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Secretary General: “During Covid we have been present where people need us”

Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić
©Council of Europe

Speaking to members of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić emphasised that that since the start of the health crisis in Europe, the Council of Europe has not only advised but also provided material support to its member States. “We have shared knowledge and offered temporary free access to guidance and standards from our Pharmacopeia for developers working on Covid-19 vaccines. We have issued guidelines to help them achieve quality control. We have supplied over 52,000 pieces of protective equipment to prison services across Europe, including oxygen generators, protective masks, face shields and medical protective uniforms.” she said.

The Council of Europe Development Bank has invested more than 3 billion euros in over 20 Covid-related emergency projects and issued Social Inclusion Bonds to help fund members countries’ mitigation of the pandemic’s social and economic effects.

The Secretary General questioned whether it would be acceptable for countries to make vaccinations compulsory for everyone, or for specific groups only, or for governments to establish vaccine certificates allowing greater freedoms only to those who have had the jab, insisting that these were complex questions, with important human rights dimensions.

The Oviedo Convention makes clear that any medical intervention should be subject to a patient’s free and informed consent, and the European Convention on Human Rights imposes a strict lawfulness and proportionality test for justifying any mandatory measures in sensitive areas such as health. Unjustified differences in the treatment of people based on their health status may ultimately raise discrimination issues under both the European Convention and the European Social Charter. For example, vaccination certificates should take into account privacy and data protection rights.

The Secretary General pointed out that any document providing vaccinated people with access to rights, services or places is problematic if that access remains off limits to those who cannot be vaccinated, or have not had the chance to be vaccinated - one of a number of considerations to be taken into account when designing such systems. She said that it was firstly for national courts to assess compliance with these legal principles if such cases arise.

Addressing the long-term consequences of Covid-19 on Europeans’ social rights, Marija Pejčinović Burić said that there is always a risk of widening social divisions during an economic downturn. It is important that we respond in a way that protects the rights, needs and dignity of those who have least.