In an exclusive interview with PublicServiceEurope.com
- Thorbjørn Jagland speaks candidly about the European Court of Human Rights huge caseload backlog, the search for a common European identity, growing nationalism and racism in member states, the Arab Spring and the fight for human rights and a free press across the continentWe hear much about the caseload backlog at the European Court of Human Rights reaching 150,000 – is there a misconception about the number of outstanding cases and why they take so long to be heard; and, if so, would you like to take this opportunity to explain the situation in reality?
"It is important to understand the reasons for the backlog. The first is quite simple: it is a court for everyone in the 47 Council of Europe member countries – for citizens and everyone living in and visiting these countries. Secondly, it is a victim of its own success as the primary human rights guardian in Europe: people know and trust that they will be treated impartially and that their human rights grievances will be hear.
"At the same time, that there are still complex structural problems to overcome, and this is the reason why we have embarked on a process of reform for the court. There are encouraging signs that new working methods are helping to tackle long-standing issues, and the programme of reform agreed during the Brighton conference at the end of the United Kingdom chairmanship, will make a substantial difference. Particularly important are the measures to improve national implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and to make sure the court's judgements are fully and rapidly executed."You have criticised the British Prime Minister David Cameron for speaking out about multi-culturalism in such bold language. What do you think that he could have done differently – shouldn't this topic be discussed in the political arena to prevent it being the sole refuge of the far right? And given the recent political happenings in France and the Netherlands - do you see signs that nationalism is starting to rear its ugly head across Europe once again as the far right parties capitalise on the mess created by the main parties – in relation to the economic crisis?
"I did not criticise Prime Minister Cameron. I did, however, remark that he and several other leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had questioned traditional notions of multiculturalism. This shows that the Council of Europe's debate on how to combine diversity and freedom is highly relevant.
we published last year - written by nine high-ranking experts including Professor Timothy Garton Ash, of the UK - proposed a number of guidelines for 'living together in 21st century Europe'. Racism is on the rise in many parts of Europe, and young people are turning to extremism because they are faced with unemployment and social insecurity. I call upon leaders of the political mainstream to speak out against intolerance and explain the benefits of diverse societies." What do you think about the Yulia Tymoshenko case in Ukraine? And what view do you take of the change of direction away from democracy, human rights and a free media in nations like Hungary, Belarus and Azerbaijan?
"I have raised concerns over the treatment of Tymoshenko, and her case is being closely followed by various Council of Europe bodies. She has lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, which is monitoring how she is being treated. Tymoshenko's situation reflects the shortcomings of Ukraine's legal system and judiciary, problems clearly identified by the Council of Europe and its monitoring mechanisms. We are working with Ukraine to support reforms of the judiciary and we are progressing, albeit not at the speed many want to see.
"In Hungary, we have good cooperation with the authorities and I have personally met and worked with the prime minister and other government members. Legal experts from the CoE Venice commission worked with the authorities, and this has led to positive changes, and we have contributed to improving the media scene with two expert analyses on the media acts. The amendments to the media laws submitted to the Hungarian parliament in May this year go in the right direction, but there are still points to be further considered.
"Azerbaijan joined in 2001 and is still being monitoring by the committee of ministers and the parliamentary assembly. Major structural reforms are needed. The repeated arrests of political activists, intimidation of journalists and of human rights defenders are a matter of serious concern for me and failure to address these issues is problematic. We are currently discussing with the authorities in Azerbaijan the preparation of an action plan to support the country in fulfilling its Council of Europe commitments, including those related to freedom of expression.
"Belarus is not in the Council of Europe. Once it overcomes dictatorship and renounces the death penalty, the country is welcome to apply. Meanwhile we are working with civil society and with such independent media as exist to foster dialogue." One of the CoE's objectives is to promote a European cultural identity, but what exactly is that? Most people identify themselves by the city or country they live in – and the traditions and culture of that city or country. You don't say "I'm European" when somebody asks where you are from so isn't it a real stretch to think it is possible to create this European demos with a European identity? In addition - the Council of Europe's creation was a reaction to two world wars. Given the fragmented global state and geopolitical shifts – from west to east – that we are now seeing, there seems to be a real danger of further conflicts on a global scale don't you think; especially, given the natural resources crunch and massive population growth that are compounding the fragile systems of trade that hold world peace in place?
"I think Europe does share a common identity, and this is essentially about common values based on human rights. One of the most important European values for me is diversity, learning to live with it and learning to benefit from it. The Council of Europe's project was and always will be to build peace and stability through mutual understanding of our diverse cultures and traditions. Despite Europe' current preoccupation with economic issues, I think promoting this 'deep security' is more important than ever for Europe's future."Is the balance between a collective European voice and the national sovereignty of member states correct, as things stand, or is there a need for further rebalancing – when it comes to human rights and the other areas that fall under the CoE's remit?
"It is clear that if the Council of Europe wants to be effective, we must focus on areas where we can provide a real added value. We are in a unique position to address the new and emerging challenges confronting democracy, human rights and the rule of law in 47 European countries. Our conventions on cyber-crime, human trafficking and data protection are excellent examples of cross-border action on issues that were not thought of a decade or so ago.
"At the same time, there is room for new measures to further protect the citizens of Europe. One of these is the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is being negotiated at present. This will mean that decisions of the EU will be subject to the jurisdiction of the court, closing a legal loophole and allowing Europe's citizens for the first time to challenge EU law in the area of human rights." What's your view on the way European member states have responded to the Arab spring – and, also, what's your opinion on the way Catherine Ashton's European External Action Service has reacted to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa?
"Catherine Ashton's EEAS and the Council of Europe are committed to help our partners in the Southern Mediterranean to build 'deep democracy'. That means not only writing democratic constitutions and conducting free and fair elections - but creating and sustaining an independent judiciary, a free press, a dynamic civil society and all other characteristics of a mature functioning democracy. All these elements provide a fertile legal and institutional ground for sustainable growth.
"The experience of democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe can provide a wealth of very interesting and valuable lessons. But we must take into account not only the similarities, but also political, economic, social, institutional and cultural differences."