Priorities of the Greek Chairmanship

Greece, member of the Council of Europe since August 1949, is assuming the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in the emergency circumstances imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In such an extraordinary context, the Greek Chairmanship considers that it is even more imperative to highlight the fundamental principles and values lying at  the core of the Council of Europe’s mission: Democracy, the Rule of Law and the Protection of Human Rights.

The dramatic developments that Europe and the whole world are facing due to the sanitary crisis are, simultaneously, a call for every democratic society governed by the rule of law to reiterate its commitment to these principles and values but from a whole new perspective.

A perspective defined on the one hand by the continuous struggle to protect human life and public health and on the other by the challenges and constraints under which States, societies and citizens are called to adapt their functions.

The Greek Chairmanship considers that this unprecedented challenge for our European political culture and institutional tradition calls for the Council of Europe to place the matter at the front line of debate.

In this framework, the main theme of the Greek Chairmanship is: “Protection of human life and public health in the context of a pandemic – Effectively responding to a sanitary crisis in full respect for human rights and the principles of democracy and the rule of law”.

Considering the dramatic changes in our everyday life, we become conscious of the fact that, for the first time, restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms are being imposed to an overwhelming extent.  

Digital technologies, with the expanded opportunities they offer, help significantly to fill the gap created by the lack of physical presence in a series of life manifestations, while, at the same time, supporting the exercise of human rights.

In the same spirit, the Greek Chairmanship, conscious of the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic may continue to affect the working methods of the Council of Europe during  the months to come and well within its mandate,  stands ready to conduct an extended part of its scheduled events digitally (E-Chairmanship).

Covid-19 is affecting the entire spectrum of our lives in a multitude of dimensions: political, economic, social, cultural, institutional.

The European Convention on Human Rights foresees the possibility of temporary and permissible limitations from its provisions in emergency circumstances, inter alia, for reasons of public health.

Continuous vigilance is indispensable, however, for the protection of human life and public health to comply with our commitment to the fundamental principles and values stemming, in particular, from the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights.     

In order to strike a fair balance between the protection of human life and public health and the rights of the individuals concerned, the measures in question must be of a temporary character, proportional to the legitimate aim pursued, and thus necessary in a democratic society, subjected to regular control, and without unduly restricting other human rights and fundamental freedoms.

As specified in the Toolkit for member States, issued recently by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe (SG/Inf(2020)11 – “Respecting democracy, rule of law and human rights in the framework of the COVID-19 sanitary crisis”), the Rule of Law must prevail even in an emergency situation.

Undoubtedly, our States’ democratic institutions can play an important role in this respect: ensuring the unhindered function of the legislative process is indeed a substantial guarantee of the continuation of democratic functions and respect for human rights.

A series of other fundamental rights, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, can equally stand as a counterweight to the imposed restrictions, namely the rights of property, access to justice, the right to impart and receive information, including the right to participate in the information society and access websites and digital platforms, which, under the current emergency circumstances, function as a substitute to public space.

Assuring the proper functioning of democratic institutions and of the existing framework for protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, is a key priority for the day after, once the battle for the human life and public health will have been won.  

After all, our political culture and our long tradition in protecting human rights form an integral part of our European legacy to younger generations.

As democratic societies governed by the Rule of Law and, at the same time, as member States of the Council of Europe, which is especially distinct for its role as guardian of the values and principles that define our political culture, we need to reiterate our commitment to these values and principles. 

In the overall framework described in the main theme of the Greek Chairmanship, the following thematic priorities shall be highlighted:

Defining the implications of the pandemic on our societies, our democracies and the economy at large,

Identifying lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, as related to our mandate, as well as best practices in the context of our response to the crisis, with a view to the day after and, in particular, the issues related to the European Social Charter, and

Analyzing the conditions under which the precautionary emergency measures, adopted by the authorities in order to protect life and public health, are in conformity with the human rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Main Event: “70 years since the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights”

The semester of the Greek Chairmanship coincides with the 70thanniversary of a historic milestone with catalytic effect in the field of protection of human rights in Europe: the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights, in Rome, on 4 November 1950. A Convention that has stood  ever since as a constitutional compass in the European human rights protection system.

This occasion is a rare opportunity to take stock of the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to this day and, in particular, the extent to which it has responded to the expectations of the peoples of Europe. Such an important juncture can provide the basis for a discussion on the perspectives of its further application in the near and more distant future. A future expected, inter alia, to bring a far more extended use of digital technologies and artificial intelligence, with all their benefits and challenges, for all generations.

The 130th Ministerial Session of the Committee of Ministers in Athens, on 4th November 2020, on the very anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights, is expected to provide us with a significant opportunity for a substantive dialogue.

The Greek Chairmanship believes that it will be possible for all of us to reiterate our commitment to the principles and values that the Council of Europe stands for, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and the ensuing unprecedented challenges as far as human life and the protection of human rights are concerned.

In this context, the prospect of accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights is supported by the Greek Chairmanship, as a significant step that would contribute to ensure a more coherent protection of human rights throughout Europe.

In the light of the Interlaken Process, the Greek Chairmanship aims at renewing the political commitment to reaffirming the defining role of the system of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Independence of Justice and the Rule of Law

In the new context of exercising human, social and governmental activity that we all currently face, arise issues that we come to deal with for the first time. Issues that prove that this unprecedented crisis does not only concern our life and our health but also the quality of our democracy, as well as the rule of law.

Investing in the future – The rights of young people

The Greek Chairmanship intends to highlight the need for all of us, citizens, democratic societies and member States, to concentrate on the younger generations, as they represent the future.

This comes following the adoption of the “New Strategy of the Council of Europe on Youth 2030”, last January in Strasbourg, aimed to be the basis for the application of the programme “Youth for Democracy” with a decade’s horizon and to provide the necessary political thrust.

A wide range of issues relating to young people form an array of critical fields of interest for today’s Europe: education, brain-drain, sports, climate change and protection of cultural heritage, exploitation of children, unaccompanied minors. These issues constitute key policy priorities for Greece, also at a national level and, at the same time, attract the vivid interest of countries in South Eastern Europe. The countries of the Mediterranean, with which Greece maintains longstanding relations of friendship and co-operation, are also welcome to participate in this dialogue.

In this framework, the Greek Chairmanship considers that particular emphasis should be attributed to specific thematic priorities, inextricably linked to the rights, the hopes and the concerns of  young people.

These thematic priorities are:

The intention of the Greek Chairmanship is to highlight the importance of knowledge and familiarization with democratic institutions and fundamental European values from an early age, as it is believed to be the only way for young people, before and after adulthood, to be able to reap the benefits of living and evolving within a democratic society and contributing to its evolution.

The new generation should, therefore, be properly informed of the rights, obligations and prospects of a democratic citizen, with a view to its smoother integration into the democratic process. Everyone of us, every country, every government should intensify our efforts to boost young people’s participation in democratic institutions. We must protect younger generations from easy choices to the detriment of democracy and encourage them to become active citizens by guaranteeing our respect to their voice.

At the same time, young people must be protected from the hazards looming in disinformation and fake news, often appearing on social media.

The numerous solutions and options offered by digital technologies and the development of artificial intelligence are regarded as significant tools, since they can facilitate and enhance access to knowledge and information. Nevertheless, a series of negative aspects linked to them, with cyber-bullying being one of the most serious, cannot be ignored and need to be duly addressed.

The Greek Chairmanship attributes particular importance to the study of history as an integral part of education. Founding an Observatory, an institution that could enhance co-operation in this field, is considered as indispensable. A scheduled conference of Education Ministers of the member States is expected to give the necessary political guidance in this direction.  

Children need to be protected from all kinds of risk. Especially, in cases where they constitute elements of particularvulnerability, by facing poverty, violence, trafficking, forced labour or any other kind of exploitation.

In the fight against Covid-19, children are rightfully placed in the front line of care and attention. With the contribution of digital technology, distant learning is widely used so that students, by not being exposed,avoid becoming a link in the tragic chain of victims or in the transmission of the pandemic. 

What happens, however, if some children lack the means of access to digital technology? How can their right to learn be assured?

In this vein, it is crucial to highlight issues related to children and their fundamental rights from the perspective of the Council of Europe. 

 Greece is particularly sensitive on the issue of unaccompanied migrant minors, given the fact that a large number of them has reached the country through migratory flows.

We believe that our concerted stance on this issue should reflect the level of culture and democracy that characterizes European societies. Many of these children have suffered serious psychological traumas due to wars, conflicts and abandonment experienced in their countries of origin. Addressing these traumas requires interventions of psychological support during their integration in new environments, while special attention must be drawn to the current circumstances of the sanitary crisis.

The contribution of digital technologies is expected to be paramount in this case, particularly in the process of registering and classifying unaccompanied migrant minors according to their profile and specific needs. Digital technologies can also provide opportunities for distant learning through educational and entertainment programs destined to help unaccompanied minors to familiarize with educational realities in their new environment.

In this context, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in co-operation with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, will organize a special thematic event, in the form of a digital seminar and simulation covering the Western Balkans region.

Cultural heritage represents a key factor for every people in defining their identity and position in the historical process as well as ensuring their historical continuity.

 This section, in light of and in consistency with the relevant initiative presented by Greece at the United Nations in September 2019, places the focus on the need to develop awareness, from an early age, on the importance of cultural heritage and on the need to safeguard the right of every generation to enjoy it. A right that comes together with the obligation to hand it over to the next generation, protected from the effects of climate change.

Every State and society must invest in a timely, organized and determined endeavor to mitigate the impact of climate change and prevent it from hampering the right of every generation to enjoy cultural heritage and take pride in it.

The Greek Ministry of Culture shall organize a digital exhibition dedicated to the damage inflicted on monuments of cultural heritage by the effects of climate change, with the participation of European countries having similar examples to display.

The Greek Chairmanship intends to highlight the sensitivity and commitment that States, societies and citizens, have to display regarding the protection of social rights.  

Action against all kinds of discrimination, racism, intolerance, antisemitism, hate speech, has to be collective and organized. Gender equality and equality in general, regardless of origin, religion, sexual orientation or any other ground, needs to be ensured with consistency and determination. Voluntary social engagement is an important asset for every society that needs to be further developed.

Additionally, every organized society is expected to ensure the protection of the rights of its citizens belonging to vulnerable groups, being in compelling need of welfare services due to their disadvantageous situation, aiming at their unhindered integration in the social fabric.

Roma, persons with disabilities, the unemployed and, in particular, unemployed mothers, single-parent families, residents of remote mountainous areas or islands, are only a few of the population groups, for which every organized society must provide equal access to social and public goods as housing, employment, satisfactory income, education, social insurance, medical care. It is not difficult to comprehend the vital importance that the above acquire in the current circumstances of the sanitary crisis.

The current circumstances of confinement have highlighted the issue of domestic violence and violence against women asyet another challenge emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, falling within the legal framework provided for by the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

The exceptional opportunities offered by digital technologies in a plethora of sectors and dimensions are becoming more evident through the new everyday life of the citizens and the fight  to contain the pandemic and to protect human life and public health.    

Distant working, distant learning, electronic diagnosis and medicinal prescription, access of vulnerable persons to information and services, digital formulation and submission of requests and proposals, the issuing  of attestations, digital market of goods and services are only a few of the applications of digital technologies that can facilitate and improve the life of citizens in the current situation and also  after the return to normality. 

In these challenging times, it is crucial to recall that securing the access of citizens to official statistics regarding the pandemic crisis, digital technologies not only contribute to consolidate a relation of enhanced mutual confidence between authorities and citizens but they also protect citizens from counter-productive disinformation with regard to the sanitary crisis and its dramatic impact on human life and public health. Providing accurate information helps to avoid causing panic and this is essential in times of crisis.

The Greek Chairmanship will organize an expert event, in order to take stock of the potential of the Council of Europe instruments, in particular the European Social Charter, and contribute to policies preserving social cohesion in the post Covid-19 period.

E- Chairmanship

The Greek Chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers will mainly function digitally, due to the extraordinary current circumstances.

 It will be a Digital Chairmanship (E-Chairmanship). 

The majority of events of the Chairmanship will take place through teleconferences and live streaming and with the use of social media which will be connected, as a reference, to the digital platform of the Greek Chairmanship. 

The objective, besides protecting human life and public health, is to bring the Council of Europe even closer to the citizens and, especially, to young people.

 

The E-Chairmanship is not only imposed by the unquestionable need to tackle the sanitary crisis and plan for the days to follow. It also stands as a self-evident obligation in view of technological challenges, as the array of solutions and choices offered by the new technologies, which are considered important tools facilitating and enhancing access to information and knowledge.

After all, digital reality forms an integral part of citizens everyday life and defines social behavior and habits to a large extent.