This article is part of the curriculum accompanying the seminar ‘Open societies and the ECHR’. The aim of the seminar is to facilitate a deeper understanding of the online course ’Open societies and the ECHR’ held by Antoine Buyse – Janneke Gerards – Paulien de Morree, lecturers at Utrecht University, on Coursera (available here)

Introductory questions

Have you heard about the European Convention on Human Rights?

What do you know about the European Convention on Human Rights?



Society during this course is considered to be composed of people, a culture, ideas, behaviour, and material possessions. (Kendall 2006:42)

Open society

Henri Bergson, who was a philosopher, is considered to be the first one who used the term ‘open society’ in 1932. According to Bergson an open society is ‘dynamic and inclined to moral universalism’. Moral universalism in his understanding was a system of ethics, which is applicable universally, without any discrimination on the ground of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature.

Karl Popper further developed the concept and defined openness as a place where the society is open to the ever-changing values, knowledge, and not bound by traditions. He saw democracy as the only option to give space for an open society. It is important to mention that he did not question the place of traditions in the societies, instead he promoted that one must be critical with those.

Critical thinking is always the foundation of the development.


Sovereignty is a political concept that refers to dominant power or supreme authority. In modern democracies, sovereign power rests with the people and is exercised through representative bodies such as Congress or Parliament. (source:

Need for protection

After the Second World War the atrocities committed during that period highlighted the fact that there is a need for a supranational protection.

What are the tasks of the state?

The protection of its citizens was considered to be unquestionable, yet genocides and other crimes against humanity committed by the state actors exercising state power against its own citizens were committed. This had showed that there is a need for guarantees on a preferably higher level.

Thus the international community started to take action in the protection of the general values that will later on be classified under the term ‘human rights’.

Monopolization of ideas, religion, order

We can see from our history that some states tried to monopolize the control over ideas and religions in order to control the society. But borders could not stop ideas, traditions, innovation, cooperation, beliefs, etc.

Antoine Buyse states that according to social scientists societies that are open are more successful economically and socially. And the exclusion and discrimination of specific groups, women, ethnic minorities, religious groups, or the poor is harmful, not just to those groups themselves, but also to society as a whole.

As Karl Poppes highlighted democracy as the only option to give space for an open society, and in order to have full democracy specific values and expectations were laid down:

  • right to vote (e.g. to stand as a candidate, to cast your vote)
  • freedom of expression (e.g. to express opinion freely, to vote freely)
  • freedom of media (e.g. to get information, and to be informed)
  • freedom of assembly (e.g. to organize or join political parties)

Just to mention a couple examples.

About the ECHR

The European Convention on Human Right was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950 and it was among the first international tools in the world. Entered into force in 1953.

Up to date it has 47 State Parties, all members of the Council of Europe, and 27 of it’s members are also Member States of the European Union.

In it’s preamble it is highlighted the important relation between democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

The Convention entered into force on the 3rd of September 1953 and it is considered to be the most advanced and successful international instrument protecting human rights. It has 11 additional protocols.

It has a court: the European Court of Human Rights,  The decisions of the court are final and binding.

Achievements of the ECHR

Some of the achievemnts of the European Court on Human Rights:

  • Abolition of the death penalty
  • Strengthening of human rights
  • Non-discrimination and the fight against racism
  • Upholding freedom of expression
  • Gender equality
  • Protection of children’s rights
  • Defence of cultural diversity


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *