Council of Europe headquarters

Europe: Recommitting to human rights with actions – not just words

  • By Nils Muižnieks, Europe Regional Office Director, Amnesty International and Rita Patrício, Senior Executive Officer for the Council of Europe, Amnesty International

Today, for only the fourth time since its foundation in 1949, the heads of state of the Council of Europe (CoE) will come together in Reykjavik, Iceland. And with Europe in the middle of a human rights crisis, and large-scale war raging on the Continent, this meeting of Europe’s top human rights organization is vital.

The last such summit, held in 2005, had committed to “building one Europe without dividing lines” and a “more human and inclusive Europe” — even charting a path for the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women. Now, this one is being billed as an opportunity for member countries to “recommit to human rights.”

This is timely, as Russia was excluded from the CoE for committing egregious human rights violations just last year, when it launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, such recommitment will ring hollow unless the CoE learns from its failure to deal with Russia’s long-standing contempt for its statutory obligations.

With hindsight, we now see the bloc was guilty of complacency with Moscow, failing to take action to stop backsliding on human rights when Russia engaged in a brutal war in Chechnya, fought with Georgia and occupied Crimea — all while stifling civil society and muzzling dissent at home. Yet, its more robust recent response — promptly excluding Russia after its attack on Ukraine — provided some hope for Europe’s recommitment to human rights in the founding spirit of the CoE.

Simply put, complacency must end — including toward Turkey, which has been backsliding on human rights for far too long, cracking down on civil society, ignoring binding judgments of the Strasbourg Court and withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. Turkish authorities are flagrantly failing to uphold fundamental human rights that come with CoE membership.

Yet, conspicuously absent from the summit agenda is the plight of Osman Kavala — a human rights defender and prisoner of conscience unjustly languishing in prison in Turkey since 2017 — despite judgements by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2022 and 2019 that called for his immediate release. Turkey’s authorities have instead subjected him to further prosecution on farcical charges and sentenced him to life in prison, sending a chilling message to all human rights defenders in the country.

Our own colleague Taner Kılıç — the then chair of Amnesty International Türkiye — was arbitrarily held in prison for over a year. And though no longer in jail, he still faces the prospect of a new investigation on counterterrorism-related charges, following the overturning of his conviction by the Turkish Court of Cassation last year. This, despite an ECHR ruling condemning his pretrial detention in connection with his human rights work.

The CoE’s tools to address member states’ failure to respect its rules must be strengthened. And challenges to the court’s authority — particularly when it comes to not respecting binding judgments following an infringement procedure, as in the case of Kavala — should, by default, be discussed at the two-day summit and at annual ministerial meetings.

Monitoring bodies and the Commissioner for Human Rights must have also standing invitations to visit states to monitor and — if necessary — denounce and seek to end rights’ violations, as well as continuing impunity.

Meanwhile, as the climate crisis — which is caused, in large part, by Europe —perpetuates a human rights crisis, the CoE has a key role here too. Too often in politics, too much talk is followed by too little action — and nowhere is this better exemplified than the climate emergency.

Amnesty is thus proposing a binding legal instrument to recognize the right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment, as well as the creation of a commission of independent experts to create policy recommendations and monitor countries’ compliance. Unfortunately, though, legal and financial arguments against such initiatives seem to be succeeding. Political ambition and legal creativity to deal with such challenges are urgently needed.

In the face of this lack of action, the climate emergency is prompting thousands of — particularly young — people to peacefully protest and pressure governments. Yet, across the region, activists, journalists and civil society organizations determined to raise their voice and resist human rights violations are being placed under increasing restrictions. And the summit needs to commit to ensuring that the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association are effectively guaranteed for all.

Additionally, it’s anticipated that many victims of war crimes in Ukraine will apply to the ECHR, seeking truth, justice and reparations for the gross violations of human rights committed against them prior to September 2022, when Russia ceased to be a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. So, additional resources must be granted for the Court to deal with these cases as well.

It will eventually be for member countries to decide what “recommitting to human rights” means in practice. But the Reykjavík summit will symbolize Europe’s conscience — capable of mobilizing against Russia’s abject war in Ukraine yet showing chilling indifference to the despair of migrants and refugees from elsewhere, while the basic freedoms of human rights defenders are restricted.

And whether or not the rights of those in Europe will benefit from the summit will depend on the political commitments made by the heads of state attending, and how they put them into action.