Introductory remarks at the Copenhagen Conference Continued Reform of the European Human Rights Convention System – Better Balance, Improved Protection
Copenhagen, Thursday 12 April 2018

Secretary General of the Council of Europe,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to thank the Minister of Justice of Denmark, Mr Søren Pape Poulsen, for hosting us.

The topic of our debates today – the Continued Reform of the European Human Rights Convention System – is of utmost importance.

The genesis of our Convention goes back 70 years ago to the famous Hague Congress and let me quote a few sentences from the Final Resolution here:

"…Human rights are the essential bases of our efforts for a United Europe and that a Charter of Human Rights is insufficient unless rendered legally binding by agreement to be reached between the member states…". For this reason, the resolution continued: "it is essential for the safeguarding of these rights that there should be established a Supreme Court with supra-state jurisdiction to which citizens and groups can appeal, and which is capable of assuring the implementation of the Charter".

With the creation of the Council of Europe – and the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights – this visionary idea of the founding fathers of the Organisation became a reality. As a constitutional instrument of the European public order, the Convention provides a solid legal foundation for European unity. Recalling the origins of the Convention, allows us to rediscover and reaffirm the close link between the idea of a Supreme Court and the vision of a more United Europe.

Today, when human rights, democracy and the rule of law have to face numerous – old and new – threats, we must recall the circumstances in which the Convention was drafted, its function and its purpose.

We must recall that, the Convention system was the creation of governments, on a proposal by the Assembly. It operates to their advantage and it remains first and foremost their responsibility.

States have the obligation to protect the rights of every human being within their jurisdiction; states have the obligation to implement judgments of the Court when the rights of individuals have been violated. Domestic implementation – as well as unconditional implementation of the Court's judgments – are the fundamental principles that are essential for the efficient functioning of the Convention system.

At the same time, we should not underestimate the importance of the role of the Convention's control mechanism – the European Court of Human Rights – which provides a safeguard for violations that have not been remedied at national level and authoritatively interprets the Convention.

Let me put it straight.

The Convention system works because a single catalogue of rights is applied throughout Europe, according to a common interpretation. This is only possible because a single, independent court is empowered to definitively interpret those rights. If rights were interpreted differently in every jurisdiction, the result would be legal chaos and the universality of these rights – which is the typical element of human rights – would be weakened and finally destroyed.

The Convention system of collective enforcement can only work with the Court as an independent decision maker on all matters of interpretation and application of rights. The drafters of the Convention understood this, and they drafted Article 32 of the Convention on the "Jurisdiction of the Court" with the deliberate intention of achieving it.

For the Convention system to continue to be effective, we must reaffirm this principle, in the clearest possible terms.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The title of our Conference puts an emphasis on "Better Balance" and "Improved protection".

Indeed, the Convention system is a sophisticated machine, a delicate mechanism with carefully balanced parts. Interfere with one part, careless to its nature and purpose, and the entire system is disrupted.

I fear that we are seeing a growing failure to appreciate the importance of the Convention and the delicate balance of the system it created. This would be short-sighted and dangerous in the extreme.

Of course, we have to balance the universality of these rights and the supranational character of the Court with the respect for diversity and with the principle of subsidiarity, which are both cornerstones of our European civilization. But some things are matters of principle. There is a point beyond which change becomes incompatible with principle.

Do the member States still accept collective enforcement of human rights and its implications, in terms of shared responsibility and the margin of appreciation, under the supervisory authority of the Court? Or, does the defence of national sovereignty outweigh the commitment to international co-operation? One path leads to conflict, the other to stability and security. In our democratic societies the sovereign power belongs first of all to the citizens and the Convention system was built to reaffirm the primacy of citizens upon political national absolutism. We should not change that course today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I see that the Parliamentary Assembly will be invited to give full effect to the Copenhagen declaration. We will of course play our role.

As a statutory body of the Council of Europe and one of the Convention actors, electing the Judges of the European Court of Human Rights, the Parliamentary Assembly is willing and ready to contribute to the process of the reform of our Convention system and we commit ourselves solemnly to do our best in order to guarantee the highest standard of decisions in this matter.

Through our reports, we will continue to contribute to the reform process with our substantive expertise and political vision. We will also continue to follow the implementation of judgments of the Court.

Through our capacity-building activities for national parliaments, we will continue to contribute to ensuring better implementation of the Convention at the national level, helping parliaments to develop human rights expertise and oversight mechanisms.

In a spirit of shared responsibility and collective action, let me emphasize the need to ensure that the reform process is open and inclusive. All Convention actors, including the Secretary General, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Commissioner for Human Rights and NGOs, which often intervene as third parties, are important stakeholders of the reform process. Their perspectives must be taken into account, for the reform process to be truly effective.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Democracy and freedom in Europe are facing new and growing challenges. We will not be able to meet them if we forget the basic principles of this Organisation and waver in the face of populism and autocratic arrogance. The drafters of the Convention were visionaries, but their vision came from bitter experience. Their creation was based on a determination to take concrete, practical steps to prevent repetition of the horrors of their recent past.

Now is not the time to abandon their principles and undo their careful work.

Now more than ever is the time to recall the courageous spirit that guided the founding fathers of the Council of Europe to strengthen our common legal framework of human rights, our common defence system, as well as our single, independent, supranational European Court of Human Rights.

Thank you for your attention.