Protection of human life and public health within the context of a pandemic
Greece, Member of the Council of Europe since August 1949, assumed 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. Within this framework, the main theme of the Greek Chairmanship is: ‘Protection of human life and public health within 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 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:
a) Defining the implications of the pandemic on our societies, our democracies and the economy at large;
b) Identifying lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, as related to our mandate, as well as best practices within 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
c) Analysing 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 70th Anniversary 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 4th 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 CoE 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. Within this context, the prospect of accession of the EU 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
Within the new context of exercising human, social and governmental activity that we all currently face, issues arise that we must 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. The Rule of Law and the independence and efficiency of justice will be duly highlighted by the Greek Chairmanship through a special Conference of the Justice Ministers of the Member States related to the ‘Independence of Justice and 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. 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 cooperation, are also welcome to participate in this dialogue.
Within 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:
a) Education and Democratic Culture in a digital era.
b) Children as vulnerable persons (at risk of poverty, victims of violence, trafficking, forced labour, unaccompanied migrant minors).
c) Safeguarding the right of younger generations to enjoy cultural heritage unaffected by the impact of climate change.
d) European Social Charter – social rights within the framework of the Council of Europe – impact of the pandemic crisis on the right of access of vulnerable social groups to health as a public good.
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. The Greek Chairmanship will organise 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.
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 E-Chairmanship will provide transmission of events and actions of the Council of Europe to all citizens through new technologies.
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 behaviour and habits to a large extent.