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Thorbjørn Jagland: "Only in Europe have we taken seriously the Universal declaration of Human rights"

On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights, Toute l’Europe has interviewed the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, about what has been accomplished and what remains to be done to improve Human rights in Europe.

Toute l’Europe: As you know, yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the European Convention of Human Rights. What happened during these 60 years, what results did it manage to achieve? What remains to be done?

Thorbjørn Jagland: The implementation of the Convention is ensured by the Court of Human rights and other monitoring bodies in Strasbourg. Beyond individual judgments, this Court has contributed to change the legislation within the member countries. There are so many examples where it has successfully moved domestic legislations towards a better recognition of Human rights. It is especially the case in Russia.

Of course, there are still a lot of human rights problems in Europe, especially amongst new member states that joined the Convention after the fall of the Berlin wall. Most of these countries have a very difficult history and their transition from communism to democracy has not gone smoothly. They are facing corruption and multiple problems in their judicial system. In Azerbaijan, people have been put in prison for publishing on their blogs. This shows that there still are old traditional human rights problems in our continent!

These are things that the Council can help. Judgments by the Court are putting pressure on countries to improve their judiciary apparatus. Actually, Russian President Medvedev said openly that he welcomes the assistance and the pressure he has from the Council of Europe’s bodies in that respect.

Toute l’Europe: What challenges are we still facing in Western Europe?

Thorbjørn Jagland: It is true that we also have human rights problems in the so-called “old democracies” . The discussions about the Roma people have showed us that we are still a long way from ensuring that their rights are observed in many countries.

thorbjorn jaglandThorbjørn Jagland has been Secretary General of the Council of Europe for over a year. This former Norwegian Prime minister has experience in human rights issues since he chaired the committee that distributed the Nobel Peace Prize.

Issues of social rights have also increased with the economic crisis. The Council of Europe handles them too, in respect of its social charter, which is equally important. Another example is the monitoring of detention conditions in precincts. The situations in Belgian and French precincts are not satisfactory.

All in all, we can never take it for granted that human rights are safeguarded forever because we have democratic institutions. We have seen again and again new challenges appear. We will always need watchdogs like the monitoring bodies in Strasbourg and the Court.

Toute l’Europe: Is there an evolution in the requests that are taken to the Court? What are its positions on bioethics, gay marriage…?

Thorbjørn Jagland: These are very good examples of how the Council of Europe’s machinery along with the Court are changing their perspective on human rights. You mentioned the rights of homosexuals. They were still neglected only a few years ago, because the issue was too controversial for domestic politics. Now, it is on the agenda in most of our countries, thanks mostly to the Council of Europe. The pressure that comes from us is crucial to move things along in member states.

Toute l’Europe: You mentioned the Roma people, over which a lot of ink has been spilled in France and in the EU. What is the role of the Council regarding Roma people? What concrete actions can it take in order to improve their fate?

Thorbjørn Jagland: As you know, we held a very high-level conference in Strasbourg last week about the Roma issue. It gave us the opportunity to make quite concrete proposals. Our approach is to educate and train so-called “Roma mediators” , a large number of them, that are to be deployed in our member states. Their role is to guide the Roma people through to get access to social services, education, housing… The biggest problem we are facing is that the Roma people are separated from the societies they are living in. They don’t know how to, so to say, “get their rights” , something our mediators can help them do. We also train lawyers in Strasbourg that can help them in judicial situations. We intend to deploy 400 of these mediators next year.

Toute l’Europe: You mentioned earlier the importance of the Council of Europe in pushing issues like gay marriage to the agenda. This is possibly one of the differences between your approach and the EU’s, which prefers deferring moral issues to member states rather than settling them itself. Do the visions of the Council of Europe and of the EU somehow differ in terms of human rights?

Thorbjørn Jagland: The EU has its own charter of rights, which has improved a lot the situation in its territory. The challenge now is to get a coherent system that covers the entire Europe. That is why we have started negotiations with the EU for it to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights and also be part of our Court. We need to avoid having two systems, one under the Luxembourg Court and one under the Strasbourg Court. It is very important. We need to have a pan-European perspective on all this to cover the whole continent, including the EU institutions.

About that, we hope we can conclude the negotiations within a year. It should be done before next summer. As far as the ratification project goes, a couple things have to be settled. First of all, the EU will be part of the Court, so we have to find out how we will elect the EU judge in the Court. Judges are elected by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. But the EU as such is not represented in the assembly. So how can we elect a EU judge in an assembly where it’s not represented? Also the question of the division of labor between the Court in Luxembourg and our own Court remains to be addressed.

Toute l’Europe: What message do you wish to send for this sixtieth anniversary?

Thorbjørn Jagland: I’d like to remind that when the Convention came, when the Court and the monitoring board were established, it was very revolutionary. The machinery we have here is really unprecedented in history. Only in Europe have we taken seriously the Universal declaration of human rights, and have institutions to actually enforce it. What we do is unique in history and in the world today.

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