Give European human rights better protection

7 October 2013

Give European human rights better protection

'It is of the greatest importance that the Council of Europe remains the European benchmark for the development of the rule of law, the protection of human rights and the advancement of democracy in the organisation’s forty-seven member states. But if we want to maintain that position, we also have to deliver quality’’ said SP Senator Tiny Kox in Strasbourg, where the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is meeting this week. PACE will take a critical look at the Council of Europe’s own performance record as well as recent European Union initiatives in the area of human rights.

Tiny KoxThe European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is binding on all member forty-seven states of the Council of Europe and will apply directly to the European Union when, in the near future, they accede to it. But between legal obligations and what actually happens on the ground there is in many cases a wide chasm. Countries such as Russia, Italy, Turkey and Ukraine are the leading suppliers of cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which is heavily overburdened, with more than 100,000 cases before it. In other countries too human rights are far from being always respected. Even states such as the Netherlands, Germany and Britain are at times obliged to defend themselves before the Court in Strasbourg as a result of a failure to respect the ECHR. The Court’s judgements are binding and give direction to judges in the forty-seven member states.

In order to prevent more people having to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the member states must improve, in some cases in a quite radical fashion, their own policies and laws on rights. And in order to persuade them to do this, the Council of Europe must have access to monitoring mechanisms functioning at optimal capacity. This, however, is only partly the case in relation to a dozen or so states that have joined recently. When in a member state things go off the rails, as is happening now in Hungary, or something goes awry in several member states, as with the Roma or with asylum seekers or in the case of brutal police actions against demonstrators, Council of Europe monitoring instruments appear to fall short. There is in addition too little coordination among the various monitoring procedures of the different instruments of the Council of Europe, including the Court of Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers and PACE, an assembly in which all forty-seven member states are represented.

This week various proposals have been put on the table in Strasbourg designed to improve the quality of monitoring and bring about better cooperation with the European Union. Senator Kox, who chairs the PACE European Left Group, says that ‘if that doesn’t happen, we will be unable to effectively assist the eastern European countries in improving their human rights policies and the European Union will develop its own policy for its twenty-eight member states. Then we’ll soon probably have two standards in Europe. We must resist this, ensuring that in all forty-seven member states fundamental human rights are respected in comparable fashion, because all member states have voluntary submitted to these rules.’

At the beginning of January in Brussels, Kox will meet with his fellow group chairs in PACE and the group chairs from the European Parliament to discuss the best way to protect and advance human rights in both the EU28 and the remaining nineteen member states of the Council of Europe. 'No other part of the world has anything like the ECHR, which binds all of its member states’, says Kox. ‘Fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of expression, press freedom, to free association and freedom of assembly, are enforceable throughout the whole of Europe, from Reykjavik to Vladivostok. Such a system of law is worth defending and promoting with all of our force.’

On Monday in the Dutch Senate a symposium will take place on the role the Council of Europe can play in improving national legislation. It will be attended by European Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans.

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