Key Note Address at the 2018 Help Annual Network Conference
Connecting legal professionals, policy-makers and academia: the idea of Academic Networks on the Council of Europe Conventions and synergies with the HELP Programme
Deputy Secretary General,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me a great pleasure to address you today as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, one of the Statutory bodies of our Organisation as well as the oldest and largest Pan-European parliamentary platform of political dialogue and co-operation.
My presentation today bears a special significance for me for two reasons. Firstly, because the HELP Network's aim – to assist legal professionals in applying our human rights standards – is part and parcel of the core business of our Organisation, and this is where I see a direct link with the work of the Parliamentary Assembly: we share an important common duty: we make sure that the standards of the Council of Europe Convention system are properly applied within our jurisdictions, whether in legislation or in practice and in the case-law of domestic courts.
Secondly, because it gives me an opportunity to address a truly Pan-European audience. Indeed, by bringing together legal professionals from all of our 47 member states and beyond, the HELP Network reflects the geographical diversity of our Organisation. And this makes our Organisation unique in Europe.
By working together, we make our Convention system work, and this should not be underestimated, because in this way we ensure stronger protection to our citizens.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today, I would like to speak about two issues.
Firstly, I would like to share with you some ideas about the support that the HELP Network could provide to parliamentarians.
Secondly, I would like to present to you a project which, in my opinion, would open up a window of new opportunities for the HELP Network. This project is the setting up of Academic Networks to support key Council of Europe Conventions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we are all aware, since its inception, the HELP Network has achieved impressive results. Designed as an educational platform on the European Convention of Human Rights and the case-law of the Court, HELP gradually extended its activities, including practically all major Council of Europe Conventions.
Today, HELP stands firmly on its feet, providing curricula and training tools to lawyers, judges, prosecutors – as well as increasingly law enforcement officials – from all over Europe and beyond. HELP has become a well-known "brand" and a "quality label" in the field of professional training and education.
Moreover, more and more HELP courses are developed to cover specific areas where respect for human rights standards is crucial and where the Council of Europe has binding legal standards and expertise. Later today you will hear presentations of HELP courses in particular on the Rights of Refugee and Migrant Children, Child-Friendly Justice, Key Human Rights Principles in Biomedicine, as well as other important fields. I am sure that these courses will contribute to a better implementation of our Conventions at domestic level.
In this context, let me share with you an idea. All of us know – and this was specifically highlighted at the recent Copenhagen Conference on the Effectiveness of our Human Rights Convention System – that insufficient national implementation of the ECHR – as well as of some other key Conventions – represents one of the most serious challenges to the Convention system.
In addressing this challenge, the role of legal professionals is of course essential. At the same time, it is equally important to ensure that the Convention standards are incorporated in our national laws, preferably at the drafting stage. Indeed, proper implementation of the Convention requires not only "corrective", but also "preventive" action.
Our Assembly many times emphasised the importance for Parliaments not only to monitor the execution of judgements of the Court by their Governments, but also to scrutinise draft legislation against the Convention standards and the case-law of the Court. We need mechanisms in Parliaments, defined by law, so that MPs can fulfil this duty. As legal professionals you should recommend and pressure your Parliaments to establish such mechanisms.
Let me emphasise that not everything is possible in law. Today, in Italy there is a political debate about, for instance migration. While we should respect the democratic political debate, we must be aware of the limits on what is possible and what is not, according to our standards. It is therefore important to raise awareness of the standards and of the case-law of the Court.
Therefore, parliamentarians should receive the necessary knowledge and training. In recent years, the Parliamentary Assembly has invested a lot of effort in supporting national parliaments in developing their human rights expertise. However, I am sure that more can be done on this front.
As a parliamentarian, I fully understand the practical difficulties that this entails. Let us face it: parliamentarians are busy people, as they have to juggle between their national activities and local constituencies. It is difficult to imagine them enrolled in some type of traditional training courses.
This is exactly where HELP experience may be helpful, especially as regards the e-learning platform. Of course, the already existing courses might not be immediately suitable for parliamentarians and some adaption will certainly be required. But, I am sure that it will not represent too much of an extra burden for the Network. I believe that this idea has a good potential and we should develop further co-operation between the Assembly, the HELP Network and the European Court of Human Rights.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me now turn to the second idea: the concept of Academic Networks to support key Council of Europe Conventions which would connect legal professionals, policy makers and academia.
Coming from an academic background and being at the same time a politician, I am aware of the importance of expertise for effective and efficient decision-making.
All of us have heard many times the saying that "knowledge is power". It is hard to disagree with this principle and for us, parliamentarians and legal professionals, it is very true.
But, what we are experiencing today is a gap between knowledge and power. We witness a lack of trust, not only in the political class but also in science or culture. This gap may have serious consequences for human rights.
Because adopting laws and applying them in practice is a very complex task and, as a legislator, I am often confronted with dilemmas about societal issues and various policy options, about balancing conflicting interests, while making sure at the same time that the fundamental rights and freedoms and rule of law standards are respected.
Therefore, it became quite obvious for me that, to exercise effectively the power to make laws which was given to us by the voters, parliamentarians need a great deal of knowledge and expertise so as to be able to make a comprehensive assessment of various options on the table, as well as of the consequences each one of them may have on individuals, public authorities, business and society at large.
Where could this knowledge and expertise come from? The "expert community" – would be the obvious answer. It is quite common for parliamentarians to organise hearings with experts coming from universities and professional associations.
But even this is sometimes not sufficient because national experts would tend to focus on the experience of their own country, overlooking the wealth of other practices that may exist at European and international level.
Therefore, we need to set up simple and practical mechanisms of collecting international experience and good practices so as to make them available to all interested stakeholders – parliamentarians, government officials, legal professionals and researchers.
This is especially appropriate when we prepare the ratification of Conventions which often require adaption and transformation of domestic laws.
This is how the idea of academic networks bringing together key universities and research centers was born.
One may ask why the Council of Europe should be concerned with this?
My answer is, because the academic community has always been sensitive to the values of the Council of Europe. Indeed, respect for human dignity, freedom of expression and research, as well as the equal right to knowledge and dialogue are essential preconditions for the existence of a scientific community and for the development of science. This is why academia can be the most sensitive interlocutors and the most effective ambassadors of our values, our conventions, our initiatives, being at the same time a natural "laboratory of ideas" for our work.
The aim of academic networks would be to promote knowledge of Council of Europe Conventions amongst the European academic community and through them, amongst society at large.
Moreover, the networks could provide the necessary expertise to parliaments and governments and act as observatories of legislation and regulations in a given field, monitoring developments and evolutions in members states and worldwide.
Furthermore, networks would link up teaching and professional training activities, so as to ensure that initial and on-the-job training curricula are co-ordinated.
Finally, acting as a laboratory of ideas, the networks could contribute, through academic research, to developing further our Conventions, adapting them to new realities and, as may be required, developing new Conventions. This is especially relevant in fields where multi-disciplinary research is needed, for example, biomedicine, but also in the field of corruption. From colleagues working in the anti-corruption sector, we hear that the Council of Europe has developed practical tools to address corruption, but in the past 20 years research on anti-corruption matters has not advanced much. We need to re-open dialogue and re-launch fundamental research. Because, often we develop new Conventions due to the political pressure of the moment, without comprehensive scientific research.
There are models for this kind of initiative, including within the Council of Europe, for instance on European Social Rights.
Since January 2018, I have launched discussions about the possibility of setting up academic networks in 3 specific areas: violence against women and domestic violence, combating corruption, as well as human rights and biomedicine.
The Assembly's Committees on Equality and Non-Discrimination and on Political Affairs and Democracy strongly backed the idea of the setting up networks, respectively, on the Istanbul Convention and our Conventions against Corruption, and preparations for the launch of the networks are under way.
Due to the interdisciplinary character of bioethics, there is no single Committee in the Assembly that could deal with the issue, but clearly, our Committees on Culture, Science and Education and on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development will be the right interlocutors.
I believe that, at the initial stage, we should target the setting up of national networks in a few member states, as pilot projects. These national structures should be encouraged to come together to form a European Academic Network in a given field.
Eventually, the European Networks to be set up could be linked together under one single umbrella initiative. Something we could call a Council of Europe Academic Networking initiative.
We could draw inspiration from the United Nations Academic Impact initiative which provides support to the implementation of UN goals. But our Initiative will be different because it will be focused on our Conventions – therefore, legal standards, - and not only on political priorities.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The project I have just presented to you is very ambitious and it is still in its inception phase. But it requires a lot of small steps to get the big job done.
So let us proceed with small steps. Let us make the best use of the potential of already existing projects and institutions.
With your help, I am sure we will be able to move in the right direction.
To conclude, let me thank the organisers for their kind invitation. It is a real pleasure to exchange views with you today and I hope that this first encounter will evolve into a solid and mutually beneficial co-operation. Thank you for your attention.