Switzerland has made significant strides in human rights during its chairmanship of the Council of Europe, winning praise from Strasbourg’s Parliamentary Assembly.
The chair of the committee of ministers – the Council of Europe’s executive branch - now goes to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
Despite six short months in the role from November 18 to May 11, Switzerland managed to achieve one big objective: getting the ball rolling on reform of the European Court of Human Rights.
Completely snowed under with cases, and unable to make progress despite years of heated discussion, the court is in dire need of reform.
Switzerland's main goal of its chairmanship was to get things moving again. And it succeeded. At a February conference in Interlaken, the 47 member countries of the Council of Europe unanimously approved a political declaration and an action plan for the future of the Strasbourg court, which currently has a backlog of 120,000 cases and receives around 2,000 more each year.
The member countries have made two promises. The first is to take several measures at the national level, to ensure that fundamental rights are guaranteed first to each citizen in his or her own country. This should substantially reduce the number of complaints that arrive in Strasbourg.
The second consists of improvements to be made by the committee of ministers, to allow the speedier resolution of all cases of human rights violation.
The Interlaken Declaration and its accompanying plan are a milestone on the road to a more effective and efficient European Court of Human Rights. Switzerland's merit in this achievement has been recognised by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which specifically complimented the Swiss authorities in a resolution.
The praise has been reiterated several times by Mevlüt Cavusoglu, the current president of the assembly.
“I must congratulate the Swiss chairmanship for its efforts to improve the effectiveness of the European Court of Human Rights which have the assembly’s whole-hearted support”, he said last week in Strasbourg, before the committee of ministers, when the chairmanship was handed over to Macedonia.
Urging all bodies of the Council of Europe to work together along the lines of the Interlaken declaration, the president of the Assembly lauded the stronger dialogue achieved with the committee of ministers, with the “active and direct participation” of the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey.
Introducing her six-month report on the activities, Calmy-Rey hailed the “excellent working relations” between the different bodies, which ensured the Swiss chairmanship's success.
Speaking of a “very rewarding experience”, Calmy-Rey said she was pleased with the results achieved in Interlaken, which she called the high point of the Swiss time at the helm. “A smoothly functioning court is important for the protection of human rights in Europe”, she said.
Another reason to celebrate the Swiss contribution was Russia's ratification of Protocol 14 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, which introduces a filtering mechanism to improve the workings of the Strasbourg court. Russia was the only state not to have ratified the protocol and was therefore blocking reform. Bern was successful in bringing Russia on board.
The Belarus problem
But despite its best efforts, Switzerland could not remove every thorn in the Council of Europe's side. The most painful was Belarus, despite Calmy-Rey’s concerted effort to bring the country closer to the Council of Europe, including holding a meeting with President Alexander Lukashenko.
Switzerland's efforts were in vain. In March Belarus carried out two human executions, Calmy-Rey noted with disappointment.
“The question of the abolition of – or, in an initial phase, a moratorium on – the death penalty remains a key issue”, she stressed, while urging subsequent chairmanships to continue this effort.
However, the foreign minister is still confident that the cause can be won.
“Despite the considerable difficulties, I remain convinced that the rapprochement must continue, so that one day we will be able to welcome Belarus into our pan-European family”, she stated.
Cavusoglu agreed, noting that as a result of the two executions, the Parliamentary Assembly had suspended high-level contact with Belarus, adding, “However, in my opinion, we have a moral obligation towards the people of Belarus to be more present and engaged in the country.”
Sonia Fenazzi, swissinfo.ch (adapted from Italian)
Founded in 1959, the European Court of Human Rights hears cases of alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court is the final authority for more than 800 million people.
More than 57,000 complaints were submitted in 2009, a 15% increase. The backlog rose to around 120,000 cases.
There are 471 cases pending from Switzerland. Four of them relate to Switzerland’s anti-minaret initiative.
SWITZERLAND AND THE COUNCIL
Switzerland chaired the committee of ministers, the council's decision-making body, from November 18, 2009 to May 11, 2010.
It became a member of the council in 1963 as the 17th country to do so. Since 1968 it has had a representative in Strasbourg.
Switzerland pays around 2.2% or SFr6.2 million ($6 million) of its budget to the council every year.
The Swiss delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly is made up of 12 parliamentarians.
There is one Swiss judge in the European Court of Human Rights, Giorgio Malinverni.
THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE
The Council of Europe was founded in 1949. Its seat is in Strasbourg.
Its focus is on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
It currently has 47 member states and five observer states
The foreign ministers of its member states make up its committee of ministers,
The six-month presidency of the committee of ministers rotates among council members.
The Parliamentary Assembly is made up of MPs from the member states.
The European Court of Human Rights (which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights) is one of its main bodies.