Strasbourg, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's conference was meant to take stock of the commission's work over a decade of fighting racism and intolerance.
But with last week's train bombings in Madrid fresh in everyone's minds, terrorism emerged as a key theme.
Delegates heard how terrorist attacks help racism to flourish, as Council of Europe chief Walter Schwimmer put it.
Nowadays, racism is often not based on a person's color, but on their culture or religion.
"Terrorist attacks provide fertile ground for nurturing extremism, intolerance, and racism, which take hold insidiously like an illness which is diagnosed only after its effects have become visible -- that means too late," Schwimmer said.
The effect is not just seen in the reactions of ordinary people, who sometimes misdirect their anger at groups like Arabs or Muslims. Governments are also showing less tolerance in the guise of beefing up security, and this can backfire, says Peter Schieder, the head of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.
"What the schemers of terror are trying to achieve is to provoke disproportionate and indiscriminate reaction. They want to provoke us into disregarding our own fundamental values, and sometimes, regrettably, they succeed. They want to blur the line between just and unjust, decent and indecent, human and inhuman. When this happens, the terrorists are giving the opportunity to declare their cynical 'I told you so' to all those who bear a political, social, economic, or religious grudge," Schieder said.
Human rights groups have repeatedly voiced concerns that some countries, in the wake of the 11 September attacks, ushered in security measures that have disproportionately targeted Muslims.
In the United Kingdom, hundreds of Muslims have been detained on terrorism suspicions, and several foreign terror suspects have been held without charge for more than two years. In Germany, Muslims have had their houses searched and their personal data screened.
Aaron Rhodes is executive director of the International Helsinki Federation, a human rights group. He says measures like these serve to reinforce existing prejudices. And he says he's worried that something similar may happen in the wake of the Madrid bombings, which killed 201 people.
"I'm concerned, and the human rights community is concerned. Law enforcement bodies have to do their job, protect citizens, but also do this in a way that doesn't stigmatize any group or in a way that [doesn't] contribute to alienation or create more opportunities for terrorists. It's in the interests of the security of Europe to foster social peace with minority groups," Rhodes said.
ECRI officials say the Madrid bombings -- as well as this week's violence in Kosovo -- prove the importance of their work and the work of similar bodies.
"The greater the degree of prejudice in our societies, the greater the chance the reaction to terror will be inappropriate, misdirected, and wrong. Racism and intolerance are the quislings [traitors] of terror. This is why the work of ECRI is so important," Schieder said.
The commission was set up a decade ago to monitor racism in Europe, and to issue reports and recommendations to the Council of Europe's members.
The ECRI says that, since then, racism has evolved, becoming a "mutating bacteria." Nowadays, racism is often not based on a person's color, but on their culture or religion.
The body is also working on recommendations concerning how countries can enhance security without being discriminatory or eroding human rights.
Michael Head is the chairman of the ECRI. "The [recommendations] will, for example, list those areas about which one should be particularly careful, maintaining freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of speech [and] also the importance of due process...to keep stressing that we are trying to strike an even balance," Head said.
But he says there's only so much that groups like the ECRI can do. If a government chooses to ignore criticism or recommendations in the name of national interest, he says, it will.