The Heads of State and Government of the 46 member countries of the Council of Europe met for a Summit in Reykjavík on 16 and 17 May 2023. This type of high-level meeting is rare, as it is only the 4th Summit since the organisation was founded in 1949. In the first place, it was the exclusion of the Russian Federation on 16 March 2022, following its armed aggression against Ukraine, that prompted the organisation of this Summit. But it is also a historic opportunity to reaffirm the founding values of the Council of Europe – human rights, democracy and the rule of law – and to revisit its mission in the light of current challenges and new threats. The priorities, strategies and functioning of the organisation were also examined to introduce the necessary reforms and changes.

With this in mind, the Conference of INGOs (CINGO) which is the voice of organised civil society within the Council of Europe, recognised as the representative body of INGOs with participatory status, took the opportunity to address a specific Recommendation to the Reykjavík Summit. In particular, the CINGO insisted on the need to strengthen the European system to guarantee all human rights, both within the European Convention on Human Rights framework and the European Social Charter. Particular attention is paid to economic, social and cultural rights, in the name of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights, principles recognised by the international community.

While the Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, expressed the hope that the Summit would help “reverse the current backsliding on human rights”, underlining the attention that must be paid to economic and social rights, what has become of the response from the Heads of State and Government regarding the place of these rights in the Council of Europe’s strategy?

The title of the Declaration, “United around our values”, is an immediate reminder of the objective behind the creation of the Council of Europe: to increase cooperation between states to defend the European values of democracy and the protection of human rights. Thus, the attention paid to these “core values” implies considering economic, social, and cultural rights, which are integral to the rights protected by the Council of Europe.

The notable reference at the beginning of §24 of the Declaration to the principle of “social justice”, which is “crucial form democratic stability and security”, underpins all social, economic and cultural rights. The Heads of State and Government are, therefore, fully committed to implementing the social rights guaranteed by the system of the European Social Charter. In concrete terms, the organisation of a high-level conference is planned to define other commitments under the Charter. Defending social rights is thus one of the main objectives of the Council of Europe’s new strategic vision. The CINGO is obviously prepared to contribute to these new advances, as it has done in the past.

In addition to this explicit mention of social rights, the Declaration affirms the need to recognise dignity and equality as the foundation of society. The fight against discrimination will therefore be conducted in an intersectional manner to achieve an inclusive society, free from marginalisation, exclusion, racism and intolerance, taking into account the multiple discrimination faced by vulnerable groups and individuals. These objectives are inherent in social, economic and cultural rights which States must ensure are implemented and respected in accordance with Council of Europe standards. In application of the principle of the indivisibility of rights, an individual’s dignity cannot and should not be split between two spheres: the Council of Europe is committed to consolidating this holistic approach.

An analysis of the Reykjavík Declaration shows an additional focus on economic, social, and cultural rights. First of all, particular attention is paid to education. The transmission of the Council of Europe’s democratic values and cultural heritage to young people is seen as a critical issue. This social approach to education is in line with the promotion of children’s rights (§18), with priority given to the situation of children in Ukraine (Appendix II). The States undertake to ensure the protection of all their human rights, explicitly including their social rights. Measures will be taken to defend the “right to life, to freedom from violence to respect for their family life, to non-discrimination, to enjoy their own language and culture, to social security, to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to education and housing, and to access to justice” of the children of Ukraine. The issue of education is more broadly considered in the Reykjavík Principles for Democracy, set out in Annex III of the Declaration. Initiatives and programmes for education in human rights and democratic values are essential for their transmission and sustainability.

The CINGO also proposed and expected climate crisis and environmental protection commitments. In §28, the urgency of the situation is underlined: additional efforts are needed to protect the environment and limit the climate crisis, the impact of which on human rights is inescapable. Annex V of the document is devoted to the Council’s environmental commitments. To this end, the case law and practice of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights are recalled and similarly placed at the same level (§.4). The logical link between environmental protection and the protection of social rights is established. In §6 of this Annex, the Heads of State and Government specify the importance of the landscape for individual and social well-being, from which rights and responsibilities flow. The role of the European Landscape Convention and its impact on the public interest in the ecological, environmental and social fields is thus emphasised.

The role of civil society, which is essential to the proper functioning of democracy, is mentioned several times in the Declaration. The CINGO, with its 300 members enjoying participatory status, is at the heart of cooperation between the Council of Europe and civil society. Finally, the Heads of State and Government call for “further reinforcement of the Organisation’s outreach to, and meaningful engagement with, civil society organisations and national human rights institutions”. (§.40).  

Anna Diaz and Jean-Bernard Marie,
University of Strasbourg