The Council of Europe is Europe’s leading human rights organization. Since it was established in 1949, the body comprising 46 member states - including all 27 member states of the European Union - has promoted the rule of law, human rights and democracy throughout Europe. Due to its war of aggression against Ukraine, Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe in March 2022. Belarus and Kosovo are also not represented on the Council. The Council of Europe’s central institutions include the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Parliamentary Assembly. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy Initiative, spoke with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, and Croatian politician, Marija Pejčinović Burić (59) about democracy, the future prospects for the Council of Europe and the possibility for Russia to rejoin once the war is over. This interview was conducted by the Faces of Democracy initiative
Ms. Pejčinović Burić, thank you so much for making time for this interview. The very first question we would like to ask you is: How significant are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
Democracy is essential if people are to live in freedom, dignity and security. More than that, it is also required as a backstop for maintaining human rights and the rule of law. The three pillars of our work are in fact inseparable. If one weakens, so do the others. This is why for me personally and for the Council of Europe, we must redouble our efforts to stop the democratic backsliding we are witnessing in Europe - and frankly globally too. While this trend, documented in many activities of the Council of Europe, predates the pandemic, the latter has exacerbated it. If we don’t act, and act fast, the danger is that our democratic culture will not fully recover.
In his Human Rights Day 2022 message, Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, spoke of unprecedented challenges facing human rights. Is this a case of doom and gloom or does it actually reflect reality? What is needed in order to strengthen democracies?
Secretary General Guterres is absolutely right. It suffices to look at the many judgments of our European Court of Human Rights, and the findings of our monitoring and advisory bodies, such as the Venice Commission, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) or our bodies dealing with minorities’ issues. The good news is that we know what the problems are and even how to address them. The key is to unlock the necessary political will in our member states to translate these standards into reality.
One of the greatest achievements in the Council of Europe’s 73-year history is its adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1950. Why is the Council of Europe still so important?
It suffices to look around us: ongoing attacks against basic Human Rights (such as freedom of expression or assembly, judicial independence and the right to a fair trial, equality and non-discrimination, and even the right to life), continuous challenges to the rule of law, and a steady trend of democratic backsliding. The Council of Europe role is more important than ever to help our member states address these challenges. In fact, if it didn’t exist, we’d probably need to create one.
Critics criticize the fact that individual member states are stepping out of line in terms of upholding democracy and the rule of law. Does this mean we need to renew the Council of Europe? In your opinion, what are the future prospects for the Council of Europe?
As I said, we see the challenges across our member states, but we also have the tools and the solutions to address them. We don’t need to renew the Council of Europe, but the commitment of our member states to it. In order to recommit and deepen our engagement to our values at the highest level, the Council of Europe will hold its 4th Summit of Heads of State and Government in Reykjavik in May this year. Let’s never forget that the Council of Europe is fundamentally a “peace-project”: there can be no lasting peace in Europe without upholding the values and standards that underpin our Organisation.
Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe on March 16, 2022 as a result of its war of aggression against Ukraine. Do you think it is possible for Russia to rejoin the Council once the war is over?
I wish I could answer this question, however, at the moment, I cannot. All I see is a continuous, brutal war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine which is increasingly targeting critical and civilian infrastructures and which is causing pain, death and destruction of unimaginable proportions. We must stand by Ukraine and call for an end of this senseless Russian aggression. I sincerely regret that, as a result of the brutal policies of their leaders, Russian citizens are deprived of their access to our Human Rights Court for events after 16 September 2022.
Within the framework of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano, you announced strengthened mechanisms for monitoring and supporting democratic standards. What are these? What is the status quo?
In Lugano, but also at a recent Paris event to support Ukraine, my point was clear: Ukraine’s recovery - in its fullest sense - requires good governance and European values to underpin it. It needs democratic security, as the basis of lasting peace, and so that stability, prosperity and progress take root. I announced then that the Council of Europe would put together a 50 million euro-worth “Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction package” in support of Ukraine. This was adopted by our Committee of Ministers at their last meeting before the end of the year, and will be implemented as soon as possible in 2023. This comes along with significant support provided by our Development Bank.
Ms. Pejčinović Burić, our seventh question is always a personal one: How do you most like spending your leisure time and what goals have you set yourself as Secretary General for your first term up to September 2024?
I like spending my leisure time reading, cooking and doing physical exercise. As regards the goals I set for myself, I think it is fair to say that, at half mandate as Secretary General, I have witnessed a combination of events that no other Secretary General had to face before: a global pandemic and related lockdowns, the aggression by a now former member state against another and the subsequent expulsion of one of them, a new membership application, the only 4th Summit of our history…I am proud that, in spite of all these events in a rather short period of time, the Council of Europe was able to adjust and to respond appropriately. For instance, in the very early stages of the pandemic we issued a toolkit for our member states to make sure that any restrictive measure they adopted to save lives, were compatible with their human rights obligations. I have to say that, in our geographical space and by and large, we achieved the objective.