European Union Special Representative for Human Rights
Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis
Speech at the 127th Session of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers
Nicosia, 19 May
Mr Secretary General,
Distinguished Ministers and Ambassadors,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to extend my warmest congratulations on behalf of High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini and the whole EU to Cyprus for its excellent cooperation and remarkable chairmanship, which comes to an end today. Allow me to especially congratulate Ambassador Theodora Constantinidou and her delegation in Strasbourg for their hard work and a job well-done.
The Cypriot Chairmanship has addressed difficult issues concerning the ongoing conflicts in the region and we applaud you, and further commend you on the launching of the signing of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property.
Ten years have passed since the signing in 2007 of the Memorandum of Understanding between the European Union and the Council of Europe. Today, our relationship remains a solid building block and a milestone for the protection of human rights in a vast area of the world.
We are continuing to proceed towards the EU accession to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). In the meantime, I am proud to confirm the EU's decision to join the Istanbul Convention combatting violence against women, underlining our commitment to combat VAW both within the European Union and globally.
This is part and parcel of the EU commitment to continue being a staunch defender of human rights worldwide. Just two days ago, on 17 May, we celebrated the international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia. High Representative Mogherini, on behalf of the EU 28 Member States, reminded Governments of our individual and collective obligation to promote the universality of human rights and ensure that everyone, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, enjoys these rights without discrimination.
Dear friends, allow me to emphasize how well our cooperation with the Council of Europe fits into the vision we have set out in the EU's Global Strategy. Building resilient, well-governed societies based on international law and respect for human rights for all is at the core of the EU’s foreign policy work, at the core of the CoE, but also a key component of the UN 2030 Agenda, reflecting a multilateral commitment to key human rights standards.
Our commitment includes as well an ever stronger partnership with civil society, because that is what gives ownership of human rights as much to people on the ground as to Ministers in this room.
Harnessing our common strength to uphold these commitments will be crucial in the coming years. That is one more reason why the EU welcomes Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland’s 4th Report on the State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Europe, which we believe helps Europe's democracies to measure their resilience and strengthen their defences against populist attacks.
On human rights, these attacks take many forms. Arguments of "false equivalency," claiming that "everyone" equally violates human rights, are often used to cultivate a false widespread sense of relativism and futility surrounding the pursuit of human rights. They are increasingly used by some, not to demand heightened human rights compliance by all, but to justify serious human rights violations by a few, and to discredit human rights advocates as biased or politicized.
We need to counter this populist narrative. It is true, of course, that no State has a “perfect” human rights record. But there is a fundamental difference between States that have the minimum safeguards in place to ensure that their imperfections cannot be swept under the carpet, and those that do not. The litmus test is not “perfection,” but whether credible institutions that can help reveal and address violations are allowed to exist and function unhindered: Institutions such as truly independent judiciaries, free and pluralistic media, parliaments, national human rights institutions, and civil society.
Helping build those institutions has been at the core of our joint work. I have been repeatedly grateful over these past few years for the close cooperation that we have developed with key CoE bodies, such as the Venice Commission and the CPT, in crucial human rights work around the world.
The necessity to counter terrorism and keep citizens safe is another argument increasingly invoked to justify laws and practices that explicitly target persons belonging to religious or other minorities, journalists, human rights defenders, and others.
To counter it, it is perhaps high time that the debate on security and human rights gets broadened to include an increased focus on “sustainable security,” just as the debate on development gradually evolved to the point of full recognition of the necessity for “sustainable” development. Yes, all States have an obligation and a legitimate interest in keeping their publics safe. But restricting human rights in the name of security through, for example, the mass persecution of peaceful political opponents, torture, or suffocating the free space for journalists, lawyers or other human rights defenders and civil society to work, can only breed societies that are less resilient, more polarized and, ultimately, less secure.
The CoE has proven its value too in our common fight against extremism, terrorism and radicalisation. The EU has made great progress in this field by taking the decision to exchange information, create common border guards and coordinate changes of legislation, always mindful of the obligation for full compliance with our human rights obligations. This has been done in good cooperation with the CoE and also by joining the CoE mechanisms like the Riga protocol.
Today, we in Europe have to also brace ourselves for the fact that a large number of refugees and migrants will continue to seek safety and a better life through striving to reach our shores and our countries. With a strong dose of mutual commitment and common sense, we should be able to tackle these challenges. We need a common European – and indeed, a Global -- solution based on the principles and commitments that the Member States of the Council of Europe have taken on human rights and that this house guards. We also need to tackle the root causes of these phenomena, which more often than not include mass violations of civil, political, economic, social and/or cultural rights in countries of origin. I am pleased that Secretary General Jagland and Human Rights Commissioner Muižnieks have actively provided us with continuous reminders to guard and protect human rights principles in all circumstances.
Dear friends, these are challenging, but also promising times for human rights. These are not the times in which to question the key principles, conventions and institutions on which the Council of Europe system has been built, but to respect them, apply them, and protect them.
In closing, I would like to wish the Czech Republic every success for their Chairmanship. We are looking forward to our future strategic cooperation with the CoE and you. The EU was, is and will continue be the staunchest supporter of the CoE and its principles.