Recognizing and addressing the erosion of human rights and democracy in Europe: a way forward
Respect for human rights and the rule of law are the core principles of the Council of Europe and the lifeblood of democracy, Dunja Mijatović, the organisation's Commissioner for Human Rights, writes in her op-ed for Bled Strategic Times as she calls on member states to strengthen their commitment to the organisation's founding values and to the universal protection of human rights.
Significant achievements in the protection and promotion of human rights have been made since the end of the Second World War. However, the past two decades have served as a cautionary tale, reminding us that these achievements in the field of human rights should never be taken for granted.
This period has seen a rise in attitudes and actions by state and non-state actors that undermine the rule of law, democracy and human rights. One can argue that this erosion began with the fight against terrorism, where security concerns took precedence over human rights. It continued with the 2008 financial crisis and widespread austerity measures that weakened public investment in critical aspects of life, such as social security, housing, health care and education. A decade after, it was further accelerated by the restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, war crimes and mass atrocities have returned to European continent with Russia's war against Ukraine, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians, the displacement of millions, the abduction of children, and numerous cases of torture, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention and sexual violence.
Russia's illegal and brutal war against Ukraine is the tragic epilogue to years of disregard for agreed human rights standards. The continuing impunity for serious human rights violations resulting from the war in Chechnya, the repression of dissent and freedom of expression, the illegal annexation of Crimea, and the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine are a tragic reminder of what can happen when a state defies international law, ignores human rights standards, and undermines the established rules for the maintenance of international peace.
While Russia is an extreme case, there are alarming signs of a wider tendency among member states towards failing to uphold our Organisation's human rights standards. This requires serious attention and decisive action.
In many states, the space for civil society and the exercise of fundamental freedoms increasingly continues to be restricted. State and non-state actors are repressing dissent and critical voices, resulting in severe restrictions on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.
The situation of journalists and human rights defenders is of particular concern. These individuals play a crucial role in promoting and protecting democracy and human rights, and state authorities have a legal obligation to ensure their safety and to create an enabling environment for their work. However, journalists and human rights defenders often face violence - sometimes fatal-, intimidation, administrative and judicial harassment, smear campaigns and other forms of reprisal for their work.
The treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Europe is another long-standing and systemic problem, presently reaching its negative peak. Many states consistently fail to meet their international human rights obligations in this area. Pushbacks, refusals to rescue boats in distress, inhumane reception conditions, and ill-treatment have become common features of a security-oriented approach to migration that disregards human dignity and human rights.
The full realization of women's rights and gender equality also remains a pressing issue. The persistence of gender-based violence against women, the increasing attempts to restrict women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, and gender inequality, particularly in the workplace and political decision making, are the most visible manifestations of this problem.
Furthermore, the prevailing climate of intolerance, hostility, and violence against LGBTI people continues to severely affect the human rights and well-being of millions of people in our member states. Online smear campaigns, judicial harassment, and violations of freedom of expression and assembly create obstacles for LGBTI people and those who defend their rights. The political exploitation of issues related to their human rights further fuels hostility, disinformation, and societal polarization. Transgender people in particular are increasingly targeted in this toxic climate.
These are just some of the issues I have consistently raised with state authorities throughout my mandate. While there are no easy solutions, these trends can be reversed through laws and policies that reinforce democratic institutions and promote inclusion and participation, and prevent the rollback of hard-won progress.
Recognizing and addressing these issues should be a priority. States should recommit to the values and standards of our Organisation and become robust defenders of human rights and the collective system established to protect, promote, and fulfil them.
The recent Council of Europe Summit held in Reykjavik, where the Heads of State and Government pledged to reaffirm their commitment to the norms and principles of our organisation, is encouraging. They recognized the urgency to act in key areas, in particular to address the human rights violations caused by Russia's war against Ukraine - with a particular focus on children's rights; to secure and strengthen democracy and good governance; and to strengthen action on the human rights aspects of the environment throughout Europe. They also recognized the important work of national human rights institutions, civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists in realizing human rights and strengthening democracy.
Now, a swift and full implementation must live up to these commitments.
In order to do this, the states should prioritise four main areas of intervention.
First, they should better integrate the standards of our Organisation into national legislation, case law, and practice. This includes the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the conclusions and decisions of the European Committee of Social Rights, and the recommendations of monitoring and advisory bodies, and Council of Europe institutions, such as my Office.
Second, it is essential to prevent violations and ensure effective remedies at the national level. This requires enhancing cooperation with national human rights institutions, NGOs, and civil society, and respecting and strengthening the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
Third, it is important to engage in issues related to the environment and Artificial Intelligence, Environmental issues, such as climate change and pollution for example, may have far-reaching implications for human rights protection. At the same time, as AI technologies advance, it's crucial to ensure that their development and deployment is compliant with human rights standards.
Finally, there is a crucial need to engage and to enable full participation of youth and their organisations in all future discussions. Governments should empower young people to make choices and meaningfully influence their future.
The core principles of the Council of Europe, including respect for human rights and the rule of law, are not abstract concepts but the lifeblood of democracy, indispensable for just and prosperous societies. These principles remain as relevant today as they were when our Organisation was founded. Member states must strengthen their commitment to the founding values and institutions of the Council of Europe, and to the universal protection of human rights.
This is a way forward to win the hearts and minds of young people in Europe and build a society that values and protects human rights for all.
This article was first published in Bled Strategic Times - the official gazette of the Bled Strategic Forum. The Bled Strategic Times offers an additional platform alongside the Bled Strategic Forum to voice the positions on diverse topics to political leaders, thinkers, business representatives and academics. This year's Bled Strategic Times can be read in full here.