Reaffirming the universal nature of human rights
| Doc. 12826
| 13 February 2012
- Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy
- Rapporteur :
- Mr Denis BADRÉ,
to committee: Doc. 12312, Reference 3701 of 4 October 2010. Information report
approved by the committee on 15 November 2011. 2012 - Second part-session
The report takes stock of the Council of Europe’s action in
reaffirming the principle of universality of human rights and discusses
the current threats to it in our societies, including cultural and
religious relativism and lack of effective implementation of human
It also analyses the recent wave of democratic transformations
in the Arab world as a major step towards making universal rights
1 Universality, the idea that
human rights apply to all people, in all places, at all times, was
the basic principle underlying the 1948 Universal Declaration of
2 Following a motion for a resolution tabled on 23 June 2010,
I was appointed rapporteur by the Political Affairs Committee on
15 December 2010.
3 The committee is discussing the issue of the universality
of human rights in the midst of a challenging global situation,
which can be conducive to the calling into question or the denial
of rights, including political, civil, social and cultural rights.
4 In a report that I prepared in March 2011 at the request of
the French Prime Minister, Mr François Fillon, on France’s enhanced
involvement in the Council of Europe, I have already mentioned that
the most difficult and sensitive challenges ahead for the Council
of Europe concern the question of the universality of human rights,
cultural and religious relativism, as well as the rise of sectarianism.
In my report, I argued that the Council of Europe, in co-operation
with the European Union, should be at the forefront of this debate.
5 Since 2008, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention
on Human Rights (ETS No. 5, “the Convention”), the Council of Europe
has been active in reaffirming the principle of the universality
of human rights, and all its recent activities, conferences, forums
and reports dedicated to this issue have inspired this report.
In a declaration published on the occasion of the 119th session
of the Committee of Ministers held in Madrid on 12 May 2009, the
ministers stated that “human rights are universal. They are the
inalienable rights of every person” and added that human rights
must respond to the challenges of these changing times.Note
Furthermore, in a declaration of 1 July 2009 on human rights
in culturally diverse societies, the Committee of Ministers emphasised
that “in order to reconcile respect for different identities with
social cohesion and avoid isolation and alienation of certain groups,
it is indispensable to regard respect for human rights and fundamental
freedoms as a common basis for all: no cultural, religious or other
practices or traditions can be invoked to prevent any individual
from exercising his or her basic rights or from participating actively
in society, nor shall anyone’s rights be unduly restricted on account
of their religious or cultural practices”.Note
8 In his address to the Council of Europe on 19 October 2010
on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the European Convention
on Human Rights, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared
that “our universal compact on human rights needs to be reinforced.
I see two ways to strengthen it, to build on it for future generations.
First, by seizing every opportunity to re-affirm the universality
and indivisibility of human rights. Universality is the beating
heart of the body of international human rights law as it has developed
over the past six decades. When it comes to human rights, there
should be no selectivity. Human rights are not a menu, from which
we can pick and choose”.
What are the current threats to the universality of human
rights in our societies? Should we, as Gérard Fellous suggests in
his work entitled “Les droits de l’homme, une universalité menace”
(“Human rights, universality under threat”),Note
expect to see these rights disappear in
the 21st century, if they were to lose their universal nature? By
analysing the recent wave of democratic transformations in the Arab
world, can we see signs of a major step towards making universal
rights a reality?
10 These are amongst the main issues that I intend to discuss
in this information report. I am also indebted to the Conference
of International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) of the Council
of Europe for organising the Forum on the Universality of Human
Rights in Oslo on 21 and 22 October 2010. This report is partly
inspired by the valuable contributions made by distinguished experts
at that Forum.
2 Topicality of the debate
11 Contention regarding the universal
nature of human rights is nothing new and we have seen challenges for
a long time, especially in recent times, whether they be ideological,
political or religious in nature.
12 The world’s centre of gravity has changed. Within the United
Nations system, the non-aligned movement of countries currently
includes 115 States, including Cuba and China; the group of Muslim
States includes 57 countries, the African Union itself represents
a total of 53 countries, and the European Union of 27 member States
remains in the minority.
13 In some emerging countries, voices are rising up against an
intellectual and moral model which they claim is too “westernised”.
14 At a time when intercultural dialogue is high on the agenda
of European and national institutions, it is vital to emphasise
the common basis of our society. Human rights are part of that basis.
The conviction that everyone is equal in terms of their rights and
dignity is, for example, the driving force behind efforts to secure equal
rights for women and men and to prevent cultural and religious traditions
being used as a pretext for not respecting certain rights.
15 Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
some prevailing threats to the universality of human rights have
been well known for more than sixty years, and still persist, while
others have come to light more recently and seem likely to develop
further if we do not guard against them.
16 At this very moment, the universality of human rights is being
threatened by cultural and religious relativism, sectarian movements
and extremists, discrimination, rejection of the “other” brought
about by populist political parties, consisting of elected members
and even members of governments of several European countries. Racist
demonstrations, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, vandalism
and the destruction of religious symbols further darken the picture.
The challenges arising from the resurgence of intolerance
and discrimination in Europe, which represent a threat to the universality
of human rights, have been thoroughly analysed in the report of
the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe entitled “Living
together – Combining diversity and freedom in 21st-century Europe”,
published in May 2011. The Parliamentary Assembly has also taken
a position on the question when adopting Recommendation 1975 (2011)
“Living together in 21st-century Europe: follow-up to the
report of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe”.
I would like to tackle the topic not as a subject for academic
speculation, but rather as a working item which has an effect on
people’s lives. The debate is not only theoretical but can and must
be illustrated in tangible ways. I would just mention some examples,
such as the use of headscarves in some European countries, reproductive
health, genital mutilation, abortion and euthanasia debates, freedom
of expression and freedom of religion, access to water, climate
change, and new problems of sharing and protecting information raised
by our information society. This is all about human rights law and
about our difficulty in coping with the universality of human rights.Note
19 Where are we in terms of human rights implementation worldwide
20 Certainly, much progress has been made since 1948, but we
are currently experiencing an unprecedented global crisis. Globalisation,
far from encouraging universalism, generates fear, excessive assertions
of identity, rising fundamentalism and nationalistic movements.
This crisis, also rooted in the upheavals of the international financial
system, has had serious economic repercussions, which in turn have led
to a weakening of the poorest countries and populations throughout
21 Consequently, the universal nature of human rights, that we
thought had been achieved, has been called into question. As Professor
Emmanuel Decaux, President of the International Permanent Secretariat
of the World Forum on Human Rights, put it, speaking at the Nantes
Forum in 2010 (28 June-1 July), “in the face of threats of an identity
fallback and cultural relativism, how can we deny that only human
rights will enable us to live together at a local level and on a
22 Demonstrations of this can be seen at events such as those
held at the Conference on Human Rights in Bangkok in 1993, where
44 countries demanded to see human rights rewritten for Asian countries,
or more recently, the Durban II World Conference against Racism
held in Geneva in 2009, where the extreme intervention of the Iranian
President alone succeeded in overturning the initial majority vote
of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC arguments
considered the universality of human rights as a “product of Western
civilisation”, imposed on the rest of the world by colonialism and
post-colonialism and destined to be destroyed or, at the very least,
23 Intolerance, discrimination against homosexuals and approval
of torture also remain a reality in Council of Europe member States.
Defined gender roles, female circumcisions, honour killings, infanticide
and violence against women are realities in some societies, even
in our “advanced” democracies.
24 Combining cultural variability or cultural relativism and
human rights has been a long-standing dilemma. For human rights
to be a right and not a privilege, I believe that universality is
essential and should be firmly reaffirmed as a political necessity
for both the Council of Europe and the European Union.
3 Current threats to the universality
of human rights
3.1 Cultural relativism
25 Cultural relativism, a concept
born from anthropology, is rooted in the idea that all cultures
are of equal value. Certainly the culture of each human being is
an important identity component.
26 Some commentators and politicians argue that the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights is the expression of Western culture,
based on the primacy of the individual, whereas other societies,
especially in Africa or Asia, place greater value on group harmony
and the protection of collective community rights.
27 I take the view that confining and enclosing an individual
in his or her community is a divider which only serves to promote
stereotypes which are racist and a threat to freedom. The right
to difference and tolerance cannot be the pretext for denying dignity
28 Cultural identities can only be admissible on the condition
that they do not undermine the dignity and equal rights of all human
beings. There is a human essence that transcends any distinctive
identity, including those that are cultural and religious.
I recall that, on 1 July 2009, the Council of Europe's Committee
of Ministers called on opinion leaders to speak out and take resolute
action to foster a climate of respect through dialogue based on
a common understanding of universally recognised human rights.Note
is the way forward.
30 If we take women’s rights as an example, we see that universality
is not a reality for all. Women are still prevented from being fully
fledged members of society. The rights of women are violated on
a massive scale, be it in the form of rape as a weapon of war, discrimination
at work, domestic violence or, in some countries, the right to vote
or stand for elections or even to drive a car.
31 I wish to stress, however, that universality does not mean
uniformity. Depending on the society and the culture, particular
focus may be placed on certain rights rather than others. Regional,
national and cultural particularities have also led to regional
systems of protection of human rights, as is the case with the European Convention
on Human Rights, which takes into account European values and cultural
sensitivity. Furthermore, the Convention has transformed the principles
proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into concrete
legal obligations for the signatory States.
32 European, American and African human rights conventions clearly
show that regional structures are a favoured method for expressing
universal values in terms which are conducive to the mentalities
and traditions of those people who must respect them.
33 I would even argue that for human rights to be considered
truly universal, they must be rooted in different cultures. People,
wherever they live, can understand these rights only if they can
do so through their own culture and mindset.
34 The universality of human rights therefore leaves room for
diversity. They are not a static, unchangeable notion, cast in stone.
However, this should not undermine the common nature of principles
and values which have been progressively constructed.
35 The notion of human dignity did not arise out of nowhere and
the concept of human rights was not established in abstracto. These are the expressions
of values which fall within the common basis of humanity and therefore
the different cultures which constitute its fabric. The argument
of cultural diversity should not be considered as a threat to fundamental
36 It should be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights
does not lay emphasis on cultural and religious particularisms.
On the contrary, the signatory States underline what unites them,
proclaiming in the preamble that they are animated by the same spirit
and share a heritage of ideals and political traditions, of respect
for freedom and the rule of law. On the contrary, the Charter of
Fundamental Rights of the European Union stipulates that “the Union
respects cultural, religious and linguistic diversity” (Article
37 However, the implementation of rights guaranteed by the Convention,
in particular as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights,
is not exempt from these influences. In fact, in several instances,
the Court has invoked certain cultural specificities and recognised
that, taking into account the circumstances, the cultural characteristics
specific to a State, region or a community constitute a pertinent
element to take into account in identifying the existence of a violation
of the Convention.
3.2 Religious relativism
38 Many governments in Islamic
countries invoke sacred Islamic texts to refute the universality
of human rights. Fundamental rights are thus redefined and reinterpreted
in the light of the Sharia. This is a recent phenomenon. In fact,
in 1948, of the 56 States which voted for the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, eight abstained, amongst which there was only one
Muslim State: Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan
and Syria all voted in favour of it.
39 From 1966, with regard to various international treaties,
particularly those concerning conventions relating to women’s and
children rights, Islamic countries started to introduce reservations
in the name of the Sharia.
40 Moreover, in the last thirty or so years two declarations
were enacted, running in parallel with the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights: a first one drafted by the Islamic Council, adopted
in 1981, entitled the “Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights”,
and the second adopted in Cairo in 1990 by the Organization of the
Islamic Conference, entitled “Declaration on Human Rights in Islam”.
The latter proclaims, in Article 25, that “the Islamic Sharia is
the only reference for the explanation or clarification of any of
the articles of this Declaration”. Article 22 stipulates that “Everyone
has the right to express his opinion freely in such a manner as
would not be contrary to the principles of the Sharia. [Information]
may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities
and the dignity of Prophets …”.
41 The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981 includes
the notion of traditional values recognised by the “community” and
promotes the rights and duties of the community (family, society,
nation, State) in a more communitarian and less individualistic
42 Nevertheless, at the heart of all cultures of the world, in
all the main religions and all the major philosophies, the same
fundamental concept of the dignity of the human being exists.
43 I firmly believe that human rights transcend all religions.
No restrictions can be placed on human rights in the name of religion.
No religion may formulate its “own human rights”. This also means
that every individual is free to practise his or her religion or
belief, change his or her belief or choose not to have any religious conviction.
Governments have the duty to protect this freedom, both in legislation
and in practice.
I also firmly believe that extremism is not inherent to any
religion. It is a dogmatic practice of religions which can induce
extremism and which may drive us out of the scope of human rights.Note
Clear limits must be laid down regarding
the manifestation of religious and cultural relativism.
45 Women, in particular, appear to be amongst the main victims
of cultural and religious relativism. As Rama Yade, French Secretary
of State for Human Rights put it, before the United Nations Human
Rights Council in Geneva on 12 December 2008: “Allow me to reaffirm
loud and clear: stoning, excision and genital mutilation need to
be fought against. Nothing can legitimise or render this practice
acceptable. Cultural diversity must be exercised, everywhere and
at all times, with respect for human rights. It cannot be dissociated
from respect for human dignity.”
The Parliamentary Assembly has also made its position clear
with regard to actions to combat gender-based human rights violations,
including abduction of women and girls, by affirming that “member
States have a responsibility to do everything in their power to
prevent and combat these practices and to protect the victims. No
cultural or religious relativism can justify these acts”.Note
47 It must be stressed, however, that a country which has to
adhere to human rights in the face of harmful traditions also has
to respect the ones which are in essence harmless but which are
only perceived in a certain way or seen as symbolically constituting
An example of this is the French and Belgian ban on the Muslim
veil. To most, the veil is seen as a symbol of oppression and fundamentalism
and, in some cases, where women are not given a choice, it can be.
However, systematically banning a cultural and religious tradition
on the basis of mere representation would be just as much a violation
of the rights of those women who wish to wear the veil as is the
forcing of the veil on those women who do not wish to wear it. Individuals
should have the right to practices that define who they want to
The Assembly affirmed this principle in Resolution 1743 (2010)
adopted on 23 June 2010 on Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia
in Europe, when it stated that “a general prohibition of wearing
and the niqab
would deny women who freely
desire to do so their right to cover their face”. The Council of
Europe Commissioner for Human Rights also pointed out recently that
“such laws – so obviously targeting the adherents of one religious
faith – would further stigmatise these women and lead to their alienation
from the majority society. Banning women dressed in the burqa/niqab
from public institutions
like hospitals or government offices may only result in them avoiding
such places entirely. This is not liberation.”Note
Because of the freedom of thought and religion, we cannot
deny to anyone the right to participate in public affairs. Having
said that, political parties must respect the principles of the
basis of democracy in their internal organisation and their programme.
Under no circumstances should the public sphere and the political debate
be confused with the practice of religion.Note
3.3 Western “imperialism” of
51 As already discussed above,
there is a tendency to say that the West has no right to impose
its values and to “export” human rights to other parts of the world
which should be free to develop as they choose. This affirmation
comes mainly from critics in countries from the Asian and Arab world.
In my opinion, this simplistic and dangerous view creates
a dividing line between “us” and “them” and overlooks the fact that,
when dealing with human rights, we deal with humankind and humankind
is universal. Let us not forget that there are now 167 State parties
to the International Covenant on Civil and Political RightsNote
and that these 167 countries are not “the
53 Unfortunately, some European and American thinkers and politicians
still consider the universality of human rights as a recently created
value, developed by Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian cultures.
54 Indeed, the expression and codification of human rights may
be recent but the rights inherent in their content are not; one
can easily find traces in ancient Asian and African civilisations,
expressing respect for human life, individual freedom, justice,
equity and solidarity.
55 Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the
European Convention on Human Rights have what we may call “Western
inspiration”, one has to acknowledge that they were founded on ideals
and achievements from many different cultures and ancient times.
They reflect the concerns and interests of all of us, that is, the
inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.
3.4 Principle of “non-interference
in domestic affairs”
56 Some States claim that the
principle of “non-interference in domestic affairs” outweighs the
universal protection of human rights.
57 This point of view, which presents a threat for victims of
human rights violations, came into being with the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights and has still not disappeared. The Declaration established
the international community’s right to monitor, and even interfere
in the case of a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
It undermined a type of “realpolitik” which preferred to turn a
blind eye to States in violation, in exchange for diplomatic or
58 At European level, the rights and freedoms of individuals
are protected by the supervisory mechanism of the European Convention
on Human Rights. States parties to the Convention have accepted
the obligation to implement the judgments of the European Court
of Human Rights, with considerations of national sovereignty being
of secondary importance.
59 At any rate, it should not be forgotten that persistent human
rights violations always lead to instability in the long run, which
may threaten peace and security beyond national boundaries. Countries
whose structure and stability are undermined become a haven for
international terrorism and crime.
60 Human rights are therefore closely linked to stability and
should therefore feature prominently in the international community’s
efforts to promote peace and security and in the foreign policy
of the Council of Europe member States. My fellow parliamentarian,
Mr Pietro Marcenaro, is currently preparing a report on this very
3.5 Questioning the indivisibility
of human rightsNote
61 Universality is closely linked
to indivisibility. Already in its Article 2, the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights proclaims that “Everyone is entitled to all the
rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction
of any kind …”.
The human rights corpus is not a “menu” from which States
may make choices that suit them, ignoring certain rights, such as
the equality of women, or the prohibition of torture, for example.
Indivisibility is the presupposed logic of universality. It is the
principle of the indivisibility of human rights which allows any deceiving
hierarchy to be avoided, and particularly any hierarchy of exclusion
which can only be harmful.Note
Admittedly, there is provision in the international system
of human rights that, in certain exceptional circumstances and under
some duly justified circumstances, derogations or limitations can
be applicable to the exercise of human rights.Note
Whilst strongly reiterating the indivisibility of rights,
the European Convention on Human Rights and many other international
instruments dealing with human rights, have recognised that it is
possible to establish a hierarchy of provisions listing in a limited
manner those rights which cannot be subject to derogations, whatever
the circumstances. This is about the right to life, the right not
to be subject to torture or to degrading treatment, not to be held
a slave or in servitude and the principle of non-retroactivity of
65 The international system of human rights risks being sapped
by the mechanism of reservations. A large proportion of reservations
attacks the universality of human rights concerned, either because
they merely disregard the application of rights, or because, by
referring to the national situation, they empty it of its substance.
66 I agree with many commentators that such reservations should
only be considered as temporarily admissible. We must remain vigilant
and continue to apply pressure on States which issue such reservations to
the various human rights conventions, so as to encourage the trend
3.6 Lack of implementation
Another recurrent threat to
the universality of human rights and its international instruments
is non-efficacy in the implementation of human rights. There is
often a gap between proclamation and effective implementation, even
in democratic countries.Note
68 States parties to the Convention have accepted their duty
to implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.
The Convention is now one of the keystones of the European political
framework precisely because the execution of each individual judgment
in which a State is found to have violated the Convention is closely
and systematically monitored by the other States through their representation
in the Committee of Ministers.
The Interlaken process of reform of the European Court of
Human Rights has also promoted a new approach in relation to the
supervision of Court judgments by the Committee of Ministers, focused
on new working methods, in force since 1 January 2011. This should
allow for a more effective and transparent supervision of execution
and also for a more appropriate response to the persistent problem
of clone and repetitive cases.Note
4 Council of Europe’s action
4.1 Committee of Ministers
70 I have already mentioned in
the introduction recent examples of the Committee of Ministers’
explicit commitment in reaffirming the universality of human rights,
particularly in the context of intercultural dialogue.
71 The Organisation aims to promote citizenship and human rights
education in a very broad sense, as it is defined in the Council
of Europe Charter on citizenship and human rights education. However,
in reality the concepts of “citizenship and human rights education”
– as well as those of “democracy” and “human rights” – are often
interpreted in very different ways by different people, and can
be perceived as something that is alien and/or imposed.
72 On 29 September 2008, the Council of Europe signed a Memorandum
of Understanding with the Alliance of Civilizations, a United Nations
political initiative, which was launched by Spain and Turkey in
2005 and now numbers more than 90 member States. It aims at countering
the idea that civilisations are set on an unavoidable collision
course and that world peace and stability are threatened by intractable
73 The Memorandum of Understanding recalled the need for intercultural
dialogue to be based on the principles of indivisibility and universality
of human rights and on observance of the human rights standards
of the United Nations and the Council of Europe. It identified priority
areas of co-operation in intercultural dialogue for developing joint
activities in fields of common interest.
74 The Committee of Ministers actively participates in the activities
of the Alliance of Civilizations, including meetings of the Alliance's
“Group of Friends”, which took place in New York on 24 September
75 Recently, the Council of Europe accepted the Alliance of Civilizations’
offer to contribute to its regional strategy for the Balkans, adopted
in 2009, and for the Mediterranean, adopted in November 2010. The
Council of Europe's North-South Centre is playing a central role
in this context.
76 Moreover, on 30 November 2009, the Council of Europe and the
MBI Al Jaber Foundation signed a co-operation agreement aimed at
strengthening Euro-Mediterranean and Euro-Arab regional co-operation
and promoting human rights, rule of law, democratic citizenship
and intercultural understanding. The Council of Europe received
a contribution of 1 million euros over a four-year period (2010-2013).
The North-South Centre is one of the major implementing partners
and created a Think-Tank in 2010 to that effect.
77 Following the adoption of the Council of Europe White Paper
on Intercultural Dialogue in 2008, the Council of Europe has expanded
co-operation with other organisations active in intercultural dialogue, including
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
(OSCE), the European Union and the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation
for the Dialogue between Cultures, as well as other regional organisations,
such as the League of Arab States and its educational, cultural
and scientific organisation, ALECSO, representing a region with
many ties to Europe and a distinct cultural tradition.
78 The Council of Europe also promotes intercultural dialogue
on the basis of its standards and values when co-operating in the
context of specific projects with institutions such as the Islamic
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) and the
Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA). The
regional focus of this co-operation is the interaction between Europe
and its neighbouring regions, specifically the southern shores of
the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Central Asia.
79 On 31 March 2010, the Committee of Ministers adopted Recommendation
CM/Rec(2010)5 on measures to combat discrimination on the grounds
of sexual orientation or gender identity. In the preamble, the Ministers recalled
that human rights are universal and shall apply to all individuals,
and stressed therefore their commitment to guarantee the equal dignity
of all human beings and the enjoyment of rights and freedoms of all
individuals without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race,
colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national
or social origin, association with a national minority, property,
birth or other status, in accordance with the European Convention
on Human Rights and its protocols.
4.2 Parliamentary Assembly
The Parliamentary Assembly
has recently analysed the question of intercultural dialogue and
insisted on the universal nature of human rights in Recommendation 1962 (2011)
on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue,
adopted in April 2011.
81 When it comes to reaffirming the universality of human rights
and the fact that these are not a Western construct, Assembly President
Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu more recently expressed a renewed commitment when meeting
foreign ministers from the 57-member Organization of the Islamic
Conference (OIC) on 29 June 2010 in Astana (Kazakhstan). President
Çavuşoğlu said that the group of Islamic States and the Council
of Europe have much in common and must work together more closely
to head off conflict and counter intolerance. He pointed out that
“our two organisations share the same cultural, spiritual and historic
references – Islam is part of European history and traditions …
we also face the same challenges in the modern world. Therefore,
we have to … find a common response to these challenges, based on
shared values and principles”.
82 He then suggested the OIC could contribute, along with the
European Union and United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, to
a possible “platform for dialogue” between the Council of Europe,
the main religious faiths and the main humanist organisations. The
OIC and the Council of Europe could also make joint efforts to fight intolerance,
be it Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism or xenophobia in general,
by, for example, countering stereotypes in schoolbooks, the media
and public discourse.
He added that “what has clearly emerged from recent speeches
and ensuing public national debates on multiculturalism is a sense
of confusion, malaise and often contradictory messages. Policy makers
and the general public alike appear to be in the midst of a thick
fog that prevents them from understanding and tackling the challenges
of individual and collective security within increasing religious,
ethnic, and cultural diversity. And so we look for easy answers
presented as simple choices, e.g., moderate vs. radical Islam, multiculturalism
vs. assimilation, secularism vs. religious fundamentalism, etc.
Yet such simplistic naming and categorising further divides people
and provokes animosities”.NoteNote
4.3 North-South Centre of the
Council of Europe
84 The North-South Centre brings
together governments, parliamentarians, local and regional authorities and
civil society organisations. Its programme priorities are global
education, youth, human rights, democratic governance and intercultural
dialogue. It adds an important dimension to the international efforts
aimed at the promotion of intercultural learning, understanding
and political dialogue within and between the different continents.
The issue of the universal nature of human rights is central to
85 The North-South Centre launched the Lisbon Forum in 1994 to
create a platform for dialogue and for sharing experiences, expertise
and good practices between Europe and other regions of the world,
especially the Middle East, Africa and the countries on the southern
shore of the Mediterranean.
During the 2008 session, a process was launched, in partnership
with the Alliance of Civilizations, devoted to “The principle of
universality of human rights and its implementation at international
and regional level”. The 2008 Forum provided a new opportunity to
share Europe’s experience with other continents and exchange good
practices with systems in other parts of the world, in particular
those set up by regional organisations such as the African Union,
the Arab League or the Organization of American States. It also constituted
a framework for analysing geopolitical changes since 1948 and their
effects on the conception, interpretation and application of human
The 2009 session, organised
in partnership with the Aga Khan Development Network and the United
Nations Alliance of Civilizations, was devoted to the theme “Creating
a culture of human rights through education”. The 2010 Forum, once
again organised in partnership with the Aga Khan Development Network
and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, was devoted to
the theme of “the freedom of expression, conscience and religion”.
The conclusions have shown that the freedoms of expression, conscience
and religion underpin democratic societies and guarantee their pluralism.
Particular attention was given to the protection of religious minorities
in the world.
The North-South Centre actively participates in the activities
of the Alliance of Civilizations, including the 1st Summer School
of the Alliance, which took place from 15 to 21 August 2010, and
brought together a network of several partners and participants
from 44 countries to help build the skills of young people to participate
in inter-cultural dialogue.Note
4.4 Congress of local and regional
authorities of the Council of Europe
The priorities of the Congress
for 2011-2012 have highlighted a new local dimension of human rights.Note
rights are not exclusively the concern of national authorities.
The respect of human rights has also to be addressed at the local
level. It is a key responsibility of local and regional authorities,
interdependent with good local and regional governance. In accordance
with its 2008 joint declaration with the Council of Europe Commissioner
for Human Rights, the Congress is working to make local and regional
authorities aware of their responsibilities for the implementation
of human rights. In this respect, the Congress is promoting the implementation
of good practices and mechanisms of mediation, such as independent
local and regional ombudsmen.
89 I take the view that it is indeed at the local level that
universality and cultural and religious “particularisms” can be
reconciled and that human rights can be understood, internalised
and respected. The Congress could therefore reflect this concern
in its dialogue with local and regional authorities.
4.5 Conference of International
Non-Governmental Organisations of the Council of Europe
90 In 2010, the INGOs of the Council
of Europe organised a Forum on the universality of human rights, which
took place in Oslo on 21 and 22 October 2010. The Forum reaffirmed
the universality and indivisibility of human rights and underlined
the key role played by civil society.
5 The Arab spring: a major
step towards making universal human rights real?
The chosen theme for the 2011
Lisbon Forum held on 3 and 4 November 2011, organised by the North-South
Centre of the Council of Europe and the United Nations Alliance
of Civilizations, was “The Arab spring: a major step towards making
universal human rights real”. I was invited to speak at this event
to discuss the issues raised in this report with the Forum’s participants.
The discussions during the Forum aimed, on the one hand, to identify
the common points which can be considered as characteristics of
the “Arab spring” and, on the other hand, to determine the specificities
and the differences which exist between the countries which have lived
through major political upheavals since the beginning of 2011. Three
countries, considered as being positive examples of changes, have
notably been the object of particular attention: Egypt, Morocco
As was underlined during the Lisbon
Forum, the situation from one country to another is extremely diverse.
92 The recent uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt and the “democratic
wave” that has struck the Arab world have attracted the world’s
attention. The leaders of these countries have been toppled and
their people have begun the long and complex process of building
democratic States. Steps in both countries have already been taken
to dismantle the structures of the former regime and put in place
elements of a democratic political system.
The Assembly has promptly affirmed its readiness to accompany
Tunisia in its democratic transition by putting its experience of
establishing new institutions in young democracies in Europe at
the disposal of the transitional institutions and civil society,
adopted Resolution 1791
on the situation in Tunisia in January and June 2011
respectively, as well as Recommendation
in June 2011.
Morocco has also engaged on a path of constitutional reforms
aimed at consolidating democratic transformations, the rule of law
and respect for human rights. In June 2011, the Parliament of Morocco
was granted partner for democracy status with the Parliamentary
Assembly of the Council of Europe. This will contribute to intensifying
co-operation between this country and the Council of Europe and
hopefully promoting Morocco’s accession to Council of Europe conventions.Note
On 23 June 2011, the Political Affairs Committee also adopted
a report on co-operation between the Council of Europe and the emerging
democracies in the Arab world. The report duly notes that the people
who have risen up are drawing their inspiration from the values
upheld by the Council of Europe and condemns unequivocally the use
of violence against the populations. It also stressed that the Council
of Europe could contribute to the progress towards democracy in
Arab countries. The report was debated by the Assembly during the
October 2011 part-session, following a visit to Egypt by the Rapporteur,
Mr Jean-Charles Gardetto, and led to the adoption of Resolution 1831 (2011)
96 Unrest continues to spread far around the Arab world, with
Libya still entrenched in conflict and significant protests and
crackdowns have been witnessed in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
97 Clearly, these democratic uprisings call for a radical shift
in the way in which Euro-Mediterranean relations are formulated
and conducted, but they also prove that the values upheld by the
Council of Europe resonate among the peoples of North Africa and
the Middle East, who belong to different cultures, traditions and
religions but aspire to similar “universal” values and rights.
98 The uprisings that have taken place are, above all, a movement
of citizens who have taken to the streets to demand respect for
the rule of law and democracy. Events have been closely linked to
far-reaching generational changes. The Arab and Muslim populations
are mainly urban and this populous new generation of young people
has had almost universal access to education. They have grown up
in a context of multiple social transformations and have proven
their readiness to challenge the disregard of their rights and freedoms.
99 In the present situation, respect for human rights, democracy
and the rule of law is viewed as a necessary condition for these
societies to regain their dignity and there can be no doubt that
this concern is essential for the stability of the region.
100 Moreover, the social transformations undergone in these societies
have opened the way for these rights to become more firmly established.
The prevailing Western image of Arab women is one of passive subjects: veiled
women who are victims and who react to events rather than actively
participating in them. Empirical evidence reveals that, on the contrary,
a profound revolution is taking place. Arab societies find themselves immersed
in a process of intense, irreversible change in which women play
a crucial role in certain countries, as has been observed in recent
popular movements in which they have been very active.
101 I firmly believe that it is an unavoidable fact that current
processes of democratisation must take into account the presence
of Islam in this part of the world, as is also the case in Turkey.
Islamist parties such as al-Nahda
Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt must be considered political
actors with a right to participate together with the other parties
in the process of democratic transition. Otherwise, such a democratic
process would not be credible. What is really significant is the
process itself and not the participants. In other words, it is necessary
to enhance the functioning of structures and institutions rather
than a priori
or leaders. What is needed are stronger governance mechanisms, which are
transparent, competitive and subject to democratic laws, irrespective
of whether the actors implementing these mechanisms belong to secular
or Islamist backgrounds.Note
103 In my view, this is the only and true way for human rights
to unfold and become universal while adapting to the local context.
Universality must go hand in hand with a plurality of identities.
104 The Arab people themselves, not the West, have shown that
their greatest and most fundamental ambition is to be respected
as human beings with rights and freedoms. Such aspirations are universal.
105 Not all Arab countries are likely to be converted to democracy
in the near future. Most probably, only a handful of countries will
succeed. Progress is bound to be fitful. It is for the Arab people
themselves to create a more promising future.
I believe that the mood in the Arab world has changed irrevocably.
Whether it takes a year or decades, it is plain that Arab people
want a say in choosing who should run their livesNote
seem to be guided by the very same universal values enshrined in
human rights law.
It is time to cast aside the idea of an unavoidable clash
of civilisations and the incompatibility of democracy and Islam,
and to replace them with a vision of common humanity based on the
shared desire for freedom and dignity.Note
must not be abandoned to their fate. They must be accompanied politically
and supported financially. The Council of Europe and the European
Union must pull their weight in the name of those very values and
universal rights that they uphold.
108 The codification of human rights
has meant empowerment. Human rights can empower because they start
with the individual: notably, the right to life, the principle of
non-discrimination, the right to justice, a fair trial, protection
against torture, the right to having an opinion, a faith.
109 The affirmation of human rights is worth the same to everyone,
everywhere, or else it is not worth anything at all. In fact, it
implicates the dignity inherent to all members of the human family,
irrespective of distinctions of race, gender, language or religion.
Neither cultural, traditional nor religious values, nor the rules of
a “dominant culture” can be invoked to justify hate speech or any
other form of discrimination, including on grounds of sexual orientation
or gender identity.
110 That said, I believe that we can only reaffirm the universality
of human rights if we go beyond the dilemma of relativism and universalism.
We will clear out the confusion surrounding human rights through
a better understanding of the nuances of identities, of the subjective
and collective meanings of religion, the abandoning of dogmatism
and a pragmatic approach focused on what we can do together as human
111 In an interconnected world facing complex global challenges,
we must nourish an ethos of mutual responsibility towards the common
good. This concept resonates with values embraced by the main religions and
cultures of the world that are present in Europe, including Islam,
which place considerable emphasis on ideas of social justice, solidarity,
charity and collective identity.
From this perspective a more positive and multicultural-friendly
aspect of religion emerges, rather than its intransigent, exclusivist
or violent face, which is often condemned for being incompatible
with western and democratic secular values.Note
113 The Council of Europe remains the main driver in Europe of
the universality of human rights and should further promote human
rights in the context of inter-cultural dialogue within the member
States as well as with neighbouring countries.
114 Its work is not over. Each new generation should acquire human
rights anew. Human rights are considered as granted and little or
no place is devoted to this issue in educational curricula in many
European countries. Education is necessary. However, human rights
education is more than just transmitting knowledge of human rights
to people; it means transmitting the skills to use this knowledge
in order to participate in the life of a democratic and peaceful
115 Our governments and parliaments must do more to ensure that
education about human rights is included in curricula and that the
language and values of human rights in the context of different
cultures and religions permeate every level of the school environment,
and to identify strategies that empower students to become actors
of social, political and cultural change.
116 Furthermore, territorial authorities and non-governmental
organisations remain an essential factor for initiating and disseminating
the notion of universality of human rights with a view to reconciling
this idea with cultural and religious particularisms.