The Institutions of the Council of Europe get little of the publicity that the European Union institutions do, and in fact probably a significant majority of people in Europe do not even know the difference between the two. This is unfortunate because the Council of Europe is the bedrock and the basis upon which has been developed the European Convention on Human Rights – which, similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – holds forth a panoply of human rights upon which our societies are expected to be bound.
Whether they do so or not is another matter, but it stands as a basic agreement between the 47 European countries. Furthermore, the Council of Europe provides a legal framework for them to be enforced through appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) after all national legal remedies have been exhausted.
This system is by no means perfect. It is slow and has limited enforcement powers. Countries such as Russia have refused to apply a series of judgements they have lost in the ECtHR, but never-the-less the Council of Europe has built an impressive body of reports, resolutions, recommendations, and judgements which are used worldwide as standards for different fields of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, around which this article is devoted.
Since the 1990s the Council of Europe has been something of a testing ground for religious freedom and in particular for minority religions. Different anti-religious pressure groups have attempted to bring tough measures against religious minorities, which they negatively characterized as “dangerous sects”. Through different Resolutions, they intended to establish such measures as Europe-wide observatories to monitor what was supposed to be a “sect problem”. We are not here talking about whether something was against the law. The law is applied in each country and this was never an issue, but the intention was to establish new laws and regulations which would have had the effect of harassing or even persecuting religious minorities.
It is to the credit of the Council of Europe that none of the “observatories”’ were ever considered to be necessary. On the contrary, it was considered that existing laws were sufficient in determining the activity of European citizens. Unbiased and objective academic evaluation was also seen to play an important role in this regard.
The most recent attempt was not so long ago. 2014 was the year when a rather very restrictive and punitive proposal was brought to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe by a French member of the Assembly, Mr. Rudy Salles, entitled “The protection of minors against excesses of sects”. This proposal rang the alarm bell for me personally as I had experience of being a member of a so called “sect” (in my case Baptist, which is a minority Christian group) in the Soviet Union and being at the receiving end of state discrimination at the time. The initial draft by Mr. Salles proposed a variety of measures including observatories, as mentioned above, and other sever limitations which were to target what were alleged to be the damaging effects of minority religions (or sects). The story behind this is too long and complex to go into here, but it is sufficient to say that, during the debate in the Parliamentary Assembly, all draconian measures were overturned and mostly the common-sense human rights guidelines to protect minors, which would apply in any context regardless of the religion of their parents, were adopted. This can be found on the Council of Europe’s site
This resolution was later strengthened in 2017 by another resolution brought this time by me: “The protection of the rights of parents and children belonging to religious minorities”, which emphasized on the basic human right of parents expressed in the European Convention on Human Rights to bring up their children according to their own religious beliefs .
The Council of Europe has taken up many religious freedom issues – not just concerning the minority issue above. In 2015 I was the author of the Resolution 2036: “Tackling intolerance and discrimination in Europe with a special focus on Christians” .
It concretely proposes measures that should be taken by Member states to ensure the effective enjoyment of the protection of freedom of religion or belief afforded to every individual in Europe.
Thankfully, the “sect issue” is now pretty much old hat and all the dramatizations whipped up by those anti-religious elements has been shown to be baseless. Of course, when it comes to breaking the law, religions should have no special protections and this was never the issue. The issue is whether or not the basic human right of a person to believe in whatever she or he chooses and to practice that belief within the law, was protected.
And it is admirable that the Council of Europe, in spite of many fights and pressures, maintained good standards in this area. As I said at the beginning, it is unfortunate that the Council of Europe does not enjoy the same exposure and relevance as the European Union does. This is particularly unfortunate because the human rights role played by the Council of Europe is a vital one which needs to be elevated within European countries and not relegated to the sidelines of our democracies today.