2014-03-28

Grand designs, urgent appeals and thunderous denunciations were the organisation’s high trumpet blasts this week, as it sort to bring order to cacophonous chatter over the future of Ukraine, the fate of the internet and Britain’s role in Europe.

A Magna Carta for the internet

Council of Europe officials were clearly listening during the endless rows over the Wikileaks revelations, Snowden’s allegations of government spying, the cosy relationship between social media networks and security agencies and the implications of Big Data because this week the organisation gave its backing to a ‘Magna Carta for the Internet.’

The idea, first floated by no other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has now been seized by Jan Kleijssen, Head of the Directorate of Information Society And Action Against Crime. Writing in Cyberlogue, Kleijssen let the inventor of the world wide web know that the Council of Europe is in his corner and ready to bring to the regulatory table, an exemplary track record, ‘do no harm’ first principles and more than 60 years of institutional competence.

The organisation, he said “would offer an appropriate framework,” adding that “in recent years, the Council of Europe has carried out its continent-wide mandate to protect and enhance human rights, democracy and the rule of law also as regards the Internet.

“Our 47 member states have developed a series of Conventions, open to all states, to protect people against cybercrime, combat the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, fight counterfeit medicine, as well as the protection of personal data.

“We have also developed a range of political principles, policy standards, practical tools and opportunities for multi-stakeholder co-operation, which are helping governments, the private sector and civil society to protect and respect and uphold the values of our Organisation. A comprehensive guide to human rights for Internet users is scheduled for adoption in April.

“The Council of Europe has been an active participant in the Internet governance processes since the first World Summit on Information Society in 2003. Its position has always been based on the need to secure the full implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and on the principle of “doing no harm” to the Internet’s functioning. The Council of Europe has repeatedly affirmed its support for the multistakeholder dialogue as a guiding principle for internet governance.”

Ukraine’s new beginning

Parliamentary Assembly President Anne Brasseur, volunteered several ‘guiding principles’ to the Turkish authorities who have now blocked Twitter and Facebook and to new government in Ukraine, upon her return to Strasbourg from a three-day visit to the country.

“The number one priority here has to be the adoption of a new constitution, followed by the adoption of a unified electoral law that can enable the forthcoming elections to proceed smoothly,” she suggested. “Other priorities will need to include decentralisation of government and guarantees that the rights of all national and linguistic minorities will be fully protected.

“There must be no impunity for the human rights abuses that occurred during the Maidan protests, and the independence of the judiciary must be guaranteed. Endemic corruption must also be tackled for the reforms to succeed.”

Brasseur repeated her condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and added: “We visited Donetsk in the east, where we witnessed the tensions surrounding the Russian-speaking community. These need to be addressed but should under no circumstances be used as an excuse for further Russian violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I call on all involved to step back from any provocation or rhetoric which could heighten tensions further.”

There is more on this story in this week’s video news journal, including commentary from Kristina Berdinskikh, a Ukrainian blogger and Maidan Square-protest commentator.

Brasseur’s general points on Ukraine were underscored by a declaration of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities. When not worrying over the fate of Leyla Güven and other locally elected politicians detained in Turkey, or advising the British government on its administration of local democracy, the Congress joined the international community chorus condemning Russia’s activities in Crimea.

Echoing its president’s public position on the eve of the Crimea referendum, the Congress affirmed that “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sebastopol was in violation of international law.”

But, as reported in these pages last week, the Russians hold equally robust views on the crisis and are not slow to put them forward.

The country’s delegation to the Congress responded to the declaration with a rebuttal statement.

“The legitimate President of Ukraine had to flee the country saving his life while the politicians who came to power in Kiev proclaimed themselves the new government of Ukraine. However, they failed to ensure peace and security, European standards of local and regional democracy, equal rights and freedoms to the peoples of Ukraine as well as political stability in the southern and eastern regions of the country.

“We would like to stress that it is not Russia that added fuel to the fire of tensions in Ukraine. It is Western politicians and diplomats who neglected the rules of international law and personally came to the Maidan to promote an Ukrainian opposition and in fact contributed to the success of coup-d’etat in this sovereign country.

“For them it is a geo-political game, an attempt to strengthen their positions in the proximity to Russian borders. For us it is the question of life and death, the destiny of tens of millions of our near and dear people, with whom we have, literally speaking, family ties.”

Judging the faithful

The Russian perspective loomed large in European court activities too, with the ‘World Cult Watch’ (WCW) and the Russian Legal Information Agency (RLIA) both reporting on prospective Jehovah Witness’ human rights complaints.

“Russia and the applicants were asked earlier this month to consider a plethora of questions related to treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their congregations in light of the European Convention on Human Rights’ (Convention) guarantees of religious freedom and free expression, as well as its prohibition of discrimination,” the RLIA stated.

The WCW revealed that: “According to court documents, in 2007, a Russian Deputy Prosecutor General notified the country’s prosecutors’ offices that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other foreign religious and charitable organizations may have constituted a public threat.”

More sects talk

Another matter of great religious import will soon be in the Parliamentary Assembly’s in tray. Joseph Grieboski, Chairman of the Board of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, “a non-partisan, inter-religious international organization dedicated to encourage open dialogue and shape public participation in policy of the global community of faith,” confirmed that he has written to Anne Brasseur to denounce a report on cults which will be discussed by the assembly next month.

Fortunately, Brasseur did not have to wait on the vagaries of the postal service, as Grieboski thoughtfully, dispensed with institutional formality and published the full text for all to read.

“In our opinion,” Grieboski writes “the Resolution and Recommendations fall far short of meeting international human rights standards regarding religious freedom, tolerance and pluralism that the Council of Europe has long stood for.

“Sweeping generalizations, vague and unsupported allegations, and one-sided information from biased sources never constitute the ‘objective and reasonable justification’ required for legal restrictions on the manifestation of religion pursuant to Article 9(2) of the ECHR.

“Moreover, isolated instances never justify general restrictions against a group. Yet, the Report is rife with such allegations and information, rendering its conclusions and recommendations suspect.

“We urge that it [report] not be endorsed by PACE and that the rights of parents and their children to religious freedom and religious tolerance be respected.”

Conspiracists and connoisseurs rejoice!

Whilst the organisation’s week was dominated by the usual mix of confrontation and consternation, big themes and bait politics, there was still plenty of red meat to delight both the conspiracist and the political connoisseur alike.

In the week of a televised showdown on Britain’s place in Europe, featuring the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and its favourite Eurosceptic media darling Nigel Farage, the Financial Times chose to publish Secretary General Jagland’s anxiety over a possible United Kingdom withdrawal from the European convention system.

“If the UK, as one of the founding fathers, pulls out of the convention, then others may do the same,” he said. “We have a clear situation now which shows how important it is to stick in the convention.

“There are forces in many countries that dislike being under an international court. If one country starts to withdraw, then others might like to do the same. It is very important that we have a common legal basis, especially when you consider what’s happening in Crimea.”

But far from pulling away from the the Council of Europe, the United Kingdom, according to the country’s Independent Television News (ITV), is convinced that the organisation is a weighty and seductive instrument in matters of international diplomacy.

Citing the Attorney General Dominic Grieve as its source, ITV reported that “Britain could move to expel Russia from the Council of Europe in response to any further incursions in eastern Ukraine.”

Sections of the the UK politico-media-ocracy, who hold no great attachment to the pre-eminence of European human rights jurisprudence, may soon have reasons to rejoice, or indeed fulminate, over expected personnel changes among Strasbourg judges.

This nugget was gifted to the public domain by David Milner (@DavidJKM), who tweeted that “23 of the 47 #ECtHR judges, inc. president, will end their term of office and be replaced over the next 3 years.

Also using Twitter was the writer Ben Judah (@b_judah) who gave another turn to the ‘Azerbaijan caviar’ rumour mill.

Rights for migrants too

Meanwhile, human rights commissioner Nils Mui┼żnieks, took up the cause of migrants, putting forward their claims to a full measure of human rights respect to the authorities in Denmark and Greece.

Bluntly, he told the Danish authorities that “the best interests of the child are not always upheld in the context of asylum and immigration,” before embarking on a spot of ‘Facebook campaigning’ in Greece, in the hope that law-makers would reject a proposed amendment to a draft immigration law.

“I am seriously concerned about the introduction by the government of the amendment to Article 19 of the draft immigration code which would allow deportation following the rejection of any migrant’s complaint that they have been victim of racist or other unlawful violence by law enforcement officers,” he wrote.

“This amendment is ill-advised and should not be adopted. In effect, it shifts the burden of proof onto the migrant complainants and introduces one more ground for deporting migrants who may have been subjected to unlawful violence but have been unable to substantiate their claims.”

And so to next week

By common consent, the rights of migrants and those of Roma communities weigh all too lightly in the hierarchy of political concerns, so it is fitting that the social and economic inclusion of Roma communities, at least, will will be at the core of a high-profile Brussels conference next week.

Much has happened since the 2010 Strasbourg Declaration a high-water mark of pan-European interest in Roma affairs. Alas, there is still much to do, as readers will discover in a new ‘Witness’ series to be published in these pages in the coming days.

Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland will attend another solemn occasion in the Belgian capital when he joins Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Vice President of the European Commission and other international leaders at the International Conference on Prevention of Genocides.

Jagland will also meet with Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs and Stefan Füle, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy. In more diary news, Deputy Secretary General Gabriella Battaini Dragoni will make a working visit to Jordan and the Commissioner for Human Rights will travel to Romania.

Click here for more information on the organisation’s activities over the next seven days.

Bon weekend

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