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“Reasserting the Moral Weight of the Council of Europe”
Speech by H.E. President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins
Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly
Tuesday, 11th October 2022
A Uachtaráin, Président Kox,
A Chomhaltaí den Tionól Parlaiminteach,
Members of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Tá áthas an domhain orm gur bronnadh an deis seo orm chun labhairt libh inniu. I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas ó chroí a ghabháil leat. Présidente, as ucht bualadh liom ar an gcuairt a thug tú le déanaí ar Bhaile Átha Cliath nuair a sheol tú comhdháil thábhachtach idir Airí Dlí agus Cirt faoi fhoiréigean teaghlaigh, gnéasach, agus ar bhonn inscne i gcomhthéacs an Uachtaránach Éireannach ar Choiste Airí Chomhairle na hEorpa. Ba bhunghníomh é Dearbhú Bhaile Átha Cliath, a tháinig as an gcruinniú áirithe sin, san obair leanúnach atá ar siúl chun cosc agus deireadh a chur leis an bhfoiréagan in aghaidh ban, rud atá mar thosaíocht ag Uachtaránacht Éireannach reatha Chomhairle na hEorpa.
[I am delighted to have been afforded the opportunity to address you today. Président, may I begin, by thanking you for meeting with me on your recent visit to Dublin during which you opened an important conference of Ministers of Justice on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in the context of the Irish Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The Dublin Declaration that resulted from that meeting is a key step in the ongoing work to prevent and end violence against women, a priority of the current Irish Presidency of the Council of Europe.]
The conference organised in Galway at the Human Rights Centre of Galway University, Lighting the Shade: Effective Application of ECHR in Areas of Conflict in Europe, was also very valuable.
It is just over seven years since I had the honour to address Members of the Parliamentary Assembly. That was also a time of grave geopolitical fractures, but it was, too, a moment of the brightest hope. The agreements which were reached in New York and Paris that year on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 provided us with a model for the building of a sustainable future for humanity and for our planet.
I address you today when we are challenged not to allow the shadows under which we are currently living to defeat what are our best hopes, agreements which have an intergenerational support, particularly among young people. Those agreements are built on foundations that include the crucial importance of multilateralism, a multilateralism which is at the heart of the values on which all of our global institutions are based, including the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Multilateralism is today under extreme pressure, we might even say in crisis, with adherence to its values very fragile. In such moments, I believe that we must reflect on what multilateralism demands of us and what should inform it. If we are to have genuine multilateralism, then we must be willing to have a fully participative discussion on the universality of human rights.
This requires dispelling the notion that human rights are a uniquely European invention. We must recognise that, for many people throughout the world, their experience of European intervention in their lives has been far from positive, involved the suppression of human rights.
The sources of human rights are much more diverse than the valuable European Rationalist sources might suggest. If we are to achieve an effective, universally supported system of multilateralism, we must recognise that there have been many different efforts at transcendence in human history and many codifications of rights. I think, for instance, of the Codes of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia in 1750BC, codes which have served as a model for establishing justice in many cultures and have influenced laws established by Hebrew scribes, including those in the Book of Exodus.
That having been acknowledged, we can be proud of what was achieved by enlightened minds in Europe. In this context, the Council of Europe’s great achievements of the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Social Charter should be seen, as part of a much longer, deeper historical instinct across all human civilisations to establish and respect fundamental human rights in a manner which might apply across our different cultures.
This wider vision, one beyond any hubris, is important if we are to speak authentically to people across all parts of the world on what are the common values which we share, to enable a wider vision of how our global future can be managed sustainably, and now urgently, in response to climate change and its consequences.
Today, in the face of new challenges that cast such a dark shadow over Europe, I believe it is important that I reaffirm Ireland’s unequivocal commitment to multilateralism, and to the goals and principles that have guided the Council of Europe’s endeavours throughout its 73 years of existence.
The Council of Europe, this distinguished institution to which we owe so much debt for its role in Europe’s moral and cultural reconstruction after the devastation of World War II, has provided an essential legal framework for the building of peaceful societies. Its highlighting of the fundamental principles of pluralist democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, as well as its setting of standards in human rights through the European Convention on Human Rights system in particular, have been key achievements, confirming the common goal of a freer, more tolerant and just society in Europe. The objective of peace was an Irish contribution in 1949.
Only yesterday did we mark the International Day against the Death Penalty. It is now 37 years since Protocol No. 6 to the Convention, which abolished the death penalty in peacetime, entered into force – a great milestone and powerful example of what can be achieved within the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Convention’s framework, which we must consciously and pro-actively nurture as an indispensable component of the architecture of stability, peace and trust, built on this continent over the decades, is a legacy and resource of profound ethical significance, one that is admired and emulated across the globe, and which we let unravel at our peril.
One of the great benefits of the Council of Europe is its wider membership than that of the European Union. Europe is not best described as a ‘bloc’. The Council of Europe demonstrates the importance of reaching out to our shared responsibilities, to social, economic and ecological rights that can offer cohesion, fulfilment and sustainability.
There are, however, may I suggest, some basic rights which have been neglected in the discourse. If I may give the example of freedom from hunger. Surely the most important right which any of us must have is the right to be free from starvation, and undoubtedly the biggest security threat facing us is hunger. Yet today we find ourselves, once more, in the position of another grave hunger crisis, one of cataclysmic proportions.
For example, we see horrific, preventable scenes of famine and severe malnutrition across the Horn of Africa, a region that has endured devastating hunger three times in three decades. On the previous two occasions, the world said “never again” when details of the famine were reported to the United Nations. We as a global community have the capacity to anticipate and prevent regional and global famines, giving meaning to the words “never again”.
Yes, it is important that we reach all the short-term humanitarian targets which we have agreed in order to tackle the immediate shortages and save lives. This alone however is insufficient. We need to address the structural factors contributing to food insecurity and do so from a rights-based perspective, dealing with issues such as debt, monopolistic control of production and distribution of staples in food. Food insecurity is contributing to, and exacerbating, conflict. It is a moral choice between tolerating monopolistic economics at international level and the right to survive. Our world must address issues of sufficiency in a different and sustainable way.
Ours, and the Council’s, purpose must be to achieve in our democracies conditions of peace. If we enter and accept a time where it is impossible to talk of the aspiration of peace, then the Council of Europe, and indeed us all, will have failed.
Multilateralism is the principle we rightly invoke as an alternative to unbridled unilateralism, but it is a principle which must be tested for institutional adequacy. The Council of Europe has achieved much in its history, but cannot afford to be complacent about the challenges that remain ahead. It is appropriate, I suggest, to ask if the architecture which is available in current diplomacy can deliver on the original aims of the Council of Europe or indeed of the Charter of the United Nations.
It is a painful reality that the architecture and institutions underpinning multilateralism have proved to be fragile, weak, and, I have to say, occasionally not fit for purpose. If we can identify shortcomings, should we not press for reform? Just as, given its dysfunctional consequences, we cannot continue to have five permanent members with a veto on the UN Security Council continue to prevent and obstruct the consensus of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Council of Europe too must be willing to look at the architecture necessary for effectively tackling other issues.
In this context I welcome the guidance which the very eminent members of the High-Level Reflection Group chaired by my predecessor as President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, suggest on the future of the Council, as will the work by the Parliamentary Assembly’s Ad hoc Committee on the proposals for a Fourth Summit and governance in the Council of Europe.
Ireland is acutely aware of the important role the Council of Europe has played in shaping our own path in European cooperation. Our membership in the Council and our implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights have been fundamental in considering the rule of law and supporting positive change in Ireland.
The Council of Europe has played a critical role in the encouragement it offered Ireland towards deeper engagement with Western Europe after 1949. Its Assembly was a means by which Irish parliamentarians could come to understand and contribute to debates on the great challenges of the day, be they economic reconstruction of post-war Europe or sharing a response to humanitarian crises, thus acquiring the concepts and indeed the vocabulary of possible European integration and multilateralism.
Máire Mhac an tSaoí, one of our State’s first female diplomats, and the first Irish woman to serve as Permanent Representative to Strasbourg described this institution, the Council of Europe, in 1959 as “a stage in international progress unimaginable before the last war”.
Again, too, Seán MacBride, concluding a debate in the Irish Parliament in 1949 approving the Statute of the Council, stated:
“It is, in my view [that this is] one of the most important and constructive developments that have taken place in Europe. [...] Unlike many other attempts at world organisation, it relies rather on moral, ethical, social and economic forces than upon military measures.”
Both Seán MacBride and Máire Mhac an tSaoí understood – as too few politicians did at that time – the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the crucial role which its Commission and Court would play in setting standards.
Despite the moral authority of its legal institutions, we live in a world where the legitimacy of both the European Court of Human Rights and the Convention on Human Rights continues to be undermined. Let me take this occasion to state Ireland’s view very clearly: the European Convention on Human Rights must remain the cornerstone of human rights’ protection across Europe.
To those who suggest that there is a tension between the principles of parliamentary democracy and the international protection of human rights, I respond unequivocally that parliaments flourish in an environment where rights are vindicated, upheld and promoted, not where they are delayed, judged or even rejected.
The reality of human rights of course extends ever further, and it is within the realm of social and economic rights that we, in recent times, have all witnessed grave threats to security by policies and decisions that were far removed from the values of the European Social Charter, that landmark document that affirms how human flourishing entails the effective enjoyment of social rights, as well as civil and political ones.
There were times, and there will be again, when the Council of Europe is the institution that is called upon to fill a vacuum, make a response. The report of former Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, ‘The Impact of the Economic Crisis and Austerity Measures on Human Rights in Europe’ was such a moment. His report is a damning indictment of austerity policies that were enforced upon the citizenries of Europe without consideration as to human consequences in order to maintain an under-regulated European banking sector, an approach that had serious implications for human rights:
“People’s rights are [...] threatened by the impact of the economic crisis and growing inequalities. [...] European societies have suffered the effects of the recent economic crisis, which has deeply affected social cohesion in many member States, and which may eventually threaten both the rule of law and democracy.”
A narrow, blinkered paradigm of economics was allowed to dominate policy, with disastrous effects on social cohesion, one that challenged any human rights perspective. This paradigm contradicted everything in the spirit of the Council of Europe, and in particular its values as expressed through the European Social Charter protecting as they do socio-economic rights, rights relating to employment, housing, health, education, social protection and welfare.
Any widening gap between principles of the Council of Europe and the European Union, its Courts and its members’ policies must be seen as a threat to the rules and effective vindication of human rights.
We must ask why the Charter was not invoked when social welfare was being cut and public services slashed across Europe in the name of austerity more than a decade ago, the remnants of which remain with us today, manifesting in so many countries of the Union as under-funded public services and yawning inequality.
The crisis of legitimacy and competence on economic and fiscal matters, a crisis which has fuelled the democratic crisis we continue to see unfolding, not just in Europe, but around the world, has precipitated the great loss of trust now manifesting itself.
The OECD informs us from their research that only 40 percent of European citizens trust their national government, with even lower percentages reported among poorer and younger citizens.
There can be little doubt that social media is a key driver of declining trust, with its capacity to spread misinformation, but I believe that this alarming trend, which points to an ongoing democratic crisis in Europe, has been fuelled by the continued failure to critically acknowledge the consequences of reliance on a narrow economic paradigm that has resisted regulation, facilitated monopolistic tendencies and has widened inequality, that has advocated austerity policies that have proven to be so ruinous to social cohesion, and that has been facilitated by an institutional inertia, something that has enflamed citizen cynicism. Achieving a vibrant democracy requires that we engage citizens meaningfully, inclusively, comprehensively in an understanding and commitment to human rights.
We need to anticipate challenges before they become crises and indeed before they become disasters, and use all the tools available, traditionally and currently, to us. How remarkable it is that in recent times we, given our European intellectual heritage, have enabled the neglect of philosophy to test our assumptions and indeed anthropology to inform us on diversity and difference. These disciplines have had the potential to offer us so much to our present circumstances in understanding and anticipating the crises of our contemporary times, including those sourced in ethnic, linguistic or historical bases.
I put forward today the case for returning to the use of tools such as anthropology in Europe and in Africa as a means of promoting a deeper understanding of diversity and cultural difference, and indeed anticipating potential conflicts.
Concentration of corporate power, the growing realm of the unaccountable, and private isolation and alienation go together. We need to defend the public world, including the space of discourse and access, be able to speak and listen to each other in conditions of respect and discourse courtesy. As public sector broadcasting has increasingly disappeared or become unregulated, we have seen an erosion of public accountability in the media. Likewise, the failure to establish any effective form of regulation over misinformation and abuse on social media has created a further lack of accountability in public commentary.
In tandem with these trends, we continue to see a further monopolisation of media and social media companies. We see, and are allowing, an increasing concentration of ownership in key digital and media companies – and indeed in a similar way as to how we experience the dangerous consequences of monopolisation in the production and distribution of essentials such as grain and fertilisers.
We need to seriously reflect on the consequences of unregulated control of the spaces for public comment by a very small number of owners, owners who by not accepting responsibility or regulation are facilitating a culture of unaccountable comment far outside the normal boundaries or restraint of political and social commentary.
What we are witnessing in Ukraine following the illegal and immoral invasion by its powerful neighbour is an imperialist action. It represents a failure on so many levels.
It is fundamentally also the consequence of a failure of democracy. When Russia was admitted as a member of the Council of Europe in 1996, the path chosen was one of a journey to democracy. It is a path that is contradicted by recent events with their awful human consequences.
The response of the Council of Europe was understandable in excluding Russia as a member. However, that does not, nor should it mean, a permanent exclusion from the Council of Europe, of hope that the Russian population of 144 million people, along with all the other peoples, will not return again to enjoy the necessary protection of the European system of human rights protection.
In order to re-build peace, the response by the Council must be, while reaffirming its founding principles, one that reinforces the strength and efficacy of the core instruments available to it, notably the European Court of Human Rights, which may have helped secure democracy and peace in Europe since 1950.
The egregious breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights being witnessed in Ukraine at present, and the significant political, financial and practical challenges this situation has brought to the Council of Europe, creates an opportunity to progress issues which may have been held in abeyance or stasis for too long, an opportunity for the Council of Europe to assert a renewed commitment to its values.
Yes, the first challenge we face, as Assembly Members are acutely aware, is how to end the appalling return to our continent of war, of an arms race as the outcome, creating and deepening grave geopolitical fractures that carry disastrous human consequences.
The challenge of upholding human rights and the rule of law, while upholding and promoting democracy, must always be a core raison d'être of the Council. This requires that there must be no impunity for human rights violations.
However, to do this effectively, I believe we need to set out a longer term vision of the Council’s role in a post-conflict Europe and how that role might fit within the wider multilateral and institutional architecture.
We should revert to the Council’s fundamental strengths in rebuilding peace, notably the bedrock that is the European Convention on Human Rights. It now must be re-invoked, extended, bolstered and re-asserted, become part of the discourse of the European Street.
In doing this, I firmly believe that we must focus on the indivisibility of human rights, on all its dimensions. We need to commit to what might be a wider definition of comprehensive security in Europe and thus constitute a European step towards a universal human rights-based approach to security, a security that includes the rights to live free from food insecurity and all of the rights of participation.
The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of 30 articles affirming an individual’s basic human rights, including right to life, right to education, right to organise, right to be treated equally, freedom of opinion, expression, thought and religion.
The universality of human rights is based on the recognition of the common humanity of all. This principle, our common humanity in all its dimensions, must be our bedrock.
Any review of the Convention framework must incorporate additional basic human rights, such as the right to a clean environment, which is linked to the right to be free from hunger. It is a reality that both climate change and hunger are driving conflict, and will continue to drive future conflicts.
Responding to climate change and its consequences has slipped down the rank of prioritised global policy issues over the course of the pandemic, and it has done so at our peril. It is unforgivable that another 100 million people be destined for extreme poverty by 2030 should we fail to honour the commitment to tackle climate change effectively.
An under-recognised strength of the Council of Europe has been its emphasis on the role of culture in nurturing democracy. For the Irish, a nation attached to the preservation of its ancient Gaelic language, the adoption of the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, to give but one example, was an important step towards the recognition of cultural rights throughout Europe.
While I am proud to say that from the beginning Ireland was among the first to acknowledge the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, there is also the test of efficacy in delivering remedies and adequacy of response. As of January 2022, 47 percent of the leading judgments handed down by the Court over the past ten years are still pending implementation. There are 1,300 leading judgments pending overall.
For example, more needs to be done in my own country with regard to the protection of minority groups, in particular Travellers. In its most recent Assessment (2021), the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, within the ambit of the Framework Convention on National Minorities, concluded:
“There is still a substantial shortfall in the provision of accommodation for Travellers […], many Traveller sites are in an inadequate condition […], criminal justice [legislation…] [and] housing [legislation] provides for inadequate safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction, [… and] evictions are carried out in practice without the necessary safeguards”.
These findings indicate the distance we in Ireland still have to travel on the issue of Traveller equality and full participation in Irish society. Moreover, recommendations made by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance relating to the above findings have yet to be fully implemented.
What our publics require now is not just acceptance of recommendations of the Commission or decisions of the Court, but better effectiveness of resolution and remedy. The failure to remove the source of the original complaints is, after all, to undermine the legitimacy of the Council of Europe’s architecture.
The European Court of Human Rights, which I will visit, played a pivotal role in advancing LGTBI rights in my own country, Ireland. This is epitomised in the case “Norris vs. Ireland” in 1988, in which Irish Senator David Norris successfully charged that Ireland’s criminalisation of certain homosexual acts was in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This case marked the turning point for LGBTI rights in Ireland, culminating in the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation in 2015.
While significant strides have been made in this important area of human rights in recent decades, they are not uniformly in place across our Union; neither is the provision and legal response to violence against women.
I am pleased that both Ukraine and the United Kingdom recently became the 36th and 37th States respectively to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention recognising as it does violence against women as a violation of human rights.
The implementation of this Convention plays a significant role in the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #5 which aims to achieve gender equality by, inter alia, ending all forms of discrimination, violence and harmful practices against women and girls.
Turning nearer to home, the European Convention on Human Rights is essential to the effective functioning of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in Ireland. The unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the fundamental importance of the human rights’ provisions of the Agreement, require an approach that ensures the Convention continues to be fully implemented in Northern Ireland regardless of Britain’s exiting the Union.
Progress on post-conflict legacy issues in Northern Ireland is crucial in order to meet the legitimate needs and expectations of victims and survivors, to uphold the rule of law, and to contribute to broader societal reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process.
The proposed summit meeting of the Council can provide a unique opportunity for leaders to recommit to the Council’s first principles and set a new longer term vision for the organisation. In doing so, all member states must reaffirm their commitment to the principles and values of Europe as enshrined in the Statute and to the implementation of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, including the unconditional obligation of the Contracting Parties to the Convention to abide by the final judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.
May I take the opportunity to pay tribute for his work at the Court of its outgoing President Robert Spano, and to warmly wish every success to its President-elect, Síofra O’Leary, the Court’s first Irish, first female President.
The Council of Europe’s system of human rights protection is explicitly linked to the maintenance and support of democracy. This key point is emphasised in the 2001 report of the Evaluation Group on the European Court of Human Rights which states that:
“Democracy lies at the heart of guarantees protected by the Convention. It upholds pluralist democracy by securing core principles. […] It promotes the rule of law, which provides the essential framework for effective political democracy”.
If Europe is to fulfil or recapture the vision of its founding fathers, then the Europe we build must be founded on respect for basic human rights, including economic and social rights, and respect for the rights of minorities, migrants and refugees. If we allow these rights to be diluted by the rhetoric of prejudice and fear, we risk undermining the moral legitimacy of our various positions on the world stage. This in turn will weaken, and perhaps is already weakening, our influence and capacity to act in response to the very real threats to these values.
As to our future Council of Europe, a key task will be the optimal calibration of the interwoven relationship between the trinity of Council structures – that is to say, the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Secretary-General – to ensure the effective delivery of human rights. This relationship was identified by Seán MacBride in the early years of the Council as potentially problematic. It is not quite resolved in a satisfactory, agreed way.
The Council’s unique range of institutions, standards and tools must be better deployed to improve human rights, rule of law and democratic conditions in any affected region.
The principles of universality, effectiveness, impartiality, pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept) – the basic principles underpinning the Statute of the Council of Europe, the Convention on Human Rights and all related treaty obligations – must be re-invoked, and strengthened, I suggest, as core principles in the forthcoming reviews.
For example, we must significantly enhance opportunities for civil society, human-rights defenders, journalists, academia and others to engage and cooperate directly, regularly and meaningfully with the Council of Europe’s statutory and non-statutory actors on issues related to human rights protection in areas of conflict and contestation.
It is important at a time of deep conflict which we are experiencing to refer to the value of culture and to recall what we share in it. For example, there are deep historical and cultural connections between the peoples of Russia and the peoples of Europe, ones that can serve as a basis for future contacts and dialogues with Russia in better times. We must remain open to such a cultural dialogue, and we can be assisted by groups in civil society, such as the members of the Campaign to Uphold Human Rights in Europe.
May I conclude by stating that this is a moment that calls for leadership, leadership that is as courageous as it is innovative, grounded in an unqualified commitment to universal human rights, and informed by a long-sighted understanding and interpretation of the gravity of the present geopolitical context.
This is a moment for the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly Members to engage in the public space, within their parliaments, and between their parliaments and publics. It is not a moment for yielding to the intimidations of any new populisms or ancient hatreds based on fear. It is a time to make the case for solidarity, protection and possibilities.
Let us not be limited in our actions by any narrow self-interest of the present. Let us fulfil the duties bestowed on us by the principles of universal human rights, by our debt to history, and by our obligations to the future.
European citizens, and those who have joined us, are joining us, will join us, must share a belief in a moral Europe that confronts shared challenges together in an open, inclusive, equitable form of multilateral engagement. Such a Europe must be open to the full diversity of the planet we share, and its differences, in efforts at transcendence and achieving sustainability, and its responsibility to future generations for biodiversity.
Let us work together to give effect to this aspiration with authenticity, become the conscience of Europe that the Council’s principles espouse, one with a moral weight borne, yes, of often painful experience, but one too which can offer a beacon of hope for an emancipatory future for all the citizenries of Europe and beyond.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh. Beir beannacht.