for the organisation over the next four years.  These aim to strengthen the protection of vulnerable persons and step up efforts to fight antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate crimes. We are about to adopt a new instrument for the protection of human rights in relation to artificial intelligence. And we will strengthen our support for civil society too. This includes a special procedure for the protection of human rights defenders and increasing participation of NGOs in our own work, for example with our Platform for the Protection of Journalism and safety of journalists. Finally, we are assessing the impact of climate change on human rights, an important topic which will be discussed here this afternoon.

Across the whole range field of our activities, we will maximise our co-operation and complementarity with the work of other organisations, in particular with the EU, our key strategic partner. We have said that multilateralism matters. I want us to show that multilateralism works. 

Outreach and communication are important for all international organisations today. With the comparatively modest means we have available, I want to focus on success stories that demonstrate the results of our work to political leaders, influencers and citizens. For example, our online tool called “Impact of the European Convention” shows how the implementation of the Strasbourg Court’s judgments has improved the lives of millions of people across Europe.

Before I close, I would like to thank the Greek Presidency for steering the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers successfully through an intense agenda. Minister Varvitsiotis, you and your team are doing a wonderful job despite these abnormal times!

Ladies and gentlemen, friends,

Europe’s future depends fundamentally on the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. While the thrust of economic integration may vary, we must remain steadfast in our defence of human rights. Without human rights, Europe would lose its heart and soul. And that is why we must protect the Convention like it protects us. The Convention is Europe’s compass. The Council of Europe will continue to supply the expertise and assistance to help its member states remain on course, not only in times of crisis. 

Thank you.