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Opening address at High-level Conference on the “Implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights: our shared responsibility,”

Opening address at High-level Conference on the "Implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights: our shared responsibility,"
Brussels, 26 and 27 March 2015

Ministers, Your Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please permit me, at the very outset, to congratulate the Belgian Chairmanship of the Council of Europe to have placed emphasis, in the title of this High-level Conference, on the effective implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and our shared responsibility in ensuring that the extraordinary success of the Convention system is maintained and reinforced.

We need to reaffirm the Convention's central role as a constitutional instrument of European public order  - ‘l'ordre public de l'Europe' – in order to secure and reinforce democratic stability on our continent. This is all the more important today when the fundamental values that the Council of Europe defends – human rights, democracy and the rule of law – have to face serious challenges, in particular, that of extremism and radicalisation. While strengthening the legal arsenal, we should ensure that our security policies and measures comply with the standards set by the European Convention on Human Rights. There can be no security for Europe's citizens without respect of human rights, rule of law and democracy. These values can never be taken for granted.

Ladies and gentlemen,

All of us present here today are fully aware that the Convention system is indeed based on the shared responsibility of the Council of Europe's institutions and the 47 member states of the Organisation. In other words, this means not only close interaction between the Council of Europe institutions and bodies, i.e. the Court, the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, but also co-ordinated and joint efforts at national level by the executive, legislative and judicial organs, within our member states.

 

The Parliamentary Assembly, which I have the honour of presiding, has an important role to play in this respect and in my opening statement I would like to focus specifically on the Parliamentary Assembly's contribution to fulfilling this joint responsibility. For indeed, the double mandate of parliamentarians – as members of the Assembly and of our respective national parliaments – is of fundamental importance in ensuring that Convention standards are effectively protected and implemented domestically.

I wish to stress two aspects of our work in this respect: firstly, the election of top quality judges and, secondly, the increasing role of the Parliamentary Assembly as regards the oversight of the execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights – something that the Brighton Declaration of April 2012 clearly welcomed.

The election of judges first. By the end of this year, we will have elected 15 new judges onto the Court. But here I wish to make an important point, in echoing the Conference's emphasis on ‘joint responsibility': if the findings of the Strasbourg Court are to be recognised as authoritative – in particular by their peers at the domestic level – the Assembly must be in a position to elect judges with appropriate stature and experience. Hence, it is – I submit – not only necessary to ensure national selection procedures which are rigorous, fair and transparent, but also important for the national authorities to encourage eminent jurists with relevant experience to leave flourishing national careers. This is a difficult but essential role placed upon the shoulders of many persons present here today.

Permit me to draw your attention to two matters in this connection.

Firstly, let me draw your attention to the Assembly's texts, adopted in June of 2014, on the on "Reinforcement" of the Court's independence, which deal with, among other subjects, the issue of ensuring appropriate employment for former judges of the Court upon the expiration of their terms of office. Moreover, as of January of this year, the Assembly has put into place a new specialised full Committee of parliamentarians with legal experience "on the Election of Judges to the European Court of Human Rights."

Secondly, I would like to briefly highlight the Assembly's recent activities regarding the implementation of the Court's judgments. Although the supervision of the execution of the judgments is the principal responsibility of the Committee of Ministers, it is clear – again with reference to our ‘joint responsibility' – that the Assembly and national parliaments must play a more pro-active role in this respect. Here, too, the viability of the Convention system is at issue. 

As many of you are aware, the Assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has given priority to this subject. The Committee's 8th report on the implementation of the Court's judgments will be presented to the Assembly in October of this year, by our Rapporteur, Mr de Vries. He, like his distinguished predecessors, Messrs Jurgens and Pourgourides, undertook in situ visits to several states with particularly problematic instances of non-implementation, and their work has had substantial impact. Such situations are not rare, as evidenced by the Committee of Ministers Annual Report for 2014, published a few days ago.

Tied to this work, I wish to bring to your attention the recent decision of the Assembly's Legal Affairs Committee to create a special sub-committee on the implementation of Strasbourg Court judgments. This new sub-committee is mandated – and I quote: to address "the most pertinent cases of non-implementation of judgments, especially those pointing to the existence of systematic shortcomings or requiring urgent individual measures, especially in cases concerning serious human rights violations."  The sub-committee intends to hold open hearings with parliamentary national delegations, as well as with representatives of civil society, in order to help find solutions to outstanding problems.

The involvement of the Parliamentary Assembly and its members with their dual mandate, as mentioned above, corresponds to the subsidiary character of the Convention system. National parliaments can and should hold governments to account for inadequate or dilatory implementation of Strasbourg Court judgments, for example, by holding debates and hearings and putting parliamentary questions. Above all, they should influence the direction and priority of legislative initiatives and – where appropriate – authorise the funds needed to ensure the implementation of Convention standards.

In the Assembly's Resolution 1823, of 2011, on "National parliaments: guarantors of human rights in Europe," we pointed - at the time – to a handful of positive examples of parliamentary work on this subject, notably in the United Kingdom, in the Netherlands, in Germany, in Finland and in Romania – all five of which had set up parliamentary procedures and/or structures to monitor the implementation of Strasbourg Court judgments. To these can be added more recent initiatives, such as the creation of a permanent sub-committee for the execution of Strasbourg Court judgments by the Polish Sejm. However, most parliaments do not appear to have such supervisory mechanisms.

During my presidency of the Assembly, I am spending time and effort on actively encouraging this positive trend. I raise this issue in all my official visits to member states. Most recently, I have learned about interesting experiences and ideas in Croatia, France and Romania and I encourage parliamentarians from these countries – as well as all members of the Assembly – to share their good practices. 

It is also important to make parliamentarians aware of the standards of the Convention, the case-law of the Court and the specific requirements of the execution of the Court's judgments. In this context, the Assembly recently decided to put in place special training programmes on the Convention. Three seminars for parliamentarians have been held so far, in London in 2013, and Warsaw and in Madrid in 2014, and another one is scheduled, this year, in Tbilisi. Similar seminars have been held in Strasbourg for legally-qualified staff of parliaments. This is a long-term investment, in that busy parliamentarians must have access to an efficient legal service with specific competence in human rights matters.

As the leitmotiv of this conference is "shared responsibility" in ensuring the Convention's long-term future, please permit me to conclude with one final observation about the Organisation's budgetary situation.

The effectiveness of the Pan-European system of protection of human rights established by the Convention depends on our ability to deliver the results expected from us, that is addressing serious and systematic human rights violations as well as providing appropriate support to our member states in order to prevent these violations from repeating. We need appropriate means and resources to fulfill this task and in all my official visits to member states I raise the question of the budgetary situation of our Organisation. We should not overlook this issue in our discussions and I count on your support.

In conclusion, allow me to congratulate my compatriot, Mr Dean Spielmann, President of the Court, as well as all judges of the European Court of Human Rights and the Registry of the Court, for their excellent work. Thanks to recent reforms, the backlog of the cases before the Court has been substantially reduced and I encourage them to continue in the same vein. Well done and good luck for the future!

I thank you for your attention.