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European democracies and human rights: from present failures to future protection

Centre for the Study of Human Rights public lecture

In a lecture marking UN International Human Rights Day, Thomas Hammerberg discusses the gap between human rights standards and realities in the EU.

The economic crisis has widened the gaps in European societies. The budget cuts have put further burdens on vulnerable and already destitute people. Inequalities, already growing for three decades, have deepened further. The protection of economic and social rights has become an acute concern in today's Europe. People in the "new underclass" have little voice in politics and often do not even know how and to whom to complain when their rights are violated. Their fear and sense of not belonging are exploited by right-wing extremist groups promoting xenophobia which targets immigrants, Muslims and Roma.

The law-based system of justice is undermined by corruption and political interference in several European states. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg continues to receive some one thousand applications every week. Its rulings have exposed cases of police brutality, unfair or delayed trials, non-implementation of sentences and inhuman conditions of detention. In addition, European countries have been unable to come clean on the nature of their security cooperation with the United States during the "war on terror" and their own complicity in a policy which allowed torture as a means of interrogation.

The conclusion, in Thomas Hammarberg's opinion, is that there is a need for European self-criticism – and concrete improvements which also reach the poorest and the most marginalised. Politicians need to reconfirm their commitment to principled values and stand up for them: ensuring respect for the other, including minorities and foreigners; promoting equality and non-discrimination; enforcing fundamental principles of justice, such as equality before the law and presumption of innocence.

The malfunctioning of the democratic process is also a human rights problem. Popular participation in political decision-making is generally minimal in most European countries today. Communication between politicians and their electorate is mainly via the media and surveys show that the respect for those elected is low and decreasing. A genuine, democratic dialogue is needed. Both social and mass media are key for such a dialogue. The potential of non-governmental groups can be much better utilised for the common good.

In this lecture, Thomas Hammarberg will address these matters, and the need for a new strategy for human rights which also addresses the problems in democratic states.

Thomas Hammarberg was elected Commissioner for Human Rights on 5 October 2005 by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. He took up his position on 1 April 2006, succeeding the first commissioner, Mr Alvaro Gil-Robles.

Prior to his appointment, he spent several decades working on the advancement of human rights in Europe and worldwide. He has held the key posts of Secretary General of the Stockholm-based Olof Palme International Center (2002-2005), Ambassador of the Swedish Government on Humanitarian Affairs (1994-2002), Secretary General of "Save the Children" Sweden (1986-1992), and Secretary General of the London-based Amnesty International (1980-1986). He received on behalf of Amnesty International the Noble Peace Prize 1977.

Mr Hammarberg also held several special positions during these years. In 2001-2003, he served as Regional Adviser for Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. For several years, he was the Swedish Prime Minister's Personal Representative for the UN Special Session on Children, as well as the Convener of the Aspen Institute Roundtables on "Human Rights in Peace Missions". Between 1996 and 2000, he was Kofi Annan's appointed representative (SRSG) for human rights in Cambodia. He also participated in the work of the Refugee Working Group of the multilateral Middle East Peace Process.

Mr Hammarberg has published widely on various human rights issues, particularly on children's rights, refugee policy, minority issues, xenophobia, Roma rights as well as international affairs and security. He is also well known for his presentations and lectures on human rights at various governmental and academic institutions.


Thomas Hammarberg | talks


Date and Time:

9 December 2010 at 6:30 pm


1 hour 30 minutes



Old Theatre
Old Building
London School of Economics and Political Science

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Organised by:

London School of Economics & Political Science
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