The refugee crisis has brought desperate people to the shores of Europe, but instead of a concerted and coordinated European response, many countries have been content to pass the buck to countries geographically close to the source of the crisis and some have gone so far as to close their borders. Isolated acts of terrorism perpetrated by small numbers of indoctrinated and radicalised young men, which should be condemned as crimes committed by a tiny minority, have led in some quarters to the stigmatising of whole communities, with leading politicians in both Eastern and Western European countries adopting overtly racist and Islamophobic positions.

It is easy to stir up public resentment and hatred in the internet age. A recent report by Thorbjorn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, noted: ‘Anti-Muslim hate speech on social networks has reached unprecedented levels. Individual Muslims are attacked and verbally abused. The vilification of Muslims has become a part of the mainstream public discourse in some countries.’ (See Populism – How strong are Europe’s checks and balances? report by the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Council of Europe, 2017.)

Council of Europe’s HELP

The European Convention on Human Rights speaks in its preamble of the Council of Europe’s signatories reaffirming ‘their profound belief in those fundamental freedoms which are the foundation of justice and peace in the world’ and of the ‘common heritage of political traditions, ideals, freedom and the rule of law’ that European countries share. That ‘common heritage’ of shared traditions and values is under pressure. In that context, the Council of Europe’s work in promoting respect for human rights could hardly be more relevant or necessary.

One little publicised aspect of the Council of Europe’s work on human rights is its programme of Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals, known through its acronym HELP. This EU-funded programme is the largest training programme for judges, prosecutors and lawyers in Europe and seeks to enhance best practice among lawyers in the 28 EU member states by spreading knowledge of the Convention, the EU Charter, relevant case law and related soft law. HELP is directly engaging with some of the most challenging human rights issues by championing best practice in areas such as combatting discrimination, tackling hate speech and defending vulnerable minority groups.

The HELP programme initially focused on delivering training courses in person to various audiences such as Russian prosecutors, Turkish judges and Czech lawyers. Although some training in person still takes place, increasingly HELP relies on online courses to deliver its message. Online courses have the obvious advantages of being highly accessible and cost-efficient. The courses have received expert input from leading practitioners and specialist organisations and they engage with some of the most challenging and topical human rights issues of our time.

Free training online: designed by lawyers for lawyers

The current list of free online courses is as follows:

  • Introduction to the ECHR
  • Admissibility criteria under the ECHR
  • Asylum and the ECHR
  • Anti-discrimination
  • Fight against racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia
  • Hate crime and hate speech
  • Alternative measures to detention
  • Business and human rights
  • Data protection and privacy
  • Family law
  • Freedom of expression and the ECHR
  • Labour rights as human rights
  • Pre-trial investigation and the ECHR
  • Property rights
  • Right to liberty and security
  • Right to respect for private and family life
  • Right to the integrity of the person (bioethics)
  • Transitional justice and human rights

The biggest challenge for any online course about legal issues is how to prevent the content from becoming too dry and text-heavy. The HELP courses manage to avoid these pitfalls. The videos are user-friendly and accessible, with a mix of text, presentations by practitioners, real-life stories and use of other resources. They are structured so that they consist of short segments, typically of a few minutes, which can be watched in stages and returned to at any time. The courses do not assume a lot in terms of prior legal knowledge, but have the kind of logical approach and thoroughness that one would expect from courses designed by lawyers for other lawyers.

Testing explicit and implicit prejudices

The course ‘Fight against Racism, Xenophobia, Homophobia and Transphobia’ seems particularly topical and covers a wide range of interesting topics. It starts by looking in-depth at stereotyping and bias, both conscious and unconscious. Viewers are encouraged to take the Project Implicit test on the Harvard University website, a test of associations that can be highly revealing of unconscious prejudices.

There are then a number of videos that bring home how stereotypes devalue people. In the video ‘What does it mean to do something like a girl?’ children and young people of both sexes are asked, for example, to ‘run like a girl’. A boy runs knock-kneed and with arms flailing; a girl adopts the same stereotype. Another girl is then asked simply to ‘run’ – and she runs – swiftly and gracefully. Unquestioned assumptions about what it means to ‘do something like a girl’ are exposed as ill-informed prejudices.

The course moves on to discrimination and covers the EU legal framework, including the Charter and all of the relevant Directives, the Art 14 case law of the European Convention and the European Social Charter. ‘Racism and Xenophobia’ looks at racism in contemporary Europe, deals with different types of hate speech including Holocaust denial and hate crimes and then looks at discrimination based on race in fields such as employment, housing and social rights, the police, religion and goods and services. ‘Homophobia and Transphobia’ covers the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, moves towards decriminalisation of homosexuality, the ground-breaking case of Dudgeon v UK App No. 7525/76 (the law penalising sex between men in private breached Art 8) and topical issues such as gender markers for transsexuals in official documents.

Youth ‘No Hate Speech’ campaign

Meanwhile, the Council of Europe’s Youth Campaign is engaging with the highly topical issue of online hate speech. Working with youth organisations in different European countries, it has produced a number of resources to help young people who want to get engaged with these issues to devise their own campaigns advancing counter and alternative narratives that challenge racist stereotyping. (‘We Can!’, Taking Action against Hate Speech through Counter and Alternative Narratives, Council of Europe, 2017.) The No Hate Speech campaign is part of its wider work on human rights education for young people, which involves preparing resources such as COMPASS, the manual for human rights education with young people, which is a fantastic resource for schools (2nd edition, 2015).

Low-key but high-importance

Compared to the fiery rhetoric that generates newspaper headlines, these long-term and low-key initiatives may seem rather tame. But at a time when our European links are under strain, they are an important reminder that we do have common European values grounded in respect for human rights and the rule of law. At this moment of tension and division, we need to defend our common heritage. 

Contributor Guy Vassall-Adams QC, Matrix Chambers, is a member of the Bar Council’s International Committee


HELP Online Courses may be accessed via the E-Learning Portal of HELP.

Registration is done online and takes only a few minutes to complete. The Harvard University Project Implicit tests can be found here