Marija Pejčinović Burić, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, discusses what she calls the democratic backsliding in many areas and explains why it is important to recognize that there have also been positive developments in some member states.

How do you think the Summit in Reykjavik can address calls for a renewed Council of Europe, with a greater capacity to contribute to democratic security, to respond to citizens’ real concerns and to tackle challenges?

This will be an opportunity for our forty-six member states to recommit to the values and standards that this Organization protects and promotes across our common legal area. This means implementing the European Convention on Human Rights and executing the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights fully and swiftly. More than that, the leaders will have the chance to agree on specific actions and priorities that will improve the lives of people throughout our continent. This could not be timelier. The brutal, illegal and ongoing aggression launched by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and its people has made a deep impact on the geopolitics of Europe and the wider world. Every international organization must be clear about how it will adapt its action to take account of the new realities and to ensure the success of multilateralism in line with its mandate. The Council of Europe is no exception.

What are you expecting from the leaders gathering for this Summit after so many years?
First, I expect our leaders to support Ukraine and its people in their heroic resistance against Russian aggression. The Summit is expected to agree to a Register of Damage as a first, necessary step for a comprehensive compensation mechanism to support the victims. We also expect agreement on measures to support the children affected by the war.Besides Ukraine, the Summit will be an opportunity for our leaders to reverse the democratic backsliding that we have witnessed in Europe over recent years. At the same time, we need to tackle new challenges, including how to take advantage of artificial intelligence while preventing its abuses, and how to tackle the climate crises.

Human rights, fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and the resilience of democracy are in decline across many countries in Europe. What is your assessment of this situation and how can the Council of Europe help reverse it?
I tackle these issues head-on in my Annual Report, which was published on 5 May. Unfortunately, it does show that democratic backsliding continues in many areas–for instance, in violence against journalists, constraints imposed on civil society and freedom of association and assembly more broadly, and in a polarized political environment in which hate speech continues to grow, both online and offline. These negative trends are not found everywhere, and it is important to recognize that there have also been positive developments in some member states.Political will is needed to ensure that our standards apply across all areas of life and in every one of our member states. We have the standards, treaties, and Strasbourg Court judgments, and we have the recommendations of our monitoring and advisory bodies. We need national authorities to translate these fully into national laws and practices.

Concerning Greece, are you worried about concerns expressed in relation to the rule of law?

Greece is a valued member state which actively contributes to our work. As with any member state, when issues arise, we are here to support the authorities in addressing them in line with our standards.

In relation to the war in Ukraine, how can the Council of Europe help focus on accountability and the need to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity, while also defending international law more broadly?

The Council of Europe held Russia accountable for its actions on 16 March 2022, when our member states expelled it from our Organization. We understand the importance of accountability, because without it there can be no just and sustainable peace.That’s why we are now supporting the Office of the Prosecutor General in the ongoing investigations into war crimes and gross human rights violations.Now we are going further still with the creation of a Register of Damage at the Council of Europe, as the first, necessary component of a comprehensive compensation mechanism for the victims of brutal Russian aggression in Ukraine.We are also ready to support any international effort to set up a special tribunal on the crime of aggression. Selection and appointment of judges, rules of evidence and case management are some of the areas where our expertise might add value.In addition, we are taking action to support the children affected by the war. As regards the children who fled and are now in one of our member state, we are setting up a mechanism for the exchange of information about their individual situations. As regards the children abducted and illegally deported to Russia, we will hold Russia accountable under our Lanzarote Convention against the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, to which Russia is still a party and thus has obligations under international law.

What challenges do you think Europe is facing with regard specifically to the climate crisis and rapid technological changes, which are also impacting human rights? How could these be addressed?
The Council of Europe has a strong track record in these areas.

With regard to the environment, we have elaborated treaties such as the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats and our landscape convention. As we see the growing challenge to human rights posed by increased environmental degradation and climate change, we are now taking further action, including the negotiation of a new treaty to combat environmental crimes. However, the key question is whether the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be a fundamental human right. Here our countries have a choice. Both national and international courts are adjudicating and will continue to adjudicate cases on this matter. Our member states can either let courts decide the policy through the case-law or, alternatively, draw up a legally binding text that will provide the legal framework within which courts will have to operate.

On technological actions, again we have a record of acting to ensure that these uphold European standards. In the 1980s, we drew up a treaty to protect individuals’ personal data, which has been updated recently. In the early 2000s, we adopted the Convention on cybercrime, which is the only treaty in the world dealing with crimes committed on, against or through computer systems. This treaty too has recently been updated with a protocol on cloud evidence. Now, we are negotiating a new treaty to ensure that artificial intelligence is used for the benefit of all and does not undermine human rights.