Thomas Hammarberg, commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe (CoE), has said that “a lack of courage among the politicians to stand up and defend the values that we have agreed upon in Europe, since quite some time” is the reason why Europe failed to stem Islamophobia and xenophobia. “In this period of more than five years in which I have been in office, I have seen Europe facing a crisis situation. We have still not escaped it, it is still there,” he added. In an interview with the CoE's press service, Hammarberg underlined that “some politicians are not clear about human rights principles and the fact that we cannot accept xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism.” He went on to say: “This is seen by some people as legitimizing their prejudices, which in turn has unfortunately led to the growth of some extremist movements who feel that their position, their propaganda has actually been more or less approved by the leading politicians. So there is a combined crisis here when it comes to basic values, fear among the people and the lack of principled positions by the politicians.”

Hammarberg also lamented on European countries' failure to develop a sensible migration policy. “Unfortunately I have had to notice that there are problems when it comes to how Europe receives the migrants among whom there are quite a number of people who ask for asylum because they are in fear of being killed or tortured if they're sent back. I have had to conclude that Europe is still not able to have a refugee friendly policy towards the migrants and this is one of the major problems we have today,” he explained. The human rights commissioner noted that minority peoples tend to be afraid that they are not respected in society. “There is a fear also that as a consequence of the economic crisis, which hits large parts of Europe, the austerity budgets being proposed in parliaments will undermine the social rights and the standard of living for people,” he said, adding that “unfortunately the most vulnerable people are the most exposed here.”

He mentioned that the elderly, people with disabilities and one-parent families are facing grave risks because of economic challenges. “Quite a number of children are growing up in Europe today in poverty, which is of course a problem. This crisis situation has to be addressed. Unfortunately it also seems to have some repercussions in the attitudes that people show towards those who are different: minorities and people with disabilities, for example,” Hammarberg said. As for the track record of the CoE, the commissioner said that the organization has achieved a lot in the past fifty years, despite the remaining challenges ahead. “Perhaps the most important thing is that we have a wide recognition now that human rights are absolutely crucial. It's high up on the political agenda,” he remarked. Hammarberg emphasized that there is also recognition among even the wealthiest European countries that they too have human rights problems. That's a positive step.

As for the six-month Turkish chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe that ended in May, Hammarberg has praised it as “strikingly professional chairmanship.” “What I appreciate is that the Turkish government has avoided putting forward their own favorite projects and trying to convince the others about their positions. They have instead tried to see what the CoE should further discuss in order to be more relevant in today's Europe. So we had one discussion in Ýstanbul about migration, in particular on minors, young people who are migrating, many of them unaccompanied. We had a discussion about prison conditions, which is also a major problem in Europe, and we have had one discussion about racism. All of those are extremely important matters and I was very positive to the fact that the Turkish government used their chairmanship to promote these types of discussions, which are important for everyone,” he noted. The commissioner did not shy away from expressing critical remarks for Turkey, however. “I have a constructive dialogue with the Turkish authorities on respect for minorities and their rights, on the media and the need to secure media freedom and avoid that journalists and others who write are put in prison because of what they have written. The good thing is that there is a dialogue and there is listening on both sides and a serious discussion on what ought to be done. The downside, of course, is the fact that there are remaining problems,” he said.

His criticism was not limited to Turkey though. “I'm a rather critical person. I feel that no government actually in Europe today is behaving as it should when it comes to all aspects of human rights. It's very important to be aware of recognizing the problems and not to be arrogant when it comes to human rights, being more self-critical,” Hammarberg underlined.
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