By Sophie des Beauvais
STRASBOURG, France—The Secretary General of the Council of Europe (CoE) has revealed an alarming situation regarding the state of democracy and rule of law in its 47 member states, where democratic shortcomings are ever more pronounced. European societies have become increasingly vulnerable to terrorism, extreme violence, and instability, though the maintenance of democratic security remains vital for lasting peace.
A report from Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland indicates that low levels of democratic security are not limited to a handful of states. Indeed, over a third of member states’ judiciaries are neither sufficiently independent nor impartial. Though some states are making important moves toward transparency and judicial professionalism, the situation is clearly deteriorating in others, “including as a result of the judiciary being manipulated or political ends,” the report observes. The lack of independence and autonomy of judicial councils, varying degrees of executive pressure on the judiciary, opaque recruitment, nomination and promotion of judges, and corruption are among the most troubling shortcomings.
The report does not single out the names of the states failing to maintain a satisfactory level of democratic security. But a footnote expresses concern over Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan , while noting troubles with respect to Serbia, Italy, Hungary, Montenegro, Greece, Spain, Belarus, Bulgaria, and Armenia. “Our priority—above everything else—is making sure the Council of Europe can improve the human rights situation for millions of people, on the ground. If we thought naming and shaming would help, we would do it,” responds CoE spokesman Panos Kakaviatos. However, the Council will “publish a ‘review of states’ practices with regard to blocking, filtering, and removing Internet content, identifying key trends, best practices, and areas in need of action,” the report says.
Moreover, more than 30 percent of member states are witnessing a deterioration of conditions of free media. Safety of journalists from violence and threats, and a legal environment enabling their work and access to information from public authorities, are not satisfactorily guaranteed in almost half of member states. Indeed, in a significant number of states the situation is deteriorating. Misuse of anti-terror and defamation laws has resulted in serious restrictions to freedom of expression. In recent years, press freedom has become a losing battle in the fight for human rights in Europe.
“It is difficult to complete the overall picture of media independence across member states because of a lack of data for over a third of them,” the Secretary General says in his report. “This in itself is a problem.” Strikingly, barely 10 percent of states have a satisfactory level of media independence. The commercial or political interests of owners, governments, and commercial broadcasters are revealed in their political biases, and only magnified by government-dominated public broadcasters. Self-censorship by journalists completes the circle of this stunningly low level of media independence.
Thus, democracy and rule of Law in Council of Europe member countries are threatened by a host of trends, particularly the lack of independent judiciaries and widespread threats to freedom of expression. The report also sets out in detail the parameters by which democratic security is measured—a vital step toward improving the situation.
By publishing such a report, the Council of Europe is acting as a “moral compass” to guide member states in the right direction. Secretary General Jagland suggests the Council of Europe lead actions on European and national levels. A three-year program would be developed to improve protection and safety of journalists in member states. He is also calling on Europe’s leaders to recommit to the shared laws and values embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights, as expressed through the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Strasbourg cannot lead the fight for freedom alone, and commitment is required from all governments for the situation to improve.
To counter national anti-terror laws that have considerably reduced the overall rule of law in Europe, the Council of Europe is developing the first international treaty to prosecute foreign terrorists. Indeed, the Council developed a Convention on the Prevention of Terror after the 9/11 terrorists attacks. For the first time, it provided states with shared international legal standards to keep pace with the Al Qaeda threat, criminalizing the recruitment and training of terrorists. Now, the Council believes it is time to criminalize individuals involved with recruiting and training terrorists. The first Convention was only possible with the creation of a sound legal basis, called “public provocation for the purpose of terrorism,” so the Council is now leading the same initiative concerning “the intention to commit terror.”
Still, the state of freedom and rule of law in Europe is worrying. The Council of Europe, in coordination with the European Court of Human Rights, is thus taking the lead in reestablishing the values and rights upheld by the European Convention of Human Rights. The only European-wide legal instrument that can be a deterrent against emotional, politicized, or populist reactions to a fast changing environment can and should instead ground the continent’s approach to security in liberty and law.
Sophie des Beauvais is editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.