Judging from the headlines, Europe appears to be lurching from one crisis to another: economic, geopolitical, technological, military. The gut reaction of many politicians is to build more walls around, and within, “fortress Europe” and give greater powers to the security services.
But that is not the whole answer. We must avoid knee-jerk reactions. Walls create division and conflict. And we have seen a few examples of what the secret services can do beneath the cloak of “national security”: from mass surveillance, to extraordinary renditions, extra judicial executions and torture of “suspects” imprisoned without charge.
Whenever such “operations” come to light, the public has the impression that human rights, democracy and the rule of law are, at best, negotiable, at worst a sham. This breeds contempt for the very values and democratic institutions which are essential for democratic security; that is, the real, underlying, deep security that ensures we can live together, free and in peace. We need “democratic and effective oversight” of the security forces, as the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner has said. And this can only be done by reinforcing democracy. We must strengthen our democracies by promoting a democratic culture through education, the independent media and civic action, to combat the xenophobia, discrimination, segregation and stigmatisation which creates exclusion and increases the appeal of populism and extremism. Well-educated, well-informed people who feel included in their societies are less likely to fall prey to the violent extremism and radicalisation that leads to terrorism.
Human rights defenders, whistle-blowers, civil society and the independent media must be protected against trumped up charges and harassment. There have been some examples of courageous individuals standing up for our fundamental values being accused of “terrorism”, no less. In such cases it is clear that so-called state security has become the opposite of democratic security. With our freedoms being whittled away day by day, the need to find the right balance between freedom and control has become one of the major, political challenges of our time. This is why the Council of Europe’s third World Forum for Democracy is entitled Freedom vs Control: For a democratic response. Meeting in Strasbourg, from 18-20 November, the Forum will bring together decision-makers, opinion leaders and social innovators from across the world to find and share new ways to protect democratic freedoms. Previous World Forums have shown that solutions already exist for many of the apparently intractable problems facing Europe today, which can serve as prototypes, and that new ideas can be developed through our “democracy innovation incubator”.
Participants will be debating four themes: how much control kills democracy; freedom from fear in a diverse society; is learning for democracy adequate today; and, is freedom of expression and information a reality? Discussions will cover: public consultation on the definition of security risks, strengthening human rights organisations, controls on security services, building a democratic and human rights culture and intercultural dialogue. The results will be available to inspire states, local authorities and organisations. Of course, we need security and security services. Of course, our leaders cannot remove all risks and they should be honest about this. But they can do everything in their power to ensure that democracy and human rights are rigorously upheld. By setting an example, offering a vision and the hope of a fairer society, which includes and respects all citizens, they can rebuild trust in democracy. This is vital, because democracy is the only way to protect our freedoms and ensure real, lasting security in Europe.