Forum for the Future of Democracy


Speech by Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Stockholm, Sigtuna, Sweden, 13 June 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At its Third Summit in 2005, the member states of the Council of Europe gave a clear mandate to our Organisation to defend, promote and extend democracy in Europe. The Heads of State and Government recognised the need to develop democracy, to engage all citizens without exception in democratic processes and to restore their trust in politicians and democratic institutions. To be of relevance in this day and age, the Council of Europe must be an instrument of action. To keep pace with events and developments, it must constantly adapt itself. To be effective, it must be a champion of democracy – and the Forum for the Future of Democracy is a very important and integral part of this policy.

The subject of this third session of the Forum for the Future of Democracy is the interdependence of democracy and human rights. In fact, these two values, which the Council of Europe was created to defend and extend, are not only interdependent, they are inseparable.

A quick look at the substantive rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights confirms this statement. Articles 9, 10 and 11 guarantee the freedom of thought, the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly and association. Clearly, these rights are not merely related to democracy – they define several of its vital aspects. Respect for other rights protected by the convention also has a direct or indirect impact on the functioning of our democratic systems.

The first conclusion is therefore evident and straight forward. There is no democracy without human rights, and there are no human rights in the absence of democracy.

Democracy is a process, not an event. It is much more than intermittent elections. If democracy is the least imperfect form of governance, human rights provide the foundations for genuine involvement of citizens in civil and political matters which concern them individually and collectively. Besides civil and political rights, social and cultural rights complete the picture of human rights as a foundation for democracy.

I am certain that no one here or in any of our member states would contest this manifest truth. By joining the Council of Europe, our member countries committed themselves to respect and protect these rights in line with the binding provisions of Council of Europe legal instruments.

Yet, we have problems. If governments accept the principle of unity and interdependence of democracy and human rights in general terms, they often have difficulties in recognising this vital link in practice. In other words, they will frequently claim – and some times believe – that blatant, serious and far-reaching violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms will not undermine their democratic credentials.

I want to be absolutely clear, with a few exceptions, human rights are not absolute, and the European Convention on Human Rights itself contains provisions on circumstances in which certain rights may be restricted, and -together with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights – the Convention also lays down the rules and procedures about how this must be done. Problems arise when governments- willingly or incidentally – ignore these rules and restrict these rights without due process, in an arbitrary and excessive manner. Very often this happens with the best of intentions, but this is beside the point. The European Convention on Human Rights is not a menu à la carte,and our governments do not have the right to pick and choose the bits and pieces they like or do not like. If violations persist and are not sanctioned, it is not only the human rights of individual citizens which are at stake, but also the functioning of democratic institutions – which brings me back to the subject of this session.

Let me give you a few specific examples.

You are certainly all familiar with the Council of Europe investigations into allegations about the so-called rendition flights and secret detentions in Europe. Only a few days ago, Senator Dick Marty and the Legal Affairs Committee produced a follow-up report which, I hope, is being studied very carefully by the governments of all our member states. To say the least, I believe that this report added to the information revealed by other sources in the past twelve months reinforces the case for taking action on my proposals on how such violations of human rights can be prevented in future.

Rendition flights and secret detentions are problematic from at least three aspects.

To start with, they represent a grave violation of the human rights of the individuals directly concerned. This in itself means that some action to remedy these violations and prevent future ones is not only a moral imperative butalso a legal obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights.

My second concern is related to the impact of these abuses on the fight against terrorism, which is, of course, an absolute priority and responsibility for all our governments. But our governments are not only obliged to do something, they must be effective, and I think we have ample evidence that these unlawful practices have been counter-productive and probably helped to recruit more new terrorists than they have managed to stop.
Third, and this is of direct relevance to our discussion here – my own inquiry into rendition flights and secret detentions has shown that most, if not all, of our member states have failed to put in place effective legal and administrative safeguards against security services acting unlawfully. The absence of such safeguards has created a loophole allowing the executive power- which includes security services – to circumvent scrutiny by the parliamentand the judiciary. Such a creeping transfer of powers not only threatens our individual human rights, but also undermines the functioning of our democratic institutions.

I have similar concerns about several national legislative and administrative measures adopted in our member states in the fight against terrorism. In some cases, these measures ignore, and sometimes they directly contravene the European Convention on Human Rights. I am the first to agree that the threat of terrorism is exceptional and may require exceptional measures, but this does not mean that governments should have a free hand in deciding what they will do and how they will do it – without respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and the system of checks and balances between different branches of power. In my view, this respect is an essential precondition for any functioning democracy.
My second example of threats to democracy is the worrying trend of widespread, often officially sanctioned, discrimination against some minority groups in Europe. Among the most exposed are Roma, immigrants and the gay and lesbian community in several Council of Europe member states.

We are all aware of recent incidents in which the rights of gays and lesbians to exercise their freedom of assembly and association, guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, have been violated or reluctantly tolerated in an atmosphere of hate and prejudice instigated and encouraged by public officials.

This again is not only a violation of the human rights of the individuals directly involved but also a threat to the normal functioning of democracy. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law cannot function in a society which tolerates or propagates bigotry, prejudice and hate.

As I said during the recent Parliamentary Assembly debate about the state of democracy and human rights in Europe, hate is a powerful motivator, and prejudice can be an effective tool to divert the public’s attention from the real problems in society and to make significant electoral gains. Sooner or later, people see through the charade – however, elections do not take place every week, and in politics even a short-lived deception can cause long-lasting harm. In short, bigots not only hurt human rights, they also pervert our democratic systems.

My intervention has been neither abstract nor theoretical and intentionally so. I believe that this Forum will only fulfil its important task if it looks at specific problems and offers specific solutions. I will conclude with one simple thought: democracies which violate human rights are not only threatening individuals, they are threatening themselves. It is democratic suicide.