Speaker: Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe
Chair: Daniel Gros, Director, CEPS
Date: 4 May 2011
This report presents a synthesis of the presentation of a new book by Thomas Hammarberg, entitled “Human rights in Europe: No grounds for complacency”, which took place at CEPS on 4 May 2011. The author, who is the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (CoE), identifies “shortcomings existing in Europe still today”, while at the same time offering more than 100 recommendations and positive ideas about human rights in Europe.
Following introductory remarks by CEPS Director Daniel Gros, Commissioner Hammarberg started by reporting that he had travelled to almost all of the 47 member states of the CoE, including the EU member states, and that the word that best describes his feelings during these trips was “impatience”. It was this impatience that lead to the subtitle of his book. He feels that complacency in many European capitals is clearly evident in policies affecting human rights. He then made reference to the fact that many Foreign Office officials signal other countries but not their own when it comes to human rights issues, which demonstrates the need for more self-criticism.
Nevertheless, Mr Hammarberg pointed out that there are many positive aspects about human rights in Europe, such as the fact that it is the only continent where the death penalty has been completely abolished. The exceptions in broader Europe are Belarus and Russia. In the case of Russia, although the death penalty is maintained, there is a moratorium on the practice that prevents its use. He concluded that in the Council of Europe area the death penalty was no longer an issue. Mr Hammarberg added that there has been considerable progress regarding the rights of children. Europe has seen more than half of the countries abolishing corporal punishment and denouncing violence against children. He mentioned the existence of similar structures in all European countries today, such as equality bodies, commissioners and supervisory bodies ensuring respect for human rights. All the countries in the Council of Europe area have adopted the European Convention on Human Rights as part of their own legislation, which brings them under the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court and means they are also bound by the court’s case law. He concluded by considering that the European system is more advanced than that in any other part of the world.
However, the Commissioner also mentioned the existence of some problems, namely xenophobia and prejudice against those who are seen as “different”. He considered that there are still great problems concerning the rights of the Roma population, who suffer from widespread discrimination and underrepresentation in political decision-making. He also indicated that the life expectancy of the Roma is 10 years less than the rest of the population and that half of Roma children of school age do not attend school. The Commissioner considered that the reason for this situation is the attitude from the majority population and from politicians towards these minorities. Mr Hammarberg considered that reality does not match governmental rhetoric. The Commissioner considers that it is important to respect every member of society. The discussions in some countries on national identity have not been successful, taking the path of creating one identity, which does not reflect the spirit of the real Europe. All the discussions, especially those initiated from the top, have been aimed at trying to identify a core group to which some don’t belong.
Mr Hammarberg then made reference to the European response to the crisis in North Africa. He reported that by the beginning of May 2011 Tunisia had received 280,000 refugees from Libya and Egypt, and another 230,000 from Libya. At the same time, some 30,000 had come to Europe, mostly from Tunisia. Many of them might not have had real grounds for asylum but were mostly seek to improve their economical situation. However, everybody has the right to apply for asylum and have his or her case tried. The way in which Europe has responded to these migrants and asylum seekers should provoke deep self-criticism. He considered that the meeting between Berlusconi and Sarkozy in April illustrated the prevailing attitude in Europe today, requiring scrutiny and discussion. He added that Tunisia continues to keep its borders open, welcoming refugees from Libya, in contrast to the EU’s response. Mr Hammarberg considered that this kind of behaviour from Europe leads to remarks such as: “How can you lecture us on human rights when you act like this?”, harming the EU’s reputation in international fora. Mr Hammarberg went on to indicate that leading European politicians were not standing up for basic values regarding human rights, resulting in the electoral success of extremist groups and influencing migration and refugee policies. He concluded that, for the aforementioned reasons, the pressure on people arriving from countries outside Europe is quite substantial.
Mr Hammarberg then addressed other issues. He began by considering that Europe has not “cleaned up its act” concerning 9/11, because some countries in Europe co-operated with the US in ways that violated human rights, citing the example of what happened in Romania, Poland and Lithuania concerning the preparation of ‘black sites or ‘secret places of detention’ for the purpose of interrogation. He considered that the time has come to clarify what actually happened, indicating that those involved in torture practices should be brought to justice. He added that some European countries also co-operated with rendition practices, handing over suspects to countries where they have been tortured. In the case of the United States, President Obama is trying to be more effective concerning human rights in this area, but met with a considerable negative response in the Congress and among large parts of the population, which ended with him being forced to back down concerning the closing of Guantanamo. He also indicated that Europe will face the very difficult question of having people who were handed over by European countries facing the death penalty.
The Commissioner considered that the judicial system functions quite well in the western part of Europe, even if there is tension between the executive and judicial powers in France and in Italy. In eastern European countries, however, where there is a communist history, the judicial system functions less well and there are often problems of corruption. As far as prisons are concerned, those are in many cases not good in Europe: they tend to be overcrowded, their atmosphere is very tense and not conducive to reintegration into society, with recidivist numbers being very high.
Mr Hammarberg indicated that there were problems with social rights as well. There are concrete problems partly increased by the economic crisis, such as unemployment, deep poverty, child poverty in for example the UK, where about 20% of children grow up in poor families, and poverty among the elderly, which is more common in the former communist countries. Concerning the situation of women in Europe, the Commissioner indicated that there still is a considerable pay gap in terms of salaries paid to men and women; that too little has been done concerning domestic violence and that women are still on average grossly underrepresented in political institutions, with many countries having below 20% in Parliaments.
Report by João Soares da Silva