Media Center



November 8, 2017 - Washington, DC

Chairperson, Excellencies, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen -

It is a great honour to be here today and to be able to present to you the work of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe. In spite of the fact that our respective geographical areas of work are separated by an Ocean, the grave problems we face in the areas of racism and intolerance are challenges to our common values. What connects our organisations is the common objective to defend human rights, protect people from discrimination and hatred, and promote a tolerant and inclusive society in which diversity is not perceived as a threat but as part of our cultural wealth and heritage. While the manifestations of racism might indeed differ between our continents as a result of different historical, political and cultural trajectories; I believe that we can learn important lessons from each other and build on our respective experiences in order to mutually strengthen our work towards shared objectives. This cooperation was already advanced when the Director of the OAS Department of Social Inclusion (Ms Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian) came to the ECRI Plenary meeting in Strasbourg in March of this year to present the work of your organisation. I would like to take this opportunity to convey the appreciation of ECRI’s members for the opportunity to learn more about the important work of the OAS and the thematic fields that are of concern to us as well.

Please allow me at this point to give you a brief overview of ECRI, who we are and how we work. ECRI was founded in 1993 by the Council of Europe summit of Heads of State and Government and tasked to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance across all member States. Currently the Council of Europe has 47 member States, 28 of which are also member States of the European Union. The Council is a truly pan-European organisation that brings together nearly all countries on the continent – [the only exception being Belarus, while the Holy See has Observer Status]. It was founded in 1949 after the horrors of Nazism and the Second World War that had devastated large parts of Europe.

From its very beginning, the organisation was deeply embedded in the desire to fight racism; to learn from the past and prevent any reoccurrence of such atrocities in the future: “never again” was a key motivation of the Council’s founders. In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and the transformation of former Communist countries in Eastern- and Central Europe into liberal democracies, the Council of Europe incorporated many new member States from these regions and assisted them in their often difficult transition from totalitarian regimes to open, free and democratic societies. It was in this time of deep and substantial social and political change across Europe, which also saw a resurgence of aggressive nationalism, that political leaders felt the need to put a monitoring mechanism like ECRI in place.

ECRI is composed of 47 independent experts, one from each member State of the Council of Europe, but not representing their respective governments. A government proposes a member, but final appointment rests with the Council’s Committee of Ministers. In order to ensure members’ independence they cannot work for their government, but can, for example, work for the national judiciary, Ombudsman institutions or universities. While most of ECRI's members have traditionally come from the legal profession, we also count amongst ourselves political scientists, sociologists and persons with other relevant backgrounds. All members come together three times a year for plenary sessions in Strasbourg/France at the Council of Europe’s headquarters, where the ECRI Secretariat is based as well. The Secretariat consists of 10 Council of Europe staff members.

ECRI monitors all member States, which includes regular visits - on average every five years, and adopts country reports which analyse the national situation as regards racism and intolerance. We are currently in our fifth monitoring cycle. While in previous cycles, ECRI used to look at specific vulnerable groups, we reshaped the structure of our reports and now analyse racism and racial discrimination through four thematic priority areas: national legislation; hate speech; violence; and integration measures. In addition, we also look at country-specific issues, which include, for example, problems concerning discrimination of LGBT persons.

Another important statutory area of ECRI’s work is the development of General Policy Recommendations - GPRs - in order to provide guidance to policy makers, when drawing up national strategies and policies for combating racism and racial discrimination. Up to now, ECRI has developed a total of 16 GPRs. They are a good opportunity to put the various findings and recommendations from our country visits into an overall cohesive frame to provide advice on various sectors, such as combatting racism in the field of employment, education, sports, policing and – increasingly important in the current context of terror attacks that occurred in many European countries: combatting racism while fighting terrorism. We also developed General Policy Recommendations to fight discrimination of specific vulnerable groups: Jewish communities, Muslims, and Roma, who are often referred to as “Gypsies”.

ECRI’s third statutory area of work is outreach and cooperation with civil society. In addition to meeting non-governmental organisations during our country visits, of which we conduct 8-10 per year, we also organise Roundtable conferences in an average of 3 countries per year in which we bring together NGOs, minority representatives, government, media, academics and other international organisations, such as the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and specialised UN agencies such as UNHCR, as appropriate.

Through our country monitoring activities we gain direct impressions of the situation in member States and see first-hand the extent of racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. It is our role to also report back to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on the overall trends in Europe, which we do once a year in an exchange of views during which I as ECRI’s Chair now had the privilege for several years to present ECRI’s Annual Report. While there might, on occasion, be different views amongst member States on which aspects of our work might deserve more or less attention, the overall response from all national representatives has always been a very positive and supportive one. ECRI’s expertise and impartiality is highly valued by the member States, even if this involves us raising very difficult, politically-sensitive or inconvenient issues. As you all know, Europe has been engulfed in recent years by three major phenomena that affect our area of work: a migration crisis on an unprecedented scale; the growing threat of Islamist terror and, also related to the first two developments, the rise of populist politics.

Ladies and Gentlemen, from my exchanges with the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers I have come to realise that all governments, regardless of their political colours and persuasion, are fully aware of the fact that if the very foundation of human dignity is challenged in the case of some people, then eventually democracy and respect for human rights are at risk for all. As we see over and over again, democracy cannot consist of the defence of one’s own rights and interests alone, its very nature makes it imperative for us to defend the rights and dignity of everyone. Even though I might not be discriminated because of my skin colour, ethnicity or religion now, this cannot absolve me from defending those who are.

In Europe we are witnessing an increase in racist and xenophobic discourses and populist rhetoric. If anything, over the last two or three years, this problem has grown, possibly also made worse by many years of austerity politics in the aftermath of the most recent global financial crisis. This has tended to fuel a sense of competition for resources in our societies which was then often exploited by populist politicians in order to create a sentiment of “us” and “them”, attempting to divide people between the ethnic majority and the minorities, the long-established population and the newcomers, one faith and another. All of these divisions have one thing in common: they contribute to a sense of alienation, rejection, resentment and ultimately hatred towards people who are different from a perceived “norm”.
ECRI does not ignore that cultural differences between human beings exists. Our aim is to provide governments with the expertise and insights to establish structures and policies that allow their societies to deal with differences in a peaceful and constructive fashion, with full respect for human rights in general and the European Convention on Human Rights and the related judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in particular. Governments can do much more than they often realise in order to create an environment in which diversity can thrive and contribute to the benefit of society as a whole.

Likewise, policies that exclude and discriminate – whether intentionally or as an unintended result of not having considered certain affects that general policies might have on vulnerable groups – can have a negative impact in the long-run and cause problems which later on will be much more complicated and costly to resolve.

This last point is one which those European governments which accepted high numbers of migrants in recent years are now coming to realise when it comes to designing integration policies. Early support for successful integration of refugees is not only an investment in avoiding problems with social exclusion of this group in the future, it is also the best way to promote acceptance among the local population for newcomers who had to flee their homes and countries due to war or persecution. The link between the ability to organise successful integration of refugees and the fight to counter and prevent racist populism is obvious. The better we’ll manage the first, the easier it will be to stop and reverse the advancement of the second.

I have now outlined the way ECRI works and the type of problems we encounter in Europe at the moment – although I admit that generalising the very different situations across 47 European countries is not doing reality fully justice, but this was necessary for the sake of time. I would very much like to learn more about the ideas and proposals that the Organisation of American States has developed or is contemplating in this regard. Given that the Inter American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance (2013) is now entering into force soon; and that the Inter American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance (2013) has also been developed; maybe this is a good time to explore who we can deepen our relationship. Although ECRI is not based on a Convention – like several other Council of Europe monitoring bodies are, such as our “sister monitoring body”, the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities – I believe there is sufficient overlap in our areas of work for this to be of mutual benefit. In this context, it might be worth mentioning that three OAS member States, namely Canada, the USA [both since 1996] and Mexico [1999] have Observer Status with the Council of Europe. Furthermore, Mexico is also already an Observer to ECRI. In my view, it could also be worthwhile to explore whether the OAS could become an Observer to ECRI, if you decide that this would be of interest to your organisation. In any case, I can assure you that, whichever form our future relationship will take, I speak on behalf of all ECRI members when I say that we are looking forward to deepening our cooperation with the Organization of American States.

Thank you very much for your attention.