Human rights at the World Forum for Democracy 2015

2015 World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg.

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Thank you for sharing your thoughts,
Commissioner, on
the recent Forum, which under the
heading,
Freedom vs. Control: for a Democratic
Response gathered in Strasbourg to
discuss surveillance, and building trust and responsibility in diverse
societies among other themes. This was
rather prescient,
since the Forum took place in the immediate wake of the 13 November Paris
attacks. How did you find the debate?

Nils Muižnieks
(NM):
The discussions
were very interesting because they touched upon key-issues for our societies. The
discussions around surveillance were particularly stimulating and should inform
future policies, because at stake here is not only whether the response we
adopt against terrorism abides by human rights standards. What is really on the
table is the type of society we want to live in and leave to our children.

The discussions around surveillance… should inform future policies, because at stake here is… the type of society we want to live in and leave to our children. 

I think
that freedom and control are only superficially at odds with one another. In
reality, they go hand in hand. Governments need to be able to exert some
control to ensure that our freedoms are protected, but at the same time they
need to maintain freedoms in order to increase public support for their action
and reduce reasons to support anti-democratic causes.

RB:  Preliminary
recommendations
from
Strasbourg include the following: “Although fear
could never be eradicated fully, it was assessed that the best antidotes
against it were: keeping a high level of trust in democratic institutions…”. In recent days you
have called on the Polish president not to sign Poland’s new media law, pointed
to the risk of Denmark violating international legal standards in its Alien
Act, and Hungary violating human rights for asylum seekers… What is your
assessment of the balance of fear in Europe going into 2016?

NM: In 2015 fear has been a major actor in the
political arena. In some cases, legitimate fears of European citizens about
their security have been exploited to adopt measures that have considerably
weakened people’s ability to enjoy human rights. In other cases, politicians
have pandered to public fears to push through anti-immigrant and xenophobic
policies.

European governments have certainly
faced very complex events in 2015, but they must not use this difficulty as an
excuse to disregard human rights. On the contrary, it is only by upholding them
that we can cope more effectively with future challenges. This is why it is
crucial that in 2016 governments renew their commitment to human rights – not
as an abstract concept, but as a tool of governance.

RB: In
the important Issues Paper you published in 2015 on the ‘Democratic
and effective oversight of national security services
’ you have a particularly interesting Chapter
2 on the impact of national security service activities on human rights
protection in Europe. Tell us more?

NM: I decided to
publish this Issue Paper as I was analysing the last 15 years of
counter-terrorism operations. Terrorism constitutes a deadly threat which
requires action by states to prevent and sanction terrorist acts. However, not
all means are justifiable.

Forfeiting human rights in the fight against terrorism proved to be a grave mistake and an ineffective measure that has in some cases helped the cause of the terrorists.

When we look at the operations conducted by a number of states in
the context of the so-called “war on terrorism” in recent years, including the
“rendition programmes”, the establishment of “black sites” and mass
surveillance, we see that a wide range of human rights have been affected by
counter terrorism measures, notably the right to life, the prohibition on
torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security,
the right to a fair trial, and respect for private and family life.

All this
has however not made us safer. On the contrary, forfeiting human rights in the
fight against terrorism proved to be a grave mistake and an ineffective measure
that has in some cases helped the cause of the terrorists.

In the Issue Paper I observed that Council of Europe member states
have taken diverse approaches to oversight, which include parliamentary
committees, independent oversight bodies, institutions with broader
jurisdictions such as ombudspersons, data commissioners and judicial bodies.
However, none abides fully by internationally established norms. Drawing upon
international and European standards and national practices, the paper sets out
the most significant objectives and overriding principles that can enable more
effective oversight of security services.

In particular, I put the emphasis on the need to keep oversight
democratic – primarily through the involvement of parliaments – and to ensure
prior authorisation of the most intrusive measures, including surveillance. I
also recommend establishing a body able to issue legally binding decisions over
complaints by individuals affected by security activities, as well as to access
all intelligence-related information. The new security-oriented turn restricts considerably our ability to enjoy fundamental human rights.

Some progress has been made in the past, but
the Paris attacks in 2015 have polarised the debate, which is now largely influenced
by fear. I see a general backsliding all over Europe when it comes to the need for
safeguarding human rights while fighting terrorism, and some would have us
believe that it is acceptable to forfeit human rights to get more security.
This explains why in many European countries intrusive surveillance and
antiterrorism laws are being adopted or drafted.

The new security-oriented turn restricts considerably our ability to enjoy fundamental human rights.

This is a dangerous trend that we must resist.
By disregarding human rights, circumventing judicial safeguards, centralising
powers in the hands of the executive, and treating all citizens as potential
suspects, the new security-oriented turn restricts considerably our ability to
enjoy fundamental human rights – and represents a success for terrorists who
want us to abandon our lifestyle and live in fear.

RB: How
important is EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, which would
create a common European legal space for over 820 million European citizens? It's not something we hear much of in our discussions about European citizenship.

In reality, this common legal space
already exists because the European Convention on Human Rights applies to the
47 countries of the Council of Europe, which include the 28 EU member States. The
EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights would indeed help
ensure that EU legislation does not contradict human rights. It would also
allow for individual citizens to challenge EU law before the European Court of
Human Rights. Therefore, it would be a great step forward for human rights
protection. Unfortunately, this process is now halted after a decision of the
European Court of Justice in December 2014, which found that the draft
agreement would breach EU Law. I hope this stalemate can soon be solved and the
protection gap finally closed.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *