Transcript of On-Line Chat Session with Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Alvaro Gil-Robles
Thursday, 13 November 2003, 14h30-15h30 GMT
Oberleitner [course instructor][Thu 14:32] says: Dear all, let me first of all welcome Mr. Alvaro Gil-Robles, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, to this chat. We feel very privileged that despite his heavy schedule he found time to spend this hour with us and chat about his institution and activities.
Oberleitner [Thu 14:34] says: Mr. Gil-Robles has taught law at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and other universities. He held a great number of different human rights positions in different countries and was National Ombudsman in Spain from 1988-1993. In 1999, he was elected the first European Commissioner for Human Rights.
Oberleitner [Thu 14:35] says: The 25 participants and 10 auditors in this course come from 22 different countries, mostly in East and South East Europe. They work in different fields on human rights or human rights related issues or pursue academic studies in this area. In the course, we have so far had the chance to cover the major institutions and instruments of the European human rights system, and will continue in the following weeks with selected case studies.
Oberleitner [Thu 14:38] says: We have had the chance to discuss the role and functions of the Commissioner on Human Rights recently, and have analysed the mandate and looked into the 2002 Annual Report. We are very much looking forward to continue this discussion with Mr. Gil-Robles over the next hour! Perhaps, Commissioner, you would want to introduce yourself briefly to the participants in the course?
Commissioner [Thu 14:40] says: Thank you very for the kind introduction you have already prepared for me. Might I start by saying how honoured I am for this opportunity to participate in this forum. I assumed my functions as Commissioner, as the first Commissioner, in 1999. I will be happy to answer whatever questions you might have regarding my functions.
Oberleitner [Thu 14:41] says: In the course we have discussed the issue of the ever expanding European human rights system, and the contribution this institution can make to the system. Perhaps we can start with this general issue and ask the Commissioner about the value he thinks his institution adds to the European human rights system?
Commissioner [Thu 14:43] says: The Commissioner was created as a new institution in 1999 to fill a perceived gap in the human rights protection system offered by the Council of Europe. It was felt that added value might be accrued by providing an institution with a mandate to promote the "effective respect" for human rights, that is to say to intervene in respect of specific human rights problems, through investigation and mediation with national authorities. This is in addition to the promotional role that the Commissioner also seeks to play.
dariusz [Thu 14:44] says: I have one question - principle for me - What is the real political impact of Council of Europe bodies according to the Commissioner.
Commissioner [Thu 14:46] says: The main political bodies are the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. The political impact of these bodies is both as a standard setter, through Conventions and other legislative initiatives, and as a monitor of the respect for human rights and the rule of law.
ohara [Thu 14:47] says: I would like to ask the Commissioner his views on the role of national human rights organisations and how he believes that he and other Council bodies can effectively support them to fulfil their potential.
Commissioner [Thu 14:48] says: Supporting the activity of National Human Rights Institutions is an important part of the Commissioner's mandate - both their creation, where they do not exist, and increasing their effectiveness where they do.
Commissioner [Thu 14:49] says: We have already written an opinion on, for instance, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and others are currently in the pipeline. We are particularly concerned with the relations between such institutions and Ombudsmen.
Commissioner [Thu 14:50] says: National Human Rights institutions can certainly provide important structures for the promotion of human rights. It is extremely important, however, that their functions are clearly defined.
Oberleitner [Thu 14:52] says: I would be interested in the Commissioner's view on the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and on the way the adoption of the Charter will impact the Council of Europe's human rights activities?
Commissioner [Thu 14:54] says: The Charter will provide, as it already does, indeed, an important normative text. The real question here is its relation to the Convention and the possible signing of this instrument by the EU. This would help to avoid jurisdictional forum shopping and would allow the court in Strasbourg to continue to set human rights jurisprudence in Europe.
pogace [Thu 14:55] says: What have been the main challenge(s) that your institution has encountered during its efforts on education and awareness raising on human rights in Europe?
Commissioner [Thu 14:57] says: The awareness raising aspect of the Commissioner's mandate is the one that brings the least novelty to the activity of the Council of Europe. We do however, attach great importance to this role. We have not really encountered any great difficulty in this area and our initiatives, seminars, publications etc have typically been well received by different member states. Perhaps the hardest part is raising the necessary attention in the press, which is not always as sensitive to human rights concerns as it might be.
parker [Thu 14:58] says: I'm concerned about the anti-immigrant wave sweeping most countries after Sept 11th. I read your opinion on Finland's new accelerated procedures legislation. I thought your critique was very thoughtful and well-researched. How do you find these types of opinions are being received by the countries concerned? Are these types of legislative initiatives becoming more common in your view?
Commissioner [Thu 15:00] says: I am indeed particularly concerned by the restrictive immigration policies that are increasingly being adopted. With respect to my opinions, the reception is generally positive. They are usually the result of discussions with the authorities concerned. Ultimately, of course, they are not binding. Their impact depends, of course, also on the use that is made of the Commissioner's opinions by others - whether parliamentarians or civil society organisations.
ohara [Thu 15:01] says: In the introduction to his 2002 report the Commissioner raises the question of possible expansion his mandate. Leaving aside the difficult question of resources and just looking at the arguably broad existing mandate, I would be interested to hear from the Commissioner which activities he feels constrained in that might merit an expansion of his mandate.
Commissioner [Thu 15:02] says: With regard to possible developments in the Commissioner's mandate, perhaps the most interesting possibility is granting the Commissioner some role with respect to proceedings before the European Court. Otherwise, there is also room for developing the follow up given to the Commissioner's recommendations by the Committee of Ministers.
elvana [Thu 15:04] says: Mr. Gil-Robles, what is your vision on the future position (let's say in 10 years) of the Human Rights Commissioner institution with regard to other CoE institutions. Do you consider it is the time or necessary for any possible amendment in the terms of reference set forth in Resolution (99)50 that might provide the Commissioner with more powers going beyond the existing reporting procedure to the Parliamentary Assembly and Committee of Ministers?
Commissioner [Thu 15:06] says: The institution of the Commissioner is indeed young and there is still a lot of room for expansion. Mostly this is a question of resources, of being able to respond to the demands that are made on the institution as it becomes better known. It is not certain whether providing greater executive force to the recommendations of the Commissioner is the key. What is needed, rather, is more attention to the follow up that is given to the Committee of Ministers by the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers.
Commissioner [Thu 15:07] says: These relations are constantly being worked on as the work of the Commissioner evolves.
letic [Thu 15:07] says: I would like to say that I was impressed reading your report for 2002, especially with the part on the former Yugoslavia. I have been working with NGOs in BiH and I had opportunity to see how low a level of awareness about human rights exists. Most of the people have no idea what CoE is. What would be your advice about the best ways for local NGOs to conduct civic education to raise human rights awareness and what assistance from CoE and your office we could get in that campaign?
Commissioner [Thu 15:09] says: NGOs have an important role to play in awareness raising. It is important that they work together and in so far as possible with other institutions, such as ombudsmen and human rights institutions that can support them.
parker [Thu 15:09] says: How can NGO's be of most assistance to your office?
Commissioner [Thu 15:10] says: NGOs are vital to us, both as sources of information, whether on urgent concerns or in respect of planned country visits. NGOs are also important as diffusers and 'pressure bearers' for the Commissioner's reports, recommendations and opinions.
qerimi [Thu 15:11] says: My question is whether there were any specific interventions to solve any human rights problem through the above-mentioned means and how effective was the Commissioner to promote "the effective respect" for human rights so far?
Commissioner [Thu 15:12] says: An example amongst others might be the in encouraging the Basque and National Authorities in Spain to act more strongly in respect of urban street violence that was menacing the lives of many in the Basque country. Following my intervention the numbers of incidents decreased dramatically as police intervention increased. Other examples would involve less dramatic, but often important initiatives relating to, for instance, asylum procedures or the institutionalisation of persons with mental disabilities.
cauti [Thu 15:13] says: Commissioner, thank you very much for your attention. I would know what are the general difficulties that you have for the fulfillment of your Reports or Recommendations in countries that have new democracies (Eastern European countries for example). I live in a developing country (Peru), we have a transitional democracy and we don't have a Commissioner for Human Rights. Gracias.
Commissioner [Thu 15:15] says: In many respects the new democracies are more sensitive and open to changes proposed to their human rights protection systems. Often, however, it must be admitted, changes introduced on paper take some time to be implemented in practice.
parker [Thu 15:16] says: Would it be possible to re-design your Commissioner's website somewhat in order to permit searching for key issues by topic? I find there are some very good issue discussions in your annual reports and country reports, but since these are mostly in PDF format they are not easily searchable. It would be great to have a better search capability on your site.
Commissioner [Thu 15:17] says: Unfortunately the performance of our website is directly proportionate to the means available to us. We will work on it ...
varyanko [Thu 15:18] says: Mr. Gil-Robles, since one of the vital responsibilities of the Commissioner are human rights education and promotion, do you think that introduction of human rights education in primary/secondary schools curricula of CoE states could reach more target audience than just work with NGO in this sphere? Were there any steps initiated by your institution in this direction?
Commissioner [Thu 15:21] says: I am personally convinced of the importance of human rights education in schools. This is an important part of encouraging civil responsibility amongst increasingly pluralist and diverse societies. I do not have the means myself to examine this question in detail, but I try to support initiatives working in this direction.
parker [Thu 15:22] says: Greetings from your home city of Madrid, where I am signing in today while on a business trip. One other question I hope you can address -- In your view, what are the biggest gaps in the existing mechanisms of the European human rights system?
Commissioner [Thu 15:24] says: One of the biggest and most obvious gaps arises in respect of the execution of the judgements of the court, whilst the majority of judgements are respected, problems and delays arise. Also the sensitivity of national courts to the human rights jurisprudence of the Strasbourg court could be improved to prevent cases even arriving there. How is my home city today?
parker [Thu 15:25] says: Madrid is good weather, but busy traffic!
Commissioner [Thu 15:26] says: as usual then ... I am glad.
Oberleitner [Thu 15:26] says: Could you let us know more on your work with National Ombudsmen and the role they play for the protection of human rights?
Commissioner [Thu 15:27] says: My work with national ombudsmen divides between focusing the attention of those that are well established on particular human rights concerns in their countries. With the newer ombudsmen it is more a matter of encouraging an operational effectiveness and supporting them in their relations with their executives.
elvana [Thu 15:30] says: Has it been successful with newer ombudsman institutions considering their recent establishment and tradition?
Commissioner [Thu 15:31] says: The newer Ombudsmen are definitely learning. I am confident that with time they will come to occupy an important place in national human rights protection. Often, indeed, their competences and constitutional position exceeds that of the older ones ... so there is much ground for optimism.
Oberleitner [Thu 15:32] says: Mr. Gil-Robles, let me thank you very much on behalf of all the participants in the course for an interesting and stimulating discussion, and for sharing your views on some key questions on the European human rights system with us. I think I can speak for all if I say that it was a unique opportunity to get in touch with you this way, and it is very much appreciated! Thanks for your time and for answering the questions of the group!
Commissioner [Thu 15:33] says: I am the one to thank you. It has been my pleasure to reply to questions and I hope that I have helped you to understand a little better the nature of this young institution. I might sign off by saying that human rights protection is not a concern uniquely of institutions and organisations, but of individuals as well. I am encouraged by your interest and wish you all well in the future.
elvana [Thu 15:34] says: It has been an honour to talk to the Commissioner, thank you HREA staff for having made this possible.