18th Plenary Session of the Congress
Strasbourg, 17 March 2010
Speech by Lars O MOLIN, Rapporteur, Sweden (L, PPE/DC)
“It is in the local community, close to the home … that people seek justice, equal opportunities and equal dignity without discrimination. If these rights have no significance there, then they are of no great importance anywhere else either.”
These words of Eleanor Roosevelt point to the need for local connections when implementing human rights. Local communities represent the fundamental level of democracy, security and welfare, protected in this by the European Convention of Local Self-Government.
I. The members of the Congress implement on a daily basis much of the Conventions being signed at international level, like the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. However, usually we don’t refer to social services, basic needs and services of general interest as human rights. As public authorities we must comply with the international obligations of states. The Convention of Local Self-Government is relevant to the local and regional level in Europe, but so is the European Convention of Human Rights.
Which are these rights? Some rights, like freedom from racial discrimination are protected by law and upheld by the Court. They are not subject to negotiations. Civil and political rights and freedoms relate mainly to the state. Individuals also have economic and social rights, stemming from the solidarity between citizens. Those rights must be interpreted by the member state, being committed to do its outmost to comply with the Convention. The right to adequate housing, for example, might be fully established even if the standard is a “variable geometry” between member countries. It may even differ within a country. If the national level decides the minimum standard, then decision-making at local level might balance individual rights and local priorities. The challenge of giving everyone at least the national standard may be solved by a system of equalization.
The costs of human rights are not easy to calculate. Respecting freedoms or delivering social services in a way that respects human rights might not involve any additional costs other than administrative readjustment of procedures and training. But special support for sick or elderly people might result in additional economic pressure. Article 9.1 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government must always be respected. Negotiations between the stakeholders of different levels of society are a good way of achieving a reliable result. They are the nexus between the human rights and the right to local self-government. Also, not complying with human rights may cost even more. Those costs are not only economic and social but also political.
II. This report is meant to influence the work of the Congress at a moment where the new Secretary General, Thorbjörn Jagland, takes the initiative of a general reform. One of the pillars is the European Convention of Human Rights. On 20 January he said: “history teaches us that democracy cannot survive without social stability and that social rights cannot be achieved without democratic rights. Human and social rights cannot be secured by words alone – their protection must be systematic and institutional.” All partners must be included and Mr. Jagland pointed to the necessity of the CoE focusing in co-operation on the primary aims being human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
My recommendation underlines the importance of the Congress. It proposes an action plan. We do not wait to make our members aware of their role in implementing human rights. The Congress takes on new challenges going along with the reform plans of Mr Jagland.
I must admit I was somewhat hesitating before taking on this rapporteurship. It deals with a dimension that links to almost everything that is done by municipalities and regions. As a Swede I was also proud. The start of the report was the Forum for the Future of Democracy in Stockholm/Sigtuna in 2007 and the Whitmore report of the Congress. During the Swedish Presidency 2008 it was followed by a Seminar arranged by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions in Co-operation with the Council of Europe. The interdependence between human rights and democracy has been at the focus.
The elaboration of the text has been a process. Drafting is done after consultations with the staff of the European Court of Human Rights, the staff of the Commissioner of Human Rights Mr Hammarberg and other relevant departments of the Council of Europe that I as rapporteur and my expert Tom Madell also visited during one day. Questions have been put forward and draft conclusions put to a test. I would like to thank you all who have given me the input that has made this report.
III. So, what are the main lines of the action plan?
• The first is training, awareness-raising,benchmarking and setting up an independent complaints’ mechanism .
Local and regional elected representatives and their staff should be trained to respect human rights. Better awareness results in better governance and there is much to be gained by this. When people feel confident having their rights seen, and if possible fulfilled, their trust for society may grow. Democracy requires a ceaseless communication between elected representatives and their voters.
There is no standard solution for implementing human rights. We need a tool-kit of methods available, adapting them to local circumstances. Exchange of good practices is a key to success. The Congress has a significant role to play as a mediator of successful experiences.
In order to promote good practice and avoid mistakes, human rights should be integrated into ordinary work of public administration, budgets and service delivery. National action plans and indicators must be drafted in co-operation with the local and regional level. This is a responsibility for the member states and for Congress. A systematic multi-level dialogue must be encouraged between levels of society.
If things go wrong, citizens must have recourse to an independent complaints’ mechanism at local or regional level. It may take different forms - an ombudsperson (local or regional, national or thematic, decentralized from the national level), a consumer complaints’ board, patient injury board or anti-discrimination agency. Civil society organizations should if possible be involved! Even private institutions advocating and promoting human rights may be used. Our inhabitants must have sufficient support and advice to exercise their rights. This means lessening the burden of the national court system and ultimately the Court in Strasbourg.
• The second is monitoring.
Each delegation who goes on monitoring visits should take the human rights perspective into consideration. Human rights should be made an indicator when monitoring the Convention of Local Self-Government.
In addition to this, the Congress should prepare on a regular basis a special report on the human rights situation at local and regional level in the Council of Europe member states. This gives substance to an important topical debate that can be linked to those of the Ministers’ and that of the Assembly.
IV. This report does not give a final answer. On the contrary, it is a new starting point, a “second wind” when implementing human rights at local and regional level. There is no good governance, no democracy, without compliance with human rights. This interdependence means that respecting human rights also adds to the importance of the Convention of Local Self-Government. I am fully convinced that the Congress will be strengthened if we take on the challenge in a positive way.
There are many more aspects that would have been useful to underline e.g. the evolvement of different human rights. My time is however limited, I therefore recommend the report for careful reading.