Spectres of inhumanity

Europe's human rights landscape is about to change. The accession of the EU to the European convention on human rights, made possible by the Lisbon treaty, will complete a cycle begun at the end of the second world war, when human rights visionaries drew up the first international texts and the Council of Europe began its work to establish the rule of law across the continent.

The EU will join a family of 47 European countries – including global players like Russia and Turkey – in a system that brings them all under the same legal standards, monitored by the same court. But inequity and injustice are still an everyday fact for many.

The council's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, has already issued a warning: about 150 million of Europe's 800 million people are living below the poverty line, with certain groups such as the Roma excluded from society; child poverty is growing; and many elderly and disabled people live in extreme hardship.

The poor and marginalised are ignored by political parties and the media. When they are victims of crime they hesitate to report it because they do not trust the police or courts. Corruption is widespread. Poor people are forced to pay for protection and services which, according to human rights law, should be free. The economic crisis only makes things worse, providing an excuse for politicians to blame the victims rather than help them.

Basic principles are forgotten as debates over issues such as the burka ban and the Swiss referendum on minaret building create the impression that "the other" is the problem. Ignoring requests from the European court of human rights and deporting asylum seekers to countries like Libya or Tunisia undermines the same principles. Rich states act from commonplace selfishness: Norway returns refugees to Greece while Sweden sends Roma to Kosovo.

The Nobel prizewinner Andrei Sakharov identified hatred – especially hatred created by government policy – as a great danger. Laws create a framework for community action, but they also shape attitudes. And at present those attitudes are dangerously negative.

To participate fully in multicultural societies we need a well-developed sense of identity, but growing unemployment and marginalisation mean people lose that identity and start defining themselves in opposition to others – fertile ground for extremists to spread their message of hatred. That, of course, is what happened in the 1930s – and the reason we have to sound a warning now.

The first step is to set in place a new social justice agenda. I know this cannot be achieved through traditional legal human rights agreements alone. But postwar history teaches us that binding legal obligations can pave the way by helping shape new attitudes.

One key test of governments' intentions is Protocol 12 to the convention on human rights, which prohibits all forms of discrimination. If every country ratified this protocol it would be a moment of great symbolism in the year when the European convention celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Fascism was defeated by might – by "hard security". But the peace was won and maintained by "soft security", building comprehensive respect for human rights in Europe. Europe now needs to develop "deep security", anchoring those values and creating bonds between people who acknowledge and respect the multicultural and multifaith nature of society.

We must broaden and deepen our common values and create structures to help us weather the new winds of unrest on the continent, and to realise the Europe that those early human rights visionaries foresaw.

Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe.