Foreign Secretary announces UK priorities for UK Chairmanship of Council of Europe

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Foreign Secretary attended an official Ceremony in Strasbourg today to mark the handover of the Chairmanship from Ukraine.

Speaking while in Strasbourg the Foreign Secretary said:

“Thank you, Minister, for your words of introduction. May I join others in paying tribute to you and to your Chairmanship team for what has been a busy and successful six months.

In assuming the Chair I am very pleased that we will continue the excellent work of your Chairmanship in areas which have been jointly agreed between us, and with the future Albanian Chairmanship, as shared priorities.

“Dear colleagues, human rights, democracy and rule of law are central to the policy of the United Kingdom in every area of government. We are committed to working through the international system to strengthen the implementation of these principles. They underpin our collective security and prosperity.

“It thus gives me great pleasure to assume the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. As a founder member of the Council of Europe this is a particularly proud and significant occasion for the United Kingdom.

“Indeed, it is a great opportunity for the United Kingdom to take a leading role in furthering the values and standards that the Council of Europe has embedded across the continent so successfully since its founding Treaty was signed in London some 62 years ago.

“This year we have been starkly reminded of the importance of the fundamental human rights this organisation was founded to uphold. To our south in many nations of the Arab world many have lost their lives in the struggle for basic liberties, the right to free speech, the right to a fair trial and against the abomination of torture. Those events tell us of the vital importance of promoting human rights and the rule of law, work which the Council of Europe has carried out so successfully. We should never take our achievements for granted.

“There is, however, still a long way to go to ensure that all citizens in this family of member states equally enjoy the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Council of Europe’s most famous achievement, the European Convention on Human Rights.

“We will make the promotion and protection of human rights the overarching theme of our Chairmanship. Within this, our top priority, and the first of the shared “3-Chairmanship” priorities, will be to drive forwards the process of reforming the European Court of Human Rights, so that it can discharge its responsibility to enforce the Convention in an efficient and proper manner.

“The deadline set under the Interlaken Declaration means a great responsibility falls to the United Kingdom: to reach the final agreement on a package of reforms. We take this responsibility very seriously.

“On the Convention, let me be clear. The United Kingdom is absolutely committed to European Convention on Human Rights, as the founding document for our Government, the Coalition Programme, clearly states. It reflects many of the basic rights and freedoms that have been found in British law for centuries.

“There has been criticism of the Court in many member states. If there is a job that attracts more criticism than a politician, it is probably that of a judge. It will be no surprise to any of you given the United Kingdom’s constitutional traditions that we believe that such criticism means that it is all the more important to defend the independence and power of the judiciary and the Court.

“The United Kingdom is committed to upholding and promoting the rights and freedoms set out in the Convention - even if there has been at times considerable political controversy around certain judgments in the UK. As in many governments, and especially coalitions like ours, there is to be found a wide range of views - but this commitment is firmly agreed between the Conservative Party that I represent and our Liberal Democrat partners.

“We want the Court to be able to uphold human rights under the European Convention but we all know that there is a real problem: it is increasingly unable to do so because of its growing backlog of applications - now at 155,000, a huge number.

“Concrete measures to improve the Court’s efficiency are needed urgently. Moreover, it should be focusing on areas where the Convention is not being properly applied or there is a need at a European level for authoritative guidance on the correct interpretation of the Convention. Where Member States are applying the Convention effectively, the Court should intervene less.

“Building on the agreements at Interlaken and Izmir conferences, the UK Chairmanship will seek consensus on a package of measures in four areas:

  • First, a set of efficiency measures, including new rules and procedures, which will enable the Court to focus quickly, efficiently and transparently on the most important cases that require its attention. We envisage measures that deal with the problems of the large number of inadmissible and repetitive cases, but consideration also needs to be give to the way the Court deals with admissible cases;

  • Second, measures to strengthen subsidiarity. This involves strengthening the implementation of the Convention at national level, to ensure that national courts and authorities are able to assume their primary role in protecting human rights; it also implies that where national authorities have fully implemented the Convention, the Court should not normally need to become involved. We should ensure that the way the Court works reflects the proper balance between its role and that of national authorities.

  • Third, improving the procedures for nominating suitably qualified judges to the Court. We hope that a clear recommendation on national selection procedures will contribute to this. In addition, we want to encourage the Court to continue to improve the clarity and consistency of its case law. And we hope that, taken together, the package of measures we are proposing will help it to do so;

  • Fourth, we plan to initiate a process of strategic thinking about the future role of the Court. The steps we will be taking during our Chairmanship will address the immediate issues facing the Court. But there are bigger questions about the Court’s role in the system for promoting and protecting human rights in Europe that need to be addressed in the longer term. We will begin this later this month with an informal brainstorming conference at Wilton Park in England, bringing together judges, academics, lawyers, NGOs and national representatives.

“We believe that the package of measures I have outlined will help improve the efficiency of the Court and reinforce its authority in the long term. To remain strong and command the respect that we all want to see, healthy living institutions need to reform, to respond to changes in the world around them. These reforms to the European Court of Human Rights, to help it work better in itself and help it relate better to national courts and parliaments, are designed with those goals in mind. We believe we need to achieve them.

“So the United Kingdom attaches great importance, at all levels of Government, to securing these changes. The UK will seek consensus amongst all 47 states on a package of measures. We hope that these can be agreed by means of a Declaration at a Ministerial conference on reform of the Court to be held in the UK next year. The Declaration will provide the basis of a Decision of the Committee of Ministers to be adopted at its annual meeting on 14 May 2012.

“This Decision of the Committee of Ministers should set in train the process for the necessary amendments to be made to the Convention. We hope this will take place alongside continuing in depth discussions on the long-term future of the Court.

“I will count on the support of my colleagues in the Committee of Ministers to deliver a meaningful political agreement which is commensurate with the serious challenges facing the Court.

“In addition to Court reform, and as the second of our shared priorities, the United Kingdom will offer its support to Secretary General Jagland in his efforts to take forward internal reform in the Council of Europe. This includes ensuring budgetary discipline and streamlining the organisation’s work programme. I am grateful for the Secretary General’s efforts to bring a sharper focus and more efficient approach to our work and congratulate him for it.

“The third priority, and the third of our shared Chairmanship priorities, will be to work towards a more effective and efficient role for the Council of Europe in supporting local and regional democracy. The UK supports a more streamlined, more carefully targeted approach to this work as a result of the review being led by the Spanish Deputy Prime Minister, Manuel Chaves.

“Our aim is to reach agreement on the creation of a Single Programme of Council of Europe activity on local and regional democracy during our Chairmanship.

“Our fourth priority will be to support the strengthening of the rule of law in member states. We will work towards practical recommendations in this area, in cooperation with our partners in the Committee of Ministers, the secretariat and the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission).

“Fifth, we will promote an open internet, not only on access and content but also on freedom of expression. This is one of the issues addressed at the London Conference on Cyberspace, which I chaired last week. We will seek, in particular, to ensure that the Council of Europe’s internet governance strategy is adopted, and that the principles it has adopted to uphold freedom of expression on the internet are implemented, to ensure that all member states live up to their international obligations in this area.

“And finally, we will work to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity across Europe. Too many people still suffer outdated prejudices, discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We will work with the secretariat and our partners in the Committee of Ministers to improve all member states’ performance in this area.

“Dear colleagues, this is an ambitious agenda, but one on which the United Kingdom is determined to make concrete progress. I look forward to your observations and questions.”