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© Council of Europe


By Dr. Martha Theodorou


The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which embodies the fundamental values of Europe, came into force 70 years ago. Since then, how the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights has turned the Convention into a dynamic and powerful tool for dealing with new challenges, while at the same time strengthening the rule of law and democracy in Europe?

Our European Convention on Human Rights is a living instrument. The case-law of the European Court of Human Rights is rich and relates to many different subjects. The reason for the significant impact of the Court’s work is the binding force of its rulings.

The interpretation of the Convention by the Court gives to the treaty its strength and makes it extremely modern as the Court interprets it in the light of present-day conditions. In this way, the Convention’s provisions apply today to situations that were totally unforeseeable and unimaginable at the time it was first adopted, including issues related to new technologies, bioethics or the environment.
The Court’s final judgements - that must be implemented fully and swiftly, as member states have committed to do -, have resulted in many changes to legislation and have helped to strengthen the rule of law and democracy in Europe. 
Judgements from the Court have protected people’s right to practice their religion, led to significant reforms in the area of slavery, forced labour and human trafficking or brought to the introduction of proper rules and systems of accountability which prevent torture and ill-treatment.

There are many examples of the positive impact of the ECHR, by country and by theme, that have been collected on our dedicated website.

For instance, thanks to the judgment in the case Chowdury and Others (2017) regarding Bangladeshi nationals who were recruited to pick strawberries on a farm, Greek Criminal Code of 2019 consolidated previous provisions criminalizing the offences of trafficking in human beings and sex trafficking, extended the scope of criminal liability and enhanced victim protection: The definition of the term ‘exploitation’ was broadened and the related sentences were increased. Greece had already established a National Rapporteur for the combating of the crime of trafficking in human beings for exploitative purposes and had ratified in 2014 the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.


In the context of the 4th Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe in 2023, the leaders adopted the Reykjavík Declaration and the Reykjavík Principles for Democracy. In a rapidly changing world with monumental shifts and unprecedented international crises, how and by which means can democracy be protected and strengthened?

Our Reykjavík Summit of Heads of State and Government was undoubtedly historic. There, our leaders recommitted to the values of this Organisation and acknowledged that they are key to ensuring democratic security across the Continent.

Many challenges that confront European societies today go beyond national borders. A rapidly changing world calls for new levels of international co-operation. Multilateralism and active engagement by democratic actors are key to overcome such challenges. Safeguarding press freedom so that citizens can receive accurate information and be well-informed about democratic principles and institutions and promoting civic education and strong involvement in political processes, are also essential.

A new Council of Europe Steering Committee on Democracy (CDDEM), composed by member states’ representatives, will become operational this year. This new intergovernmental structure is tasked with the important mandate to support member states in finding common solutions to many of the challenges facing European democracies and to follow up on relevant decisions taken at the Council of Europe Reykjavík Summit. Based on the Reykjavík Principles for Democracy, the CDDEM will promote and facilitate thematic exchanges and peer reviews of experience and good practices among Council of Europe member states to develop common policy responses and standards, as well as tools, to strengthen democracy, its institutions and processes and good governance at all levels and to enhance the meaningful participation in democratic life of all members of society, notably of young persons and civil society.

In carrying out these tasks, and in close co-operation and co-ordination with other relevant Council of Europe bodies, the CDDEM shall focus on current and emerging issues, assisting member states to address them, including identifying the causes of democratic backsliding, and countering any undermining of the effective operation of democracy at all levels.


The year 2024 will mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Council of Europe. In your opinion, which are its main achievements, as the leading human rights organisation of our continent? And which are the main challenges that the Council will be facing in the future?

Indeed, this year the Council of Europe will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Over the past 75 years, our standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law have been essential to ensuring and strengthening individual freedoms, peace, and prosperity in our member states. The Council of Europe has contributed to create a European common legal space. The Organisation has played a pivotal role to ensure that Europe is a death penalty-free zone, protect national minorities and regional or minority languages and to combat violence against women or sexual exploitation and abuse of children. Measures have been taken to prevent inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, to tackle trafficking in human beings and ensuring an education that promotes equality, inclusion and democratic citizenship. These are only few examples of ways in which the Council of Europe continues to change lives for the better.

About the main challenges lying ahead: first, we are committed in supporting our member state Ukraine, in any way we can. Securing Ukraine’s democratic future is extremely important. We yearn for a return to peace, a sustainable peace, based on justice. Europeans need peace and security to return to our continent with no further delay.
It is also necessary to tackle growing social inequalities, the rise of populism and democratic backsliding. This can be achieved through continued political will and strengthened co-operation.


The European Social Charter is a treaty of the Council of Europe that guarantees a certain number of fundamental social and economic rights, as a “Social Constitution of Europe”. According to the monitoring mechanisms of the Charter, do the policies implemented by the members states ensure fair employment, decent working conditions, social protection, education, health and the elimination of discrimination?

No other legal instrument at pan-European level can provide such an extensive and complete protection of social rights as that provided by the Charter, which also serves as a point of reference in European Union law.

The European Social Charter guarantees fundamental social and economic rights as a counterpart to the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects civil and political rights.

The honouring of commitments by the States Parties is subject to the monitoring of the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR). This body monitors compliance with the Charter under two complementary mechanisms: through collective complaints lodged by the social partners and other non-governmental organisations (Collective Complaints Procedure), and through national reports drawn up by Contracting Parties (Reporting System). States Parties have an obligation to cooperate with the Committee and its jurisprudence (both decisions and conclusions).

The effectiveness of policies and measures in ensuring fair employment, decent working conditions, social protection, education, health, and the elimination of discrimination can vary across member states. Every year the ECSR publishes its conclusions, indicating areas of compliance and areas where member states may need to take additional measures to fulfil their obligations under the Charter.


In your 2023 Report you mention that “hate speech continues to grow, both online and offline, often targeting women and a range of minorities and vulnerable groups”. What measures would you propose in order to successfully deal with such phenomena in Europe?

Every year, I publish an annual report on the situation of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe. In my most recent one, published last May, the findings are clear: there is significant democratic backsliding in parts of our continent. The most extreme example is the Russian Federation where this trend has led to the brutal, illegal aggression against Ukraine. However, democratic backsliding in Europe can take many forms. The rising tide of hate speech, both online and offline, can be another example.

Hate speech is a growing and insidious phenomenon. Over recent years, monitoring reports and other work by Council of Europe bodies has highlighted this. Roma, national and religious minorities, migrants and refugees, and LGBTI people are among the minorities that are so often targeted.

What makes hate speech different today is the means by which so much of it is spread. In many ways social media and the internet have broadened our horizons. But they also handed a virtual megaphone to those who wish to cause hurt and pain and allowed them to do so with anonymity. The extent of sexist hate speech online is a clear example of that. There is an urgent need for stronger governance and oversight of digital platforms.

The issue must be addressed by individuals, governments, and international organisations alike.

We are clear about the importance of freedom of expression, as outlined by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights: and that it applies even when it may offend, shock, or disturb. However, we are equally clear that while this right is fundamental, it is not absolute.

In May 2022, our Committee of Ministers adopted Recommendation CM/Rec(2022)16 on combating hate speech providing a comprehensive approach to addressing hate speech within a human rights framework. Several regional and national parliaments have adopted codes of conduct to address hate speech. There is a trend of increased regional co-operation in different areas. For example, Greece, together with France, Germany, Italy, Montenegro and Spain have engaged in an EU–Council of Europe joint project on combating hate speech in sport.

The Council of Europe has also put in place a range of awareness-raising activities.

An example: our No Hate Speech Movement campaign, designed to inform and mobilise young people and to equip them to tackle online abuse with positive expression that promotes human rights and democracy online.


Artificial Intelligence is being deployed into a variety of sectors in today's world, and it will transform the way we think, live, and function as organized societies. In your opinion, which will be the benefits and the risks for human rights, as a result of the Artificial Intelligence's applications?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) presents both benefits and risks. It is already with us and in the coming years it will play an even greater role in how governments and public institutions operate, and in how citizens interact and participate in the democratic process.

So, we need to ensure that AI is used to promote and protect our standards, and we are taking steps to ensure that it respects human rights and does not undermine them.

The Council of Europe is steadily advancing with the negotiations of what will be the first legally binding international treaty to ensure the protection of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the activities within the lifecycle of AI systems. These negotiations are taking place in Europe but are open to the world. Besides our 46 CoE member states, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, the Holy See, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Peru, the United States of America, Uruguay and the European Union participate. Moreover, nearly 70 NGOs and businesses actively and fully participate in the negotiations: this is unprecedented for CoE negotiations. We aim at finalising this Convention in time to mark our 75th anniversary.

The Council of Europe has on many occasions demonstrated its ability to pioneer new standards, which have then become global benchmarks. We will address AI in this tradition, in a multistakeholder approach with other international organisations, civil society, business and academia.


Following the Committee of Ministers in Helsinki in 2019 and in Turin in 2022 for strengthening the role and the meaningful participation of Civil Society organisations and national human rights institutions in the Council, how would you further enhance the co-operation between Civil Society and the Council of Europe?

The role played by civil society vis-à-vis the Council of Europe’s mission is extremely important. On 15 September 2023, my first exchange of views with civil society was held in Strasbourg. I would like to reiterate what I have highlighted on that occasion quoting the Reykjavík Principles of Democracy (agreed at our Summit of Heads of State and Government), namely that “Civil society is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy”. More than that, I would say that it is the lifeblood of democratic societies, and European governments must defend, nurture, and promote it in their member states.

Civil society organisations are key partners of the Council of Europe for its co-operation and assistance activities. They are invited to participate in and/or to co-organise various activities/projects and events in several areas in particular: national implementation of the ECHR; media and data protection; trafficking in human beings, anti-discrimination and inclusion, violence against women, children’s rights’, education and the HELP Programme to name a few.

The Council of Europe has taken steps to strengthen the protection and promotion of the civil society space in Europe:

  • A handbook Working with the Council of Europe: a practical guide for civil society;
  • A civil society portal available from the main Council of Europe website which would help NGOs navigate the Organisation’s website to find the right institutional or Secretariat address/contact point for the type of co-operation they seek or can provide – increasing transparency towards civil society about the structural forms of co-operation they may be able to develop.

Furthermore, on 15 December 2023, the Roadmap on Civil society engagement with the Council of Europe 2024-2027 was published putting forward my proposals aimed at shaping a policy for meaningful engagement with civil society as a whole, including youth civil society, in all aspects of the intergovernmental work (standard-setting, monitoring and co-operation activities) building on the existing framework.


Taking into consideration the fact that human rights and the environment are intertwined and people have the right to expect a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which is the role that the Council of Europe can play in the field of environmental protection and environmentally friendly landscape management?

Action on the environment is without any doubt a top priority for the Council of Europe.

The protection of the environment is an existential challenge for humanity. I don’t think we need any more evidence that the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss has the potential to threaten our existence. So, there is no time to lose. We need to act now – and we are, at multiple levels. First, we are negotiating a new treaty to combat the scourge of environmental crime, which produces several billion Euros of illegal proceeds, criminalising actions such as ecocide. Second, we are discussing whether a new protocol to the ECHR is needed to protect the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. While this discussion is ongoing, the Court is already confronted with several cases. And third, our Bern and Landscape Conventions continue to be relevant to protect our biodiversity, European wildlife, and natural habitats.


Recent years have seen a large increase in the arrivals of migrants and refugees in Europe. How can the Council of Europe expand its assistance to its member States in the design and implementation of relevant policies to better manage the migration and refugee flows, in line with the ECHR?

Handling migration and refugees is a collective responsibility of our member states and solidarity with them is therefore key.

Anyone who enters Council of Europe space is protected by our European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This includes migrants and refugees.

Russia’s brutal, illegal and ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine has caused the largest population displacement in Europe since the Second World War. Millions of people, mostly women and children, have sought refuge outside Ukraine in other Council of Europe member states. Governments across Europe have risen to the challenge of providing shelter and support. But this has not always been easy to do, and the Council of Europe has worked hard to provide them with the support they need. We have strengthened our focus and the
co-ordination of our efforts on migration and refugee issues. We have developed co-operation projects in a number of member states to enhance the capacity of local professionals to identify and respond effectively to the impact of war-related trauma on women and children. My Special Representative on Migration and Refugees has been on the ground in a number of countries, working with governments to support them in dealing with migrants and refugees flows in line with our standards.

Our Organisation’s Action Plan on Protecting Vulnerable persons in the Context of Migration and Asylum in Europe (2021-2025), proposes targeted measures and activities to increase the capacity of member states to identify and address vulnerabilities throughout asylum and migration procedures.

So, the Council of Europe can definitively play a decisive role in assisting and providing its members with policy expertise and practical guidance, as well as legal assistance and advice, enhancing knowledge and skills in a human rights-based migration management.


Do you think that Europe’s rich cultural heritage, protected through the European Cultural Convention, would be a suitable response to the challenges our societies face towards enhancing social cohesion?

Culture and heritage are powerful vectors of democratic participation and social inclusion. Europe is bursting with priceless cultural treasures, whether it is art, music, crafts, literature or architecture, our continent has so much to offer. This richness sheds light on our diversity, and it goes much further than that by adding an extra dimension: a common European culture. When we talk about Europe, we are talking about much more than a geographical area. We're talking about a continental community, a shared heritage, a cultural ideal.

It is this vision of union through diversity that underpins our 1954 European Cultural Convention, one of the very first treaties of the Organisation that this year marks its 70th anniversary. Ratified by each of our member states, its purpose is to develop mutual understanding among the peoples of Europe and reciprocal appreciation of their cultural diversity. Since then, the Council of Europe has taken a number of initiatives to support and promote Europe's cultural heritage, such as:

  • The European Heritage Days, a joint initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Union, where several countries open their historic buildings normally closed to the public;
  • The Cultural Routes Programme: an invitation to travel and to discover the rich and diverse heritage of Europe by bringing people and places together in networks of shared history and heritage. They put into practice the values of the Council of Europe: human rights, cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and mutual exchanges across borders.
  • The Intercultural Cities Programme: supports cities and regions in reviewing and adapting their policies through an intercultural lens, and developing comprehensive intercultural strategies to manage diversity as an advantage for the whole society.

The Organisation has also set up a series of innovative treaties. I would like to mention the Faro Convention - Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (2005) - which highlights the potential of culture as a vehicle for democratic participation, sustainable development and a better quality of life. Or our Nicosia Convention (2017), that to date is the only international legal instrument dedicated to combating the deterioration, destruction and trafficking of cultural property. And it does so from the point of view of criminal law.

So, Europe’s rich cultural heritage can indeed be a suitable response to challenges our societies face today, because it is a source of strength for European identity and promotes common European values, active citizenship, and inclusion. By promoting these values societies can foster a sense of belonging and a common identity. By encouraging people to learn about other cultures, languages and traditions, societies can promote understanding and mutual respect.

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