Thomas Hammarberg

Describe your role as commissioner?

I have to stress that I am a commissioner for the Council of Europe. This is often wrongly confused with the European Union. It is an independent office. Three names are selected by the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly then chooses. I began my term in 2006 and end on the 11th August 2012. It is not renewable.

What is your background?

I was a member of Amnesty International when I was a student at the Stockholm School of Economics. In Sweden in the fifties, there was a wave of interest in the Holocaust. That was what encouraged me into the field. There was also a very strong Anti-Apartheid campaign. After university, I became a journalist – with an interest in human rights and legal matters in particular.

What would you say about the current state of human rights in Europe?

It depends on your time frame. If you take the period since the Second World War, then there has clearly been a great improvement and absorption of human rights. But in relation to hopes for the future you would be quite disappointed. We are close to a crisis in Europe as a whole. First, a backlash began with the response to 9/11. European states began to allow torture and to co-operate with a US administration which did not cope with the situation to human rights standards. Second, the economic crisis with austerity budgets has led to a heavy pressure on the vulnerable in society. That comes on top of three decades of development in which the gap between rich and poor has increased tremendously. The elderly have suffered disproportionately.

In Eastern Europe, there has been trouble during the transition with the judicial system working badly. Corruption continues. So does political influence of the system of justice. Law enforcement is often corrupt as well. The prisons are in a terrible state – something also true in some of the rest of Europe. There are some very bad conditions.

There is certainly no room for complacency.

And human rights and the UK?

The UK has been so important in Europe. It took part in – and led – the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights. Some of the key influential groups in the human rights field were founded here – for example, Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International. The human rights movement was very much inspired by this country. But I can also see that there are some problems. The UK has still not entirely cleaned up its own role in the anti-terrorism work of the last decade. We have also some questions about your migration policy.

This is the only country where there are people who see human rights as dirty. People refer to the tabloids but the issue is wider. You should not see human rights as an obstacle to doing what you really want to do. Human rights should be a helpful tool. Human rights don’t come from the top. Human rights have done so much for people.

What gives you most hope?

The biggest hope for the future is the growth of civil society organisations. They can take a strategic approach. They are outside the political parties. They are the hope of democracy and a pool of future leaders.

What has given you the most satisfaction?

Personally, individual cases. I have seen people in prison who have been released. After the war between Georgia and Russia, I went up and down the border and organised the release of about 120 prisoners on both sides. Otherwise, there was no communication. The most important thing is the structural changes. Our office has managed to change laws and establish ombudsmen to protect human rights.

What do you plan to do in your last four months of office?

We plan to take up the issue of people with disabilities. Their plight is so miserable. Quite a lot of people are deprived of their legal capacity. Even wheelchair access is limited. The other issue is Roma travellers. We are planning a comparative analysis of the position of Roma in February next year. I worry more and more about the elderly. They have really suffered from the economic crisis. Quite a lot of elderly women who worked in the home fail to have adequate arrangements. I see people like that out on the streets begging. There is little political interest in the elderly.