Among the European Union's numerous institutions is a racism and xenophobia monitoring center. Now the Vienna-based body is set to be turned into a human rights agency, a move that is generating controversy.
All EU countries are members in the Council of Europe
Thomas Hammarberg is not easily ruffled. A veteran of humanitarian missions in various parts of the globe, he's no stranger to stress or testy verbal exchanges. But since he took over as human rights commissioner for the intergovernmental Council of Europe (CoE) a few weeks ago, he has frequently found himself agitated. He has put the blame on the European Commission, which aims to set up a human rights agency in Vienna. Hammarberg doesn't see the point.
"The European Union is beginning to be interested in human rights," Hammarberg said. "They should not do that in a way that it undermines the work of the Council of Europe, because that would be duplication and create an uncertainty about what are actually the standards that we have agreed on."
Hammarberg recently became the CoE's top human rights envoy
But the European Commission has countered that the new agency would not be a rival in the struggle to promote human rights and democracy.
"It is not a problem if the European Commission and the Council of Europe occasionally say the same things," said Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. "On the contrary, the two augment and complement one another."
Wasting taxpayers' money?
However, it's not that simple. The protection of human rights and democracy is the CoE's core task.
Its 46 member countries have all signed its Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Thus, citizens of those countries who believe their basic rights have been violated can submit their cases to the European Court of Human Rights if they've already exhausted all national means of legal redress.
"The important thing with the Council of Europe is that the court for human rights is within the Council of Europe," said Hammarberg. "And the judges there are the ones who are experts in interpreting the real meaning of the convention, and that should be respected."
The European Court of Human Rights (photo) and the CoE are located in Strasbourg, France
Hammarberg isn't convinced Europe should have a second human rights institution that would possibly compete with the first. The European Commission has said it's necessary to ensure that human rights clauses in EU treaties are adhered to.
However, at the Council of Europe, people suspect that taxpayers' money is being squandered, and that ordinary citizens will be bewildered by the creation of yet another EU institution.
CoE spokesmen have said their organization already suffers from the public often mistaking it for other EU bodies, such as the European Council and the European Parliament. A European Union human rights agency would just add to the confusion, they said.