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Human rights: judging the top judge

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Human rights: judging the top judge

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Human rights in Europe is the specialist subject of Jean-Paul Costa. This French judge presides over the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The court can concern itself with any citizen of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe.

It was 60 years ago, just after the Second World War, that the 10 founding governments of the EU signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since then, the Council of Europe has expanded and with it the protection of rights and freedoms of Europe’s citizens.

Is the situation satisfactory now? What is the future of human rights in Europe? That is what euronews wanted to ask Jean-Paul Costa.

Christophe Midol-Monnet, euronews:

“Jean-Paul Costa, welcome to euronews. How would you describe the state of human rights in Europe right now, in late 2010?”

Jean-Paul Costa, President, European Court of Human Rights:

“There has been some deterioration, primarily due to two phenomena. First, terrorist threats, which forced a security response from European governments. And also the economic and financial crisis, which means that many states now have economic and social priorities which are far removed from the protection of rights and freedoms. But still, overall, the picture is, fortunately, not too bad. And in particular, there are no longer dictatorships in Europe and almost no internal or civil wars. And that is reflected in terms of human rights.”

euronews

“It seems to be being said more frequently that Europeans attach too much importance to human rights in international relations. What do you think?”

Jean-Paul Costa

“It is true that frequently, European governments say ‘We must highlight human rights, that countries outside Europe must protect human rights, must abolish the death penalty, etc …’ but in reality, where there are real economic, commercial or financial negotiations taking place, it is clear that these issues are not a priority. So I think actually it’s the age-old problem, in short term international politics, if we set the bar too high with regard to European standards, the major countries which Europe has to deal with will just shy away and that’s counter productive.”

euronews

“You’ve presided over the European Court of Human Rights since 2007. What major issues has it dealt with in that time and what’s changed?”

Jean-Paul Costa

“More and more there are issues affecting biology, bioethics, in vitro fertilisation, the problems of adoption or gay marriage. In the end, all these social problems that states have resolved more or less well at the national level increasingly end up in our court. And the second problem, which is also pretty interesting, is the growing impact of religious issues, the relationship between religion and state. At the moment, we have rendered a judgement, for example, on the Islamic headscarf. In certain countries there’s going to be the problem of the burqa. We have already received petitions over minarets in Switzerland, which is being considered, but on which there’s not yet been a judgement. And I could cite many other examples, not related to Islam, but other major religions practiced in Europe. One problem that is currently under consideration, with the hearing having been held in late June, is the presence of crucifixes in school classrooms in Italy. So you see, all these are issues – that were not there, or barely there, five or 10 years – show that the European Court of Human Rights is now being called upon somewhat in all sorts of areas.”

euronews

“How do you explain the increase in the number of cases of a religious nature?”

Jean-Paul Costa

“It’s because on one hand the relationship between religions and states has become more problematic, more difficult, with greater tensions. And partly because often the state, national legislators, governments, parliaments are struggling to address these issues satisfactorily, and therefore, turn to the European Court of Human Rights to give a sort of general guidance. Which isn’t easy. It’s really fascinating, it’s a great honour for our court to be given this responsibility. But I can tell you, on a daily, practical basis it’s not always easy.”

euronews

“What do you think about the EU’s future accession to the European Convention on Human Rights?”

Jean-Paul Costa

“When it actually comes into force – since the Treaty of Lisbon has decided on the principle of accession and Protocol 14 of the Convention has confirmed that – there will still remain practical details to be established, some significant legal problems need to be settled for it will be really in place – I think it will be good for all of Europe, for the 27 countries of the European Union, for the 47 countries of the Council of Europe and finally for the 800 million Europeans who will be consolidated into a strong legal and judicial system.”

euronews

“Are the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in competition or complementary?”

Jean-Paul Costa

“They are rather complementary, because the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which was developed in 2000 and has also come into force with the Treaty of Lisbon, is a kind of more modern and complete rereading of the European Convention on Human Rights. It deals with issues that were unknown 50 or 60 years ago, such as environmental protection, information technology, the Internet or even just advances in biology, biomedicine. And it is also more complete because it covers some social rights that were not touched upon in the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950. So it is complementary. This does not necessarily mean that the European Court of Human Rights will be bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which is just for the 27 EU member states. But already, we look to the Charter every time that it demonstrates an improvement in the protection of rights and freedoms. It is a source, a sort of ‘soft law’, because it is not, so to speak, mandatory or binding on our court, but it is a very interesting source of inspiration.”

euronews

“We’re currently marking the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights. What do you think the court’s role will be in 60 years time?”

Jean-Paul Costa

“The most likely scenario – even if 60 years is a long way off, and I probably won’t be around to see if I am right or not – is that the court will still have a role, but it will be more and more as a sort of subsidiary. In other words it will only rule on the major problems and the states will, for the most part, take the legislative or legal measures to regulate most of the secondary questions with regard to rights and freedoms. That’s the scenario that appears to me to be reasonably optimistic and reasonably plausible.”