Secretary General of the Council of Europe (CoE), Thorbjorn Jagland, talked about Croatia's ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the rise of extremism across Europe, and Croatia's chairmanship of the Council of Europe, in an exclusive interview with N1 on Tuesday.
Former Prime Minister of Norway, Jagland visited Zagreb to meet with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and government ministers to discuss Croatia’s upcoming six-month chairmanship of the 47-member pan-European organisation in May. The Council of Europe focuses on promoting human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech.
You’ve met with Croatian dignitaries, ministers, Prime Minister, you’ve said it’s been an honour for you to come to Croatia, especially after Friday and after the vote in our parliament which finally ratified the Istanbul Convention. We’ve had a lot of discussion about it in our public space, why is the ratification of the Istanbul Convention important?
First of all, because this convention is very important for women and for families. This convention is about combating violence against women, and so-called domestic violence that takes place in private homes, and the other good thing which I saw was that the leaders here in Croatia exercised leadership, which is quite rare nowadays in Europe. The Prime Minister (Andrej Plenkovic) took leadership, and he explained the facts behind this convention, because there were so many misunderstandings, misrepresentation, distortion of the whole convention.
How is it possible to make such a clear message of the convention and distort its basic content in the public perception?
Well it’s a good question, how this started, and for me it was a surprise that all these misunderstandings and misrepresentations could be spreading, not only in this society, but around Europe. It was obviously started by some interest groups, probably the church was behind it, and of course nowadays you can easily spread fake news through the Internet and social media, and it gets a real boost there, so I think we need to be aware of this, and that is why it is so important that somebody takes leadership, and you have leaders to exercise leadership. And it was good to see that the Prime Minister got it right, he explained what the convention is about, and what it is not about.
You’ve mentioned interest groups, I have to refer on that, what is the interest of these interest groups to distort the content of the convention?
Well it is up to them to explain, I really don’t understand fully what happened, but obviously there is now a trend in Europe, at least in some parts of Europe, to spread the view that modernisation is going against people’s interest, their families, their religion, that their way of life is under threat from somebody, and somebody are those who are in favour of human values, like protecting women and families. So, I think many things come together nowadays, it’s a kind of nationalism, it’s a kind of (the idea of) protecting us from the outside world.
Talking about our inner world, the convention was ratified with something that is called “interpretative statement”. Did the government of Croatia consult you concerning that?
Yes, they did, and this interpretative statement is important, and I spoke with the Prime Minister about it today, and we agreed we should do more now at the European level, not only here in Croatia, but at the European level, to explain what this convention is about. We cannot let certain member states stand alone in doing this, it has to be done at the European level, and the first possibility we have is during the ministerial meeting that takes place in Copenhagen in mid-May.
Minority rights and vulnerable group rights is going to be one of the priorities of Croatian presidency. Talking about the discussion about the Istanbul Convention, are you afraid that this so-called “gender ideology” that’s been put out in the public sphere would maybe undermine already established values and protection of, for example, LGBT minorities?
But first of all, this convention is not about that. It is not about same-sex marriage…
I’m talking about public discourse.
Yes, but it’s a part of the whole story, in that many of those who are against this convention, they are also against LGBT rights, but we have to separate them. And also with regard to LGBT rights, there is a misunderstanding around Europe mainly that we want special rights for these people. No, it’s not true. We want to uphold the same rights for LGBT people as for everybody else, for instance the right to assemble, the right to freedom of expression, we have a particular case in the Russian Federation with this law saying that you are prohibited to do propaganda for homosexuality for instance. We are of course totally against it, and this law is not because we want special rights for LGBT or homosexuals. It’s because they should enjoy the same rights as everybody else.
You’ve mentioned interest groups, and today at the press conference with our minister you said that minorities and vulnerable groups are under pressure and being targeted by nationalistic and more extreme forces, especially within European Union countries. So, I want to ask you in that context, what does the Council of Europe which promotes non-discrimination, prevention from radicalisation to religious fundamentalisms of that side, how much attention do you give to this rising trend?
It has always been one of the most important priorities to protect minorities and the Framework Convention for National Minorities came actually about after the fall of the Berlin Wall, because then the question was what can the Council of Europe do to stabilise Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one of the answers was that we should put even more strength into protecting the rights of the minorities, because we have seen in the past that when the rights of the minorities are not safeguarded then everybody else are in danger. And stability and peace are in danger. So, the framework convention with its monitoring body is extremely important, and also the charter for minority languages. Languages is a kind of a tool to achieve stability and peace, but it is also something which can be misused to create the opposite, instability and not peace. So, I mean, its about identity, its about culture, and if people if their right to their own culture and their own language is taken away, then you always see problems.
You had an interesting speech in the assembly concerning populism in that sense. How big of a threat is populism to the Council of Europe as well?
It is a big threat because populism is, so to say, misusing the insecurity that many people feel nowadays, insecurity because of economic problems, unemployment, increasing divides between the rich and poor, but also insecurity because of terrorism, because of migration. All this is being put into the same basket and misused for political purposes, and it goes against the so-called establishment that are in favour of all the bad things that are coming from the outside. So, we have seen this in Europe before, and it may get out of control. What concerns me now is that the so-called mainstream is increasingly taking over the rhetoric of what was extreme speech and attitudes only five years ago. So things are going in the wrong direction, in many places, not only in countries which are being heavily criticised nowadays, like in Poland and Hungary, but also in what we call more western-oriented countries. We can see that trend.
You’ve mentioned the issue of refugees and fear nowadays. I think that this year the Council of Europe celebrates 10 years of its human trafficking convention. The question of refugees and the so-called refugee crisis in 2015 brought a new trend in Europe, with closing its borders, questioning the current system that we have on asylum, of rights of refugees by international convention. We have the report of the Croatian ombudsman that warned the Croatian government about the mistreatment of people who are still crossing our borders, and we have had an unfortunate case of one child migrant from Afghanistan who was killed on the border. So how do you address that?
First of all, this is for the Schengen country, and of course for the UN convention, the High Commissioner for Refugees in the UN. But we are focusing exactly on them (vulnerable group), in particular on children. Many of them are coming alone, and unfortunately, we see also in Croatia, we have seen pushbacks, which in a way is illegal according to the UN convention, so we are trying to do our best to focus on these vulnerable groups, and in that respect, for instance, family reunification is an important issue, but unfortunately some member countries are restricting the possibilities for family reunification. Actually, this is about family, and I will not be surprised that some of those who are against Istanbul Convention because they want to protect families are against family reunification, which is actually about the possibility of a family to be kept together. So, there are so many different tendencies out there now.
Did you get any feedback from the Croatian government, are they going to target this issue?
We havent gone into that during this meeting, because we are focusing on the overall agenda.
You’ve mentioned a little bit earlier minority rights which youve kind of said that the Croatian government is doing a good job at the press conference with our minister. But we still have minority rights kind of ticked out in various organisation data, lets say concerning, for example, your committee of experts which emphasised as a matter of priority for example continuous efforts to promote awareness and tolerance vis-a-vis minority languages which youve mentioned in more aspects, including usage of signs, and traditional look of names with inscriptions for example in Cyrillic script, that’s still not the case in Croatia.
Yes, Im aware of that, so this is something we are watching. I have for instance inquired about the situation in Vukovar during my stay here. I have heard it is now in the Constitutional Court, and so nothing is happening there. But we are watching this closely, because as Ive said, the right to exercise your own language is a part of ones own identity and if that is threatened, then you can be sure that somebody is exploiting it.
What’s the overall score, so to speak, of Council of Europe members implementing conventions and recommendations? Do you see improvements or a decline in that respect?
I would say that it’s improving. There are setbacks, there are certain problems here and there, for instance when were talking about national minorities we are seeing new problems arising in the Ukraine with regard to the Hungarian and Polish minorities there, so things are popping up again a little bit, but all in all, I think that all member states are moving in the right direction. And these conventions are very important, and the monitoring that we are doing, but of course the court of human rights is an enormously strong instrument, because the judgement of the court has to be implemented, not only to pay compensation to those who have been harmed, but always a part of a recommendation from the court is to rectify what led to the violation of the persons or the minoritys rights.
You’ve spoken recently in Denmark, because thats one of the things that Denmark is pursuing in its own presidency, so are you satisfied with the efficiency of the implementation of the human rights court recommendations and judgements?
It has been going in the right direction, the execution of judgements is more efficient now than only a few years ago, the pending cases for implementation has gone down, and of course what is very important is that the backlog of the court itself has gone considerably down. But now we are facing a particular challenge with regard to Turkey, because there are so many applications coming in from Turkey after that attempted coup. But all in all, I would say things are going very much in the right direction.
Turkey was the sixth largest donor to the Council of Europe, and basically Ankara withdrew its financing after the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize last year to Murat Arslan, he was the former chair of the judges and prosecutors union, and he was labelled with his links to FETÖ. So how do you deal with Turkey in these sensitive circumstances?
Well first of all we have solved the problem that arose after the decline of their contribution financially. Now with regard to the judicial situation, I would say, and how to handle all the cases that appeared after the attempted coup, we dont know that yet, but the court is watching this carefully. First of all, its about all the dismissed people, more than 100,000 people, we have established a judicial way for them which may end up in the court of human rights in Strasbourg, and the court is now watching carefully whether the domestic remedy that was established for them is a real remedy, if not the court can intervene. And then we have all the arrested, in particular the journalists, where the court has started to deal with some of their applications. So, I think it is increasingly being recognised how important the European court is now for handling the internal situation in Turkey. Actually, there are not so many other tools, if any, on how to, so to speak, keep Turkey within acceptable boundaries.
When we are talking about human rights and freedoms, the state of media is, of course, also a big issue in Turkey. I remember when Croatia was joining Council of Europe 22 years ago it was quite a show, because at that time, protesters threw leaflets were from the gallery in parliament, from the group Reporters Without Borders, concerning media freedoms, there was the issue of the Feral Tribune weekly, at that time. So how do you see media freedoms today in Croatia? Because independent media status, freedom of the media, media ownership, laws and regulations, public televisions independence, attacks on journalists, they are still a problem in our society in a way.
Improvements have been made, but you still have a way to go. We are concerned, for instance, about threats against journalists here in Croatia. Its not only here, but Europe-wide. That’s of course of great concern, if attacks and threats against journalists are increasing. And there is also a concern – by the way, in the whole region with regard to the concentration of ownership, which limits the scope of journalism. So yes, you still have a way to go, like many other countries in Europe. And we have established a special tool, which is this platform for journalist organisations, and they can put threats against their members on this platform, which we then can raise with the authorities in question, and it does work in a good way I would say.
Corruption was put on top of Croatian presidencys agenda, we are not exactly the least corrupt country, its kind of become a way of life here, unfortunately. Here some of the statistics say we are losing quite a huge percentage of our GDP because of the issues related to corruption. Are you confident that this government is going to tackle its own issues within the country? Because we have problems which are, at the end, aligned with the stability of our institutions concerning corruption.
Well, at least it is another example of leadership. I mentioned leadership the Prime Minister took on Istanbul Convention, and here, where he is putting an issue on the agenda that obviously will expose Croatia, and he does it deliberately, and thats what leadership is about. Croatia has now an excellent possibility to do its homework in this field. There are many recommendations from GRECO, the monitoring body in this field, which concerns Croatia, and therefore Croatia also has a possibility to be a good example for other.
Which are the most delicate recommendations which are still left for Croatia?
Well I think it has to do with judges, the parliamentarians, the prosecutors
What’s the issue that we had today, the story about the public prosecutor, what’s the main thing about that?
I cannot go into details about that, but …
The election procedure…
Yes, the election procedure, which is not in line with the standards that we have and demand that all member states need to have.
How important is the judiciary in this whole framework regarding the corruption and stability of state institutions, because Croatia is also a member of the EU?
I have said the following, namely that the judiciary together with media freedom, is the most important thing in order to fight corruption and to uphold vibrant democracy. If you dont have an efficient, non-corrupted judiciary, everything else goes wrong. Because people then lose trust in the institutions, if they cannot trust the judiciary, of course, then they dont trust all the other institutions, because they think that all the institutions are also affected or infected by the wrongdoings in the judiciary. It is really crucial, and it is a very important part of checks and balances. When there are no checks and balances, you always get corruption. And very often instability, even revolutions. Look at what happened in Ukraine the problems in Ukraine started with a lack of trust of the people, they got fed up with corruption, they went to the streets …
And there was a takeover …
And it was a takeover, but Ukraine was so weak when it happened that the Russian Federation could do nearly everything it wanted. So, you see how this is important for the stability of Europe.
Talking about weakness, how do you see the state of play in the Western Balkans, for example in Bosnia and Herzegovina? We have had quite a warning message by Jean-Claude Juncker after the speech by French President Macron in the European Parliament. There he said that the Western Balkans need an EU perspective, and if not, the region might have war again. Its not a good message to hear.
Well, hopefully he went too far, because the people in the Western Balkans have had enough of war. But there are some worrying signs, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they are probably heading now for a new election, without having an amendment to the electoral law, which can safeguard representation from the so-called others and which could also reassure the Croat minority in the Federation. So, these two issues are unresolved, and therefore there is a danger that the election, which is coming up in autumn, will not be legitimate. And that will, of course, create a difficult situation, since we also have worrying signs coming from Republika Srpska We should watch this carefully. And the European institutions should do everything they can in order to get things on the right track. We have said it for a very long time, for instance, with regard to the electoral law in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but nobody has been able to do anything, unfortunately.
There’s been talk about geopolitics a lot in the last year or so, and of course, the recent situation regarding the relations with Russia. You said today at the press conference that it would be dangerous for the world if Russia was excluded. Council of Europe is the only place where Russia has legally binding obligations towards Europe. So how do you assess the situation with Russia? We know that they are basically out of Council of Europe institutions, but they are still a member, and there is still a place where millions and millions of Russians can go to if they have problems concerning their rights and freedoms. How do you assess the overall situation in Russia?
It is very difficult, because Russia has been out of the assembly that is electing the judges to the court and will elect my successor in one-year time. It goes without saying that if we go through all these election processes without participation from Russia, then the question is can this continue. I dont think so. And because of that, they havent paid into the budget, and that is also unacceptable. If we are not able to solve these problems It may happen that Russia falls out of the whole convention system, which would be very, very bad for Russian citizens. They will then be deprived of going to the European court of human rights, which is very important for them, and of course, for Europe as a whole. Those who really want to push Russia away are doing everything they can to achieve it. Can they answer the following question: do they think that Europe would be better with Russia totally on its own? Without having this formal, judicial, binding connections to the judicial European system? Would we be better off? No, I dont think so. But unfortunately, the tensions are rising everywhere. Most political leaders in todays Europe are doing everything they can to increase the tensions, or at least they are not lowering them. I think that we need to think about this situation, how to avoid it developing even further. Maybe we are in the need of a new Willy Brandt who really understood that the Cold War was bad for everybody and tried to get out of it. But this is easy to say and difficult to do.
You’ve been a Prime Minister, you’ve been a Minister of Foreign Affairs, you’ve been a member of the Nobel committee, and you are now heading this institution. So, from your very rich and very experienced political and international perspective, will this new multi-polar world, as they like to call it these days, will bring more cases of disregard for the set of international rules that we once knew, and is the world we are living in going to be a safer place?
If this disregard for international law that we saw during the invasion of Iraq, the annexation of Crimea, and now operations in Syria, if this continues, it will be a much more dangerous world than we had in the past and have today. But if you realise that there are many powers now, that has to be taken into account, and they do what they are obliged to do, according to the UN charter, where it is said that they shall act on behalf of the whole world community, instead of acting on behalf of their own, which they are doing now in Syria. But if they come to the conclusion that we take on board what the UN charter gave us, thats a responsibility. But I dont see that we can re-establish what we had, namely that first two powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, were governing the world, actually it was the United States, and then the Soviet Union fell apart, and it became just the United States. But after that, we have got China, Russia is becoming more assertive So, we cannot go back to the old world, we have to deal with the problems based on the distribution of power that we have in todays world. And many dislike to see it like that and they are trying to get the upper hand and to be the one, the only one, that is governing the world.