January 28th, 2012 • ‘There are many reasons to be concerned over human rights in Europe in times of crisis’, according to SP Senator Tiny Kox. Meeting in Strasbourg this week, the Council of Europe held a debate on ‘human rights under pressure’ and the future of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Also during the session, a new Commissioner for Human Rights was elected.
British Prime Minister David Cameron paid a special visit to Strasbourg to outline his reform plans for the ECHR. The United Kingdom is currently president of the 47-nation Council of Europe. In Cameron’s view far too many Europeans are bringing complaints before the Court, which threatens to sink under the weight of its own success, with over 150,000 cases waiting to be concluded. The British PM believes that the ECHR concerns itself with far too many things, and wants to see its powers restricted and access to it made more difficult by increasing court fees and making legal support obligatory.
In his reply to Cameron, Senator Kox recognised the need for substantial reforms but warned of misguided interventions. “The fact that so many people appeal to the ECHR is principally because national systems of rights aren’t adequate,” he argued. “By far the most cases emanate from Russia, Turkey and Italy. If human rights were better respected, it would make a difference of many tens of thousands of cases. Pressure needs to be brought to bear, therefore, on these Council of Europe member states to put their affairs in better order. They did after all undertake to do just that when they signed the European Convention on Human Rights. We shouldn’t be taking on the plaintiffs, but rather those who cause their complaints.”
Cameron agreed with Kox that in times of democratic and social crises human rights could come under pressure. “You need to make sure that government is government under the law, and there are times when governments – even governments with long democratic traditions – can overstep that line,” he said. “It is important that you have legal and other processes, and checks and balances in your constitution, to prevent that from happening.” In this there was an important role for the European Court of Human Rights and for national courts. However, there was sometimes a lack of balance between ECHR rulings and national interests, for example when it comes to national security or immigration, the British PM felt.
Outgoing European Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg went a great deal further. In his view the austerity measures taken in Europe had principally affected vulnerable groups, the poor, the elderly, people with a disability, and children. The poor, he said, who had already been left behind, have been asked to carry far too large a part of the burden compared to the rest of the population, and the consequences of this were unfair. Too many of the results of austerity directly affected the elderly, whom we now sometimes see begging in the street, which is a scandal. And we must understand that poverty amongst children was growing ever greater as a result of this economy policy. It would be wrong to ignore the crisis, but we must attack the crisis in such a way that vulnerable people are protected. So said the renowned Human Rights Commissioner Hammerberg, who is standing down after six years in office.
His successor will be the Latvian anti-racist and anti-intolerance militant Nils Muiznieks. Member of the Dutch Parliament Frans Timmermans was also a candidate but was unsuccessful, despite the fact that he won support from the entire Netherlands delegation, with the exception of the country’s most right wing parliamentary party, the PVV. “Timmermans would in my view have been a good human rights commissioner, and that’s why I supported him. But I have every confidence in Nils Muiznieks and wish him success. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done, certainly in this time of crisis.”