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Populism - How strong are Europe’s checks and balances?

April 20th 2017

Council of Europe Secretary General 2017 report on democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe

As nationalist and xenophobic parties make gains in a growing number of countries, challenging elites and exploiting public anxieties over migration, Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland has invited Council of Europe member states to take a serious look in the mirror and take the lead in building trusted institutions and inclusive societies able to withstand populist assaults.

In his 4th annual report on the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe, the Secretary General assesses the health of the five building blocks of democratic security across member states: independent judiciaries, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, the functioning of democratic institutions, and inclusive societies; this time in the context of growing populism.

Defining populism and explaining the kinds of anti-pluralist, anti-democratic behaviour which constitutes populist politics, Mr Jagland looks at how this tendency threatens our democratic structures and culture. He assesses how resilient member states’ institutions are against populist attack, and asks, how strong are our checks and balances?

The report privileges the most recent data available, predominantly from 2016. It illustrates the challenges faced by member states with examples, based exclusively on Council of Europe texts – decisions and recommendations, Court decisions, Assembly reports, reports of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Venice Commission opinions and the findings of monitoring bodies and inter-governmental structures. The report also presents examples of good practice and positive developments in member states.

Video statement by Thorbjørn Jagland

Equality Bodies

Particular reference is made to equality bodies in the last point of Proposals for Action, under the title "Combat hate speech, xenophobia and discrimination": Based on the judgments of the Court and the findings of the ECSR and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), as well as the work of the Intercultural Cities Network, the Council of Europe will initiate new Europe-wide projects to help combat xenophobia and discrimination with a particular focus on Islamophobia, in co-operation with relevant non-governmental organisations, equality bodies and national human rights institutions.

In Chapter 5 Inclusive Societies, the section on Non-Discrimination and Integration Policies mentions ’national specialised bodies’ (read equality bodies).

Institutional Criteria

  • National specialised bodies’ powers include: assistance to victims of discrimination; investigation powers; the right to initiate and participate in court proceedings; monitoring legislation and advice to legislative and executive authorities; and raising awareness.
  • National specialised bodies are independent and have the freedom to appoint their own staff and to manage their resources.
  • National integrated policies and co-ordinating bodies are established to prevent and combat violence against women.

Findings

ECRI has noted that gaps continue to exist in the anti-discrimination legislation of the majority of member states, in relation to its General Policy Recommendation No. 7. In addition, problems remain regarding their institutional capacity, which has a crucial role in ensuring victims’ access to justice. A number of countries continue to lack an independent body competent to deal with discrimination in both the private and public sectors. Moreover, where there is a specialised body to combat discrimination, it is often dysfunctional or lacks independence, authority, or even a clear mandate. Limited resources and expertise also affects these bodies’ ability to fulfil their advisory role to legislative and executive authorities, as well as other stakeholders.

Via Council of Europe website

To ensure independent and effective equality bodies, Equinet and its members calls for European standards on independence, effectiveness, functions & powers for equality bodies.

Overview - PDF
Overview - PDF