Council of Europe Secretary General on Burqa Bans 'Europe Has Suffered Under Fundamentalism'

Is it right for governments to place bans on burqas or the construction of minarets? In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, pleads for a more pragmantic societal approach. He also defends the decision of the Nobel Committee, which he also chairs, to bestow Barack Obama with the Peace Prize.
A woman wearing the niqab in Belgium: "There are bigger problems in society."

A woman wearing the niqab in Belgium: "There are bigger problems in society."


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Jagland, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is responsible for the complaints brought by citizens from 47 countries and is now faced with a mountain of 120,000 pending cases. Can the court even cope with all those cases?

Thorbjørn Jagland: You are right, the court is overburdened -- because of its own success. Because more and more applications are coming to the court, we initiated a reform process in June that is about making the court more efficient.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A reform that Russia blocked for a long time.

Jagland: Yes, one of the first things I did (in this office) was to go to Moscow and get President Medvedev to ensure that they will ratify this protocol. They did that early this year. But much more has to be done with regard to the court in order to make progress.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For example?

Jagland: There are a number of things we have to consider. One thing, for instance, is whether we should have a kind of filtering mechanism. Today, every citizen can petition the court by just writing something on a piece of paper. Yet more than 90 percent of the cases coming to the court are declared inadmissible. We should have a more simple procedure -- so that the judges can concentrate on the most important cases from the beginning.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that alone won't stop the flood of applications, will it?

Jagland: I know. The reason why so many applications are coming from certain countries is that people (in those countries) don't trust their own judicial systems. For them, this court has been a court of first instance rather than last. A part of the initiative is about helping reform the judicial system in many member countries. For instance, currently 30 percent of the applications are coming from Russia. This is why it was so important that the Russian Federation ratified the protocol -- it meant that they recognized the importance of the court. And helping the Russian Federation to improve its own judicial system will, of course, help the court here.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does Turkey also count as one of the more problematic nations? Recently in the German media there have been reports that more than 250 children and youth, mostly of Kurdish origin, were in many instances given long sentences for alleged terrorist activities. Did you know about this?

Jagland: Yes, and it worries me. This example demonstrates that Turkey still has a way to go in reforming their constitution and their legislation. I met with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan two months ago to discuss this at length, and now a package for constitutional reform is being discussed in the Turkish parliament. This will mean that Turkey can better comply with judgments by the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey needs to do more for the Kurdish population. The Erdogan administration is the first government that has put a real emphasis on this issue, and we need to recognize that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Given these circumstances, is Turkey even ready for membership negotiations with the European Union?

Jagland: That decision is not mine to make. What I have witnessed is that Turkey is very much on the way toward European standards and is working very hard to become a modern European nation. If the Turkish can succeed in bringing Turkey fully into the EU, it would also have a big influence on Iran, Iraq, Egypt and many other Muslim nations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Religious questions are playing an ever greater role in cases before the Council of Europe. Recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes may not hang in Italian classrooms. But the crucifixes are still there. What will happen if Italy doesn't want to change anything in that regard?

Jagland: The Grand Chamber of the Court (Editor's note: where appeals against decisions are made) has not yet ruled about this case, but it remains to be seen whether the court will uphold this decision. This is an example of the question of how far the court should go in interfering in domestic issues in different societies.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And? Should it?

Jagland: The important thing with this court is that we are able to uphold the most important, basic human rights. The definition of human rights is expanding all the time. For instance, 10 years ago, it was not possible to say that the rights of homosexuals came under this umbrella. But some issues can also become less important and the court must keep an eye on these changes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let's stay with the example of the crucifixes in the schools. A lot of Germans have the same problem with this Catholic tradition. If they were banned in Italy, then German petitioners would also immediately file suits in Strasbourg.

Jagland: Yes, I recognize that. But my question is this: Should the crucifix really be such a big issue? Or to put it differently: Is it the role of political leaders to exaggerate problems that are not actually that big? Take, for instance, the debate we have had about burqas and headscarves. If thousands and thousands of young girls were really wearing a burqa, then we would have to have legal intervention. But I think we can handle this in a very pragmatic way. And is it really such a big problem that young girls are wearing a headscarf? If a father is forcing a daughter to wear a burqa or a headscarf, then it is a problem for that girl. But is it a big problem for the whole of society?

'Obama Has not Succeeded, but He Has Started'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Belgium recently passed a law banning the burqa . Can you really imagine a girl going to school fully robed?

Jagland: No, but do we need to legislate against that? I think it can be handled by each school individually. In my homeland, Norway, the schools can say that if you come to school wearing a burqa, then you are not allowed to enter because we cannot see your face. But do we really need such political debate and all these things that will trigger public reaction? I think there are bigger problems in society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In a Swiss referendum, voters recently agreed to a ban on the construction of minarets .

Jagland: Again, I ask: Were they a big problem?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Swiss seem to think so.

Jagland: But should it be left to the majority majority to vote on whether to build a minaret or not? Local authorities could say no, we do not have space for a minaret or that it disrupts the townscape. But that is something different. The question is: Should this be put to a referendum? A basic principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that basic human rights are not for the majority to decide upon. The majority has no right to harm the basic human rights of the minority.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But is the construction of a minaret a basic human right?

Jagland: I don't think so. This is why I think it should be handled in a pragmatic way. Europe has suffered under fundamentalism and different ideologies. We should not enter into that business again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As chairman of the Nobel Committee in 2009, you pushed for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to United States President Barack Obama. One of your justifications was that Obama was not just getting the prize because of his plans for nuclear disarmament, but also because of peace signals he was making toward the Muslim world.

Jagland: Yes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And how do you see it now, half a year later. Do you still think Obama was the right choice?

Jagland: Yes, it was an historic event when he first went to Turkey and spoke in front of the mosque in Istanbul. No US president had done that before him. And then he went to Cairo to talk to the Muslim world. It was conciliation with Muslim people all over.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But there is still a lot of confrontation with the Muslim world. American troops are waging war in Afghanistan and in parts of Pakistan.

Jagland: Yes. Obama has not succeeded (with his policies), but he has started. Incidentally, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee also gave the prize to Dr. Martin Luther King very early on because he started a process. Somebody has to start the process, somebody has to take leadership.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's a bold comparison.

Jagland: Not at all. It is becoming more clear that we were right. Why did President Medvedev and Obama meet in Prague to sign a new treaty on nuclear disarmament? Because Obama started the whole process in Prague by extending a hand to the Russians. The same goes for the fact that he was willing to adapt the nuclear shield and that he said he would work for a ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And all these things happened within a few months. We have never had a leadership which has changed the political agenda in United States so fast and so deeply.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Despite the disappointments in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories?

Jagland: Political leadership is not without disappointments. The real criterion for the Nobel Committee was this: Who is the person who had done the most to develop peace in the world during the past year? I came to the conclusion very early on that giving it to Barack Obama was unavoidable.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who also happens to be the Commander in Chief of one of the most powerful military forces in the world.

Jagland: I asked myself this too. Can we really do it? Give this prize to the most powerful person in the world? With that military machinery and that economic power? But, from time to time, you have to pay tribute to realpolitik -- that is a German word.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But is the Nobel Peace Prize an award for realpolitik?

Jagland: Without realpolitik, you cannot change the world. We have given the prize to many idealists who were also indispensable. But from time to time, you have to focus on realpolitik, too. Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt got the prize for the way he improved relations with the East, because he changed the realities in Europe. That was realpolitik of the highest order.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You once said that the European Union should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Two questions come to mind. First: Why? And second: When?

Jagland: The first question is very easy, because I have said many times that the European Union is the most important peace project ever in history, bringing former enemies together into one community. And this project is extending to the east and to the Balkans. It is unbelievable what has happened on the European continent, despite all the worries about the euro. And to answer your second question ...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... the question of when ...

Jagland: ... That is a delicate question for me because as head of the Nobel Committee, I cannot say more about it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But it would be possible?

Jagland: A lot is possible. The number of candidates is increasing every year. This year, we have around 240 candidates.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Dietmar Hipp