28th Feb 2020

European summit calls for human rights reform

European leaders gathered in Warsaw for the Council of Europe summit calling for unity on human rights standards, as well as greater efficiency in dealing with common issues.

The two day summit (16-17 May) of heads of states and governments of the organisation's 46 member countries (which include all of Europe apart from Belarus) is debating the continent's values and most pressing threats.

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The leaders are to sign three major conventions concerning the fight against terrorism and human trafficking.

In his opening speech, the organisation's Secretary General Terry Davis said he believed the Council of Europe (CoE) and its values represented the future.

"I believe that the people of Europe today want more democracy, more respect for human rights and more attention paid to the rule of law", he said.

Oldest European organisation

CoE is the oldest European pro-human rights and democracy organisation, founded in 1949 and based in Strasbourg.

It consists of the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly of 630 deputies from the 46 national parliaments, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and a 1,800-strong secretariat.

In 2005, its budget hit 186 million euro.

The body has pushed forward 196 legally binding European treaties or conventions, with some of them open to non-member states on various topics.

More efficiency needed

Alexander Kwasniewski, the Polish president, reminded delegates in his opening address that "Working for Europe, we should not forget, that great achievements could be easily lost through idle discussions, duplication of activities, inefficiency".

He added that "too much time has already been lost in the past. I am optimistic and I am sure a united Europe will win and overcome the obstacles".

The call for more efficiency relates to the number of large human rights organisations dealing with similar issues and their possible amalgamation.

Delegates also heard that the European Commission should consider setting up a new EU body - the Fundamental Rights agency.

Too big a burden on human rights court

René van der Linden, President of the CoE Parliamentary Assembly pointed out that "Europe should be one - our 800 million citizens should enjoy the same rights and freedoms".

He also remarked that the organisation's European Convention on Human Rights, "is in serious danger because of the evergrowing backlog of cases before the Court. We must save it from collapsing".

The European Court of Human Rights, an institution linked with the CoE, deals with complaints from citizens on their states in cases of their failing to secure rights as adopted in various agreements, conducted by the Council of Europe.

New EU constitution to reinforce CoE convention

Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, external commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner reminded the delegates that the new EU constitution includes a commitment that the EU should accede to the European Convention on Human Rights, one of the CoE's key documents.

She said Brussels would "immediately begin preparatory technical discussions with our member states on the various legal and technical questions surrounding a future accession treaty. These discussions should allow us to clarify the issues at stake".

The commission is also set to begin informal exploratory talks with the CoE this autumn concerning the impact of the constitution in this area.

"Accession negotiations (to the convention) can only begin once the EU constitution has entered into force, and we do not want to anticipate the process of ratification. However, by starting the preparatory work on these rather complex technical questions the commission will fulfil its duty to the other EU institutions and above all to our citizens", said Mrs Ferrero-Waldner.

Warning against impact of \"pro-democratic\" actors

Most of the leaders praised the CoE for its positive influence on democratic developments in Europe and justified its existence even after the break-down of many totalitarian regimes in the previous century.

But Czech president Vaclav Klaus said the organisation should watch out for some internal actors in Europe "which – without a democratic mandate – try to directly decide (or at least basically influence) various crucial and sensitive public issues" under the banner of democracy.

"I have in mind various manifestations of NGO-ism, of artificial multiculturalism, of radical human right-ism, of aggressive environmentalism etc. In these activities, I see new ways of endangering and undermining freedom, which those of us who lived in the communist era take very seriously".

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