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26 April 2010
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to be addressing you again in my capacity as Chair of the Committee of Ministers, a fortnight before the Swiss chairmanship draws to a close at the ministerial session on 11 May, here in Strasbourg.
Rest assured that the challenges presented by this chairmanship are something I continue to relish and, most importantly, treat with the utmost respect. I spend a great deal of time on them as a member of the Swiss federal government and foreign affairs minister. And I do so gladly and willingly, because of the close connection I feel to the Council of Europe and my belief that I can help move it forward.
Before briefly summarising the main activities and developments, allow me to share with you my feeling that the Council of Europe has been going through a rather intense, at times difficult, yet interesting few years. Among the public at large, there are signs of renewed interest.
Since my first report, last January, there has been significant progress on a number of important fronts, which I would now like to share with you. As usual, you will find a full report on the Committee of Ministers’ activities since last January in my written communication, copies of which have been distributed.
I would like to begin with a few words about the excellent working relations established between the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, as regards enhanced dialogue and co-operation between the two bodies. Thanks to the joint efforts of your Assembly and of the Committee of Ministers, we have managed to adopt, well ahead of schedule, the joint interpretative statement on rules and procedures for the future elections of the Secretary General, clear proof that the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers have become genuinely closer and that working relations have improved.
In my view, the format of the meetings between the Assembly’s Presidential Committee and the Bureau of the Committee of Ministers has been a major factor in fostering better understanding, allowing informal dialogue to take place in a frank and constructive atmosphere. That, at any rate, was my feeling after the meeting I held on 18 March in Paris. And we will be holding a second meeting in the same format this very afternoon, after I finish speaking.
My intention today is to draw your attention to a number of highlights of our chairmanship, as we have sought to implement our priorities and prepare for the 120th Ministerial Session.
Our top priority, as you know, is to promote the protection of human rights and the rule of law. In this respect, the Interlaken Conference on the future of the European Court of Human Rights on 18 and 19 February this year was an important milestone. It was undoubtedly the high point of our chairmanship and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Parliamentary Assembly, which was represented at senior level at the conference, for the invaluable contribution which it made to the event and which, I am sure, it will continue to make to future work.
The unanimous adoption of the “Interlaken Declaration” amounts to a firm political commitment to effective implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Our member states can be proud of how, in Interlaken, they once again helped to anchor human rights more firmly in European public life.
The measures adopted in the action plan are aimed first and foremost at securing more effective implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Court’s judgments by member states. These measures were unanimously approved by the 47 member states, most of which were represented by ministers or deputy ministers. The European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, was also present.
Another major achievement for the Council was the filing, during the conference, of the instruments of ratification of Protocol 14 by Russia’s Justice Minister. Russia has thus joined the other 46 member states which have already ratified the protocol, paving the way for its entry into force on 1 June this year. Thanks to this reform, we believe we can reduce the number of pending applications by some 10 per cent.
The Interlaken conference was organised by myself together with my federal government colleague, the head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police. As you know, Ms Widmer-Schlumpf is due to address you during this session, on Thursday 29 April.
The Interlaken conference was not an end in itself, however. Far from it, it was intended to mark the start of a more lengthy process of reform. Its aim is to make the protection mechanism provided by the European Convention on Human Rights as effective as possible and to support the Court’s efforts to improve its efficiency in the short term on the basis of established law.
I think we can safely say we have fulfilled the first part of our plan, with the unanimous adoption of the Interlaken Declaration and its action plan for achieving the goals set.
The next stage in the process is now in the hands of the Committee of Ministers, which has decided to steer the Interlaken process as a whole, in order to sustain the momentum provided by the conference, and has set up an ad hoc working group, answerable to it, to see this task through. The group has already met twice. The Parliamentary Assembly together with the Court, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Secretary General and other Council of Europe bodies are invited to contribute to the work of this group.
We very much hope to be able to finalise, in time for the 120th session of the Committee of Ministers, decisions on measures to be taken which do not require any amendments to the Convention and also on those set out in the Interlaken Declaration.
You were aware of my determination to make personal efforts to establish closer ties with Belarus on the basis of the values of our organisation.
You are also aware, of course, that this is a protracted process. Several chairmanships have already made efforts in this respect, albeit with mixed results. The following is a summary of the key points of my activities concerning Belarus:
On 5 February, at an informal meeting I had in Munich with my then Ukrainian counterpart, Mr Poroshenko, and my Belarusian counterpart, Mr Martynov, discussion took place about what the Council of Europe expected from Belarus and vice versa.
On 25 February, on the sidelines of the inauguration ceremony for the new Ukrainian President in Kyiv, I had a meeting with President Lukashenko. I explained to him that, in the context of my chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, we were continuing to make determined efforts to encourage Belarus to establish closer ties with our organisation and also again set out the conditions that had to be met in this connection, including the fact that the agreement on the Council of Europe information point in Minsk had to be extended by 15 March 2010 so that the office could remain open.
With regard to the main condition laid down by the Council of Europe – by both the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly – namely the abolition of the death penalty or, at least, a moratorium on its application, I said that I expected to receive positive signals in the near future.
I also pointed out that when the Parliamentary Assembly had decided in June 2009 to restore the Belarusian parliamentary delegation’s special guest status, it had laid down two conditions: firstly, a moratorium on the application of the death penalty and, secondly, the inclusion of members of the opposition, or at least independent parliamentarians, in the delegation. I also proposed to the President of Belarus that international observers be invited to the local elections due to be held at the end of this month.
Unfortunately, the dialogue suffered serious setbacks the following month, as all the signs are that the Belarusian authorities had two condemned prisoners executed around 18 March. So there is currently a major obstacle to closer relations. I strongly condemn these executions and urge the Belarusian authorities to order an immediate end to the application of the death penalty. I also joined with your President and the Secretary General in issuing a joint declaration on this issue.
We all know that this is a tricky issue which requires particularly close and effective co-ordination between the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Secretariat. We are therefore continuing to make efforts to get the process of moving Belarus closer to the Council of Europe moving again. Until the end of my chairmanship, I will continue to expect the country’s authorities to provide concrete signs of their political will to respect our values. Once again, I would make it clear that the announcement of the introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty, to be followed by its abolition, is the step which we still expect from Belarus.
In this respect, however, we are still faced with very conflicting signs. On the one hand, we have seen the execution of two people who had been sentenced to death in 2009 and, on the other, the positive reply by the National Assembly of Belarus last month to a proposal by your Assembly on the organisation of a seminar on the death penalty in Minsk, plus the renewal of the agreement on the Council of Europe information point.
Obviously, other efforts will have to be made by Belarus, for instance in terms of media freedom and freedom of association.
Naturally, the Committee of Ministers is continuing its efforts to support Belarusian civil society, in particular through the Council of Europe information point in Minsk. As I already said, we were pleased that the agreement setting it up, which was concluded for an initial one-year period ending in March 2010, was recently renewed for a further one-year period.
The Swiss Chairmanship’s priority is to help make sure that the Council of Europe’s fundamental objectives are achieved. Its efforts are also focusing on strengthening democratic institutions in Council of Europe member states.
This issue was one aspect of the latest report on the honouring of commitments by Georgia, which the Ministers’ Deputies discussed in March. I continue to take a very close interest in the situation in the country. I am pleased to be able to tell you that progress has been recorded in the implementation of reforms aimed at the protection of human rights, the rule of law and the functioning of democratic institutions.
However, efforts still need to be made in terms of promoting political dialogue between the government and the opposition and in areas such as electoral and constitutional reform, justice, prison reform and policies concerning national minorities.
In addition, as you are aware, the human rights consequences of the conflict in Georgia are among the Committee of Ministers’ priority concerns. The matter is on the agenda of all meetings of the Ministers’ Deputies. Along with the question of the Council of Europe’s action, it will also be among the points to be discussed at the ministerial session on 11 May.
During my visit to Georgia on 16 and 17 January, I underlined the key role which the Council of Europe can play in protecting and promoting human rights and humanitarian law following the conflict. I also indicated the Council’s willingness to do so. I already informed you of the steps taken on 25 January.
In March 2010, the Secretary General presented the Ministers’ Deputies with a new approach designed to raise the profile of the Council of Europe’s action. I welcome this and support it wholeheartedly, just as I support the outstanding work done by the Commissioner for Human Rights.
On the basis of the new plan he has drawn up, the Secretary General will shortly be submitting a report taking stock of the human rights situation in the areas affected by the conflict and suggesting possible additional measures to be taken by the organisation.
I should now like to turn to the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For several years, there have been difficulties concerning the commitments which the country made upon joining the Council of Europe in 2002. The necessary reforms to the constitutional and legal framework in Bosnia and Herzegovina have still not been completed.
The European Court of Human Rights’ judgment of 22 December 2009 in the case of Sejdic and Finci versus Bosnia and Herzegovina confirmed that some key provisions in the country’s Constitution are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The judgment comes on top of the assessment by the Committee of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s honouring of its commitments and the steps taken to help it implement those still outstanding, as well as the many efforts made by your Assembly.
Particularly great and urgent efforts must therefore be made to bring the country’s Constitution and electoral legislation into line with the European Convention on Human Rights and to address a number of other major problems. I therefore visited Sarajevo last week in order to remind the authorities and political leaders of the importance we attach to resolving the problems identified at the earliest opportunity.
As you are well aware, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is extremely complex, if not downright complicated. However, that must not be an excuse or a pretext for giving up. It is vital for the international community, above all the member states of the Council of Europe, to send a clear and unanimous message to Bosnia and Herzegovina so that it brings its Constitution and legislation into line with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights without further delay.
Given the significance and urgent nature of these reforms, I have proposed to the Committee of Ministers, in agreement with the Secretary General, that we discuss the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the informal meeting of the member countries’ foreign ministers on the occasion of the ministerial session on 11 May. I also believe we should adopt a declaration on Bosnia and Herzegovina to express our joint determination to support the country in the current situation, while urging it finally to carry out the long-awaited reforms.
In a somewhat different vein, albeit still in connection with promoting human rights and strengthening democracy, the Swiss Chairmanship has organised several events which I would like to mention here.
The first is the conference on “Learning and living democracy”, which reviewed activities in 2006-2009 and established future activities, and was held here in Strasbourg only a few days ago. This event was part of the Council of Europe’s programmes on education for democratic citizenship and human rights. It highlighted the role of education in furthering democracy and promoting human rights in our societies.
Next month the Committee of Ministers is due to discuss a new Council of Europe Charter on education for democratic citizenship and human rights. This non-binding text should become a reference point on the subject for the 47 member states of the Council of Europe.
In Tbilisi in mid-April, we held a conference attended by a very wide range of representatives of public authorities, parliamentarians, media professionals and NGO representatives on the theme of “Safeguarding media freedom in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine”. Our aim was to promote freedom of expression and information in these countries in accordance with Council of Europe standards and recommendations.
We are also only a few days away now from the conference which the Swiss Chairmanship is holding jointly with the Venice Commission and the University of St Gallen on 3 and 4 May 2010. It is on the subject of “democracy and decentralisation” and I hope that it will make an important and stimulating contribution to the realisation of the second goal of the Swiss Chairmanship, namely strengthening democratic institutions.
In St Gallen, the aim will be to pool the views and shared experience of representatives of government and civil society from all the member states and beyond, regardless of their degree of decentralisation. Accordingly, I look forward to you joining the discussions which will take place in ten days time. It will be motivated by a desire to get citizens more involved in the affairs of public authorities throughout the member states, despite the fact that not all member states have a long tradition of participatory democracy giving precedence to a democracy close to the citizen based on good governance at all levels of the state.
The third main focus of the Swiss Chairmanship’s priorities has been, as you know, the reform of the Council of Europe. The watchwords here are political relevance, impact and visibility. This issue will also be addressed at the 120th session of the Committee of Ministers in connection with the reform process launched by the Secretary General, Mr Jagland.
Just recently, on 21 April, the Secretary General submitted his proposals for priorities in 2011 to the Ministers’ Deputies, based on a plan he presented in January. As enhancing the transparency and efficiency of the Council of Europe has been one of the Swiss Chairmanship’s priorities, I entirely support the Secretary General’s proposals, which will help to achieve this key objective.
During the Chairmanship, I have also continued the work of consultation in common spheres between the Council of Europe and its international partners including, firstly, the EU, the United Nations and, in particular, the OSCE. In this connection, I have placed particular emphasis on the institutional links between the OSCE and the Council of Europe. On 5 March 2010, a “2 + 2” meeting was held in my home town, Geneva, involving the Chairmanships and the Secretaries General of both the Council of Europe and the OSCE. My discussions with Mr Saudabayev of Kazakhstan, with the much appreciated contribution of the Council of Europe Secretary General and his colleague from the OSCE, Mr Perrin de Brichambaut, focused on current and future co-operation between the Council of Europe and the OSCE, their respective priorities and co-operation in the field.
The 120th session of the Committee of Ministers will be an opportunity to review the main aspects of co-operation with the European Union. The crucial issue is, of course, the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights. I hope that the discussions currently under way in Brussels on the terms of reference to be given to the European Commission to negotiate this accession will rapidly yield results so that these negotiations and, ultimately, the accession of the Union to the Convention will very soon become a reality.
On 20 April 2010, the Ministers’ Deputies held an exchange of views with Mr Diego López Garrido, the Spanish Secretary of State for the European Union, representing the Spanish Presidency of the European Union. As a result of this discussion, the already well established links between the Council of Europe and the European Union were strengthened.
In conclusion, I would like to say how honoured Switzerland has been to contribute, over this intense and eventful period, to the Council of Europe’s political repositioning in the European architecture. I believe I can say that a revival of the Council of Europe has begun and, of course, I welcome this.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Parliamentary Assembly for its co-operation in the work of the Swiss Chairmanship over recent months. I would particularly like to highlight the constructive and convivial working relationship with you, President Çavuşoğlu, for which I would like to thank you most sincerely.
Please be assured that Switzerland will keep up its commitment to the Council of Europe and that it will support the countries that take over from it in the Chair of the Committee of Ministers. I thank you for your attention and am now ready to answer your questions.