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.
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?
- Part 1: 'Europe Has Suffered Under Fundamentalism'
- Part 2: 'Obama Has not Succeeded, but He Has Started'