by Ambra Visentin

“Europe cannot go back to the barbarian state” – with these words, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric expressed concern a month ago in her annual report about a continent where respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law appears to be declining. In her foreword, the Secretary General urges the organisation’s 46 member states to “reaffirm their commitment to the values and standards” they have pledged to uphold.

These days, the fourth Council of Europe meeting in more than 70 years since its founding (in 1949) and 20 years after the last one, will bring together heads of state and government, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The debate will focus on human rights and increased support for Ukraine, the independence of the judiciary and the documentation of war damage in Ukraine to hold Russia accountable. The latter was excluded last year precisely because of the war of aggression that began in 2022.

A Council of Europe 2.0 seems urgently needed, because the organisation has an image problem. Hardly anyone knows about the institution, which has nothing to do with the EU. The Council has 46 members, including all 27 EU member states, plus the UK, Turkey, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. But the organisation has been on shaky ground of late. The summit is therefore also intended to send a message of unity, as there are other wobbly candidates whose commitment to the Council of Europe is uncertain, particularly because of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR is part of the Council of Europe. It can, for example, fine member states if they do not comply with the Convention on Human Rights.

Turkey tops the blacklist of countries with a difficult relationship with the Council. In recent years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has significantly increased its influence over the judiciary and imprisoned many of its critics. It has also frequently criticised the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights as a foreign and illegitimate influence. Strasbourg has opened infringement proceedings against Turkey for failing to implement the rulings and for related human rights violations. All this could change by the end of the month if his challenger in the 28 May presidential election, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Social Democratic Party (CHP), wins the run-off. Kilicdaroglu has promised change and to restore the independence of the country’s judiciary. This includes respecting ECHR rulings.

Even Great Britain has its own problems with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. The British Conservative government was angered by the ECHR’s last-minute ban on a deportation flight of unauthorised migrants in 2022. Now Brexit hardliners, particularly in the Tory party, are demanding that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leave the final decision to the democratically elected British government and not to ‘unelected European judges’. This move is contained in the controversial Asylum Bill currently before Parliament.
The Tory right has repeatedly called for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights if no compromise is reached in Strasbourg. A British Bill of Rights, which would have given the Supreme Court in London the final say on human rights issues and ensured that interim ECHR orders would no longer be binding in Britain, has been shelved for the time being. The Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, was forced to resign following allegations of harassment.The fourth Council of Europe is currently meeting in Iceland. The institution is seeking a new unity and a greater commitment from its member states to fight for human rights and the rule of law. 

Cover image: Selcuk Sofular on Flickr