European Union External Action

Unveiling the Council of Europe’s new six-month priorities: protecting public health in full respect of human rights and investing in future generations

05/06/2020 - 10:45
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As the Greek government has recently taken over the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, a new set of priorities has been advanced for May-November 2020. The ambition is to set out an effective crisis response in full compliance with the fundamental values of the Council of Europe, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Other topics such as the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights or enhanced children protection, youth empowerment and the protection of vulnerable groups’ rights are also featured on the agenda of the new presidency.

The logo of the Greek Chairmanship | Source: coegreekchairmanship2020.gov.gr

 

On 12 May the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe issued an information document highlighting the key priorities of the Greek presidency, which will also be the first e-chairmanship (or digital chairmanship) of the Council of Europe given the circumstances. Earlier this week, on 3 June, an exchange of views featuring the leaders of major Council of Europe bodies via videoconference sought to further explore the main ambitions of the new presidency, while building on the flagship theme Protection of human life and public health in the context of a pandemic – Effectively responding to a sanitary crisis in full respect for human rights and the principles of democracy and the rule of law”.

The event featured numerous senior Council of Europe officials as speakers, including the Secretary General, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly and the President of the European Court of Human Rights as well as the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and the President of the Conference of International NGOs. They all supported the priorities of the Greek presidency, with the Secretary General arguing that the Council of Europe faces numerous challenges in response to the COVID-19 and it was important to focus on how the organization can better address them. The President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Rik Daems, suggested that all parties should invest in multilateralism as a way forward in the post-COVID world, as opposed to extremism and nationalism. In effect, the political declaration to be adopted at the end of the Greek presidency should underline this fact.

The President of the European Court of Human Rights identified four main principles that will guide the Court’s judgments vis-à-vis the emergency measures taken by member state during the pandemic. The first principle is the need to strike a balance between public interest and the interest of individuals, while also ensuring the proportionality of the emergency measures. The second refers to ensuring that measures taken by states are foreseeable and accessible. The third consists of preventing the executive from obtaining discretionary powers. The fourth and final principle argues that emergency laws should not become the new normal. While the interventions of the different speakers varied in terms of scope and substance, they all agreed that the Council of Europe should take action to protect the most vulnerable groups that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The President of the European Court of Human Rights identified four main principles that will guide the Court’s judgments vis-à-vis the emergency measures taken by member state during the pandemic. The first principle is the need to strike a balance between public interest and the interest of individuals, while also ensuring the proportionality of the emergency measures. The second refers to ensuring that measures taken by states are foreseeable and accessible. The third consists of preventing the executive from obtaining discretionary powers. The fourth and final principle argues that emergency laws should not become the new normal.

Following this admission, one cannot but notice that in every corner of Europe and beyond, the pandemic has put on display old social, political and economic fractures requiring a swift and thorough response. The Greek presidency has well spotted some of these persistent problems. Characteristically, the protection of children as a particularly vulnerable category is going to be one of the core priorities of the new leadership. Very often at risk of violence, poverty, trafficking, forced labour or irregular migration, children are now also affected by the consequences of the sanitary crisis. School lockdowns, domestic violence, distant learning and insufficient access to digital technology are some of the issues which will need careful consideration. The problem of migrant children and especially unaccompanied minors is also of particular concern for the Greek government. A photo exhibition, as well as a high level forum on child protection, poverty, forced labour, trafficking and unaccompanied minors will take place under the aegis of the Greek Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in October.

Refugee children from Afghanistan and Syria entering the plane that will bring them from Greece to Germany as part of an EU relocation program | Source: EC Audiovisual Service

 

The importance of democratic education and culture in a digital era is another key priority, with a special emphasis on the threats posed by disinformation and fake news. The Greek presidency intends to draw special attention to the familiarization of children with democratic institutions and values from an early age, as well as the empowerment of young people as active participants in the public life. In the same vein, the socialization of the youth into democratic and European values would further be strengthened by the creation of an Observatory on History Teaching in Europe, to which a conference of Education Minsters of member states will be dedicated in October.   

Furthermore, safeguarding the right of younger generations to enjoy cultural heritage unaffected by the effects of climate change also features amongst the Greek priorities. A digital exhibition on the damage inflicted on cultural heritage monuments as a result of climate change, planned by the Greek Ministry of Culture, should help steer the reflection on the importance of preserving cultural patrimony and hand it over to the next generations while mitigating the devastating effects of climate degradation.

As regards social rights, the last two months showed that universalization of social goods and services is now more needed than ever before, as unpreparedness and systemic inequalities have resulted in a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on vulnerable categories. Therefore the access of vulnerable groups to social rights, particularly healthcare as a public good, is prominently featured by the Greek presidency. According to the official priorities handout, “Roma, persons with disabilities, the unemployed, single-parent families […] are only a few of the population groups, for which every organised society must provide equal access to social and public goods as housing, employment, satisfactory income, education, social insurance, medical care”. An expert conference looking into the avenues offered by Council of Europe instruments such as the European Social Charter will be organized by the Greek government with a special focus on building social cohesion and resilience in the post-pandemic period.

A doctor wearing a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic in Ljubljana, Slovenia | Source: EC Audiovisual Service

‘The prospect of accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights is supported by the Greek Chairmanship, as a significant step that would contribute to ensure a more coherent protection of human rights throughout Europe.’

The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights on 4 November this year is expected to be the landmark event of 2020 on the side of the Council of Europe. The 130th Ministerial Session of the Committee of Ministers, taking place on the same day in Athens, will set the premises for a meaningful dialogue around the principles and values underpinning the European continent and its societies. Moreover, the 70th anniversary of the Convention provides another occasion to reaffirm our commitment to joining the continent’s most important human rights instrument. The Greek presidency hopes for significant progress in the EU’s accession to the Convention during its mandate. Our organizations’ joint values should indeed translate into a process of legal harmonization, with the EU accession to the Convention at its core.

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