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Parliamentary Assembly Session: 25 to 29 January 2010

Communication on the activities of the Committee of Ministers

Address by Ms Micheline Calmy-Rey, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, to the Parliamentary Assembly (Strasbourg, 25 January 2010)

I feel highly honoured to have this opportunity to address you today during this plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly to make my first report in my capacity as Chair of the Committee of Ministers. Two months ago, I had the opportunity to set out to your Assembly’s Standing Committee, which was meeting in Bern, Switzerland’s priorities during my term of office. I have subsequently been able to gauge the importance and extent of the work done by the Council of Europe.

In order for it to be effective, this work must be based on a perfect understanding between the various institutions that together form our Organisation. This is why I am happy to share with you the first two months of my term of office in the Chair and to discuss with you our plans for the next four months.

First, I should like to congratulate you, Mr President, on your election this very morning to lead this Assembly. I wish you every success in your exercise of this high responsibility, and I am delighted to be able to co-operate with you. I am sure that we shall continue along the path of constructive dialogue opened up by your predecessor, Mr Lluís Maria de Puig, to whom I should like to pay tribute for his great commitment.

I should like to start by taking a brief look back. When the previous Swiss chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers came to an end – having lasted from November 1991 to May 1992 – the continent of Europe had just experienced a period of historic upheaval. Spurred on by the Assembly, the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers at the time, my fellow-countryman René Felber, and the then Secretary General, Mrs Catherine Lalumière, had encouraged an inclusive approach, regarded as a bold one at the time, thanks to which this pan-European Organisation, as we know it today, came into being.

Since that time, the Council of Europe has become even more important for Switzerland. The main reason for this is certainly the fact that the Council of Europe upholds the same standards as those that are central to our political system: human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and democracy.

The rule of law is a key element in our approach. Authorities should submit to the law and not the other way round. With more than 200 conventions, the Council of Europe provides an essential contribution to creating a single legal across the whole continent. These conventions, with the European Convention on Human Rights as the cornerstone, form the basis of what we can call “the public European order”.

The Council of Europe is playing an irreplaceable role in the building of a single Europe. Its intergovernmental co-operation method is enriched by a prominent parliamentary dimension – so well represented by your Assembly – as well as by a regional and local dimension in the form of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, not forgetting civil society, represented through the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations.

Thus, the huge diversity of our continent is represented within a single institution. No organisation can claim to be more representative of all Europeans.

Managing this diversity is a challenge. It is natural for some differences of opinion to exist and for discussions to take place, some of them lively, especially in this Chamber. As a member of the federal government of a country that is itself hallmarked by great diversity, I am particularly sensitive to this aspect. Diversity is a rich asset that must be used to further the work that we are doing together. This is why the experience and viewpoint of each and every one of you is precious.

Allow me now to say a few words about the relations between the Committee of Ministers, which I chair, and the Parliamentary Assembly. It was intensive discussions with a joint delegation led by my Slovenian colleague, Samuel Zbogar, my predecessor in the chair of the Committee of Ministers, that enabled agreement to be reached on the election of a new Secretary General for the Council of Europe. Your spirit of co-operation and conciliation was vital in order to avoid a major institutional crisis which might well have tarnished our Organisation’s reputation.

Thanks to the combined efforts of your Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, new foundations were laid for better co-operation between our two bodies, while maintaining their respective responsibilities. We have, in the past few months, successfully established stronger relations and made good progress on clarifying the rules and procedures for future elections to the office of Secretary General. The Swiss chairmanship will continue to devote itself to this work and ensure that the measures identified for enhancing dialogue are diligently put into practice.

I personally participated in the discussions concerning the procedure for electing a new Secretary General and I hope to continue in this way so as to develop a constructive working relationship between the Committee of Ministers and your Assembly. To that end, it is my intention to organise another meeting in the near future between the Presidential Committee of the Assembly and the Bureau of the Ministers’ Deputies. I shall also continue my close contact with the Secretary General in respect of the report that is due to be presented by him on the enhancement of co-operation between our two bodies by October 2010.

A full report on this question and on the other activities of the Committee of Ministers since last October is presented to you in the written communication which has been distributed. I shall therefore confine myself to looking at certain subjects to which the chairmanship attaches particular importance.

We have just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Already in 1990 the Council of Europe welcomed Hungary, the first country from the former Eastern bloc. Others followed and the universality of the Council of Europe on our continent is almost achieved. Twenty years after these events, we are now facing political and economic challenges of a different nature, but no less important than those that were faced then. Globalisation has progressed rapidly, bringing together countries and continents, but especially men, women and children. They ask us to implement standards and laws that will be universal. If we want to be credible, we must ensure that the Council of Europe is resolutely safeguarding the rights and liberties of all Europeans.

I am well aware that in such a large organisation as the Council of Europe, six months is a very short time in which to deal with all aspects of the work. That is why I have such great respect for the work done by all constituent parts of the Council of Europe over the whole range of subjects, all of which are important when we talk about building on the primary objectives of the Organisation – human rights, the rule of law and democracy.

With regard to the priorities of our chairmanship, we have chosen to concentrate on three poles of work; protection of human rights and rule of law, strengthening of democratic institutions and enhancement of the Council of Europe’s transparency and effectiveness.

As to our first priority – safeguarding human rights and the rule of law – the major challenge to take up is clearly the future of the European Court of Human Rights, the flagship institution of the Council of Europe. It seems to us essential to ensure not only that the Court has at its disposal the budgetary and human resources needed for it to continue performing its role to the full, but that its rules of operation should enable it to discharge its tasks with all due competence but celerity too.

Here, a most important stride was made, 10 days ago, with the approval for ratification of Protocol No. 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights by the Russian State Duma. This decision now leaves the path open for its entry into force. I welcome this, and see in it the successful outcome of the joint efforts made by your Assembly and by the Committee of Ministers.

The entry into force of Protocol No. 14 will enable the Court to discharge its tasks more efficiently. Given the delay in the disposal of applications – some 120 000 applications are currently waiting to be dealt with – the entry into force of Protocol No. 14 represents a big breath of air for the Court, thanks to the improvements which it will make to its functioning.

With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, this protocol also paves the way for the European Union’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. I am glad about President Barroso’s announcement that it would be one of his priorities, made when he met the Secretary General shortly after the latter took office. It is now important to press ahead quickly so that it becomes a reality. We support these efforts because as soon as the European Union is party to the Convention, we will have more legal safeguards, and the Strasbourg Court will become the highest body in human rights protection.

Even so, we are all aware that the measures embodied in Protocol No. 14 will not suffice to vanquish the Court’s difficulties over the handling of the very bulky mass of pending cases. We must look beyond and try to introduce a long-term strategy that will guarantee the Court’s effective and sustainable action for the protection of human rights throughout the continent.

Bringing legislation at the national level into line with the European Convention on Human Rights, and proper application by national jurisdictions of the Court’s case law to stem the flow of cases towards the Court on the upstream side, appear essential in this regard.

As you know, we are organising a high-level conference on the future of the European Court of Human Rights on 18 and 19 February 2010 in Interlaken. We rely on the co-operation and commitment of all member states to put in hand the reforms which are indispensable for the Court’s future as guardian of fundamental rights and freedoms in Europe. The President of your Assembly has been invited to this conference, and I thank him for his favourable response, as have the members of the Swiss parliamentary delegation.

In Interlaken, it will be essential for the political leaders to speak with one voice in order to lend the necessary political impetus to the realisation of the goals set. To achieve this end, we are engaged in consultations with the member state governments for the preparation of a draft political declaration that the Ministers present in Interlaken may adopt.

In order to ensure that the draft declaration is a broadly based as possible, we have also consulted your Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, as well as the non-governmental organisations. I would recall here in your presence the crucial importance of the national parliaments for the preservation of the system of human rights safeguards in Europe.

The Interlaken declaration will need to lay down the guidelines for an in-depth reform guaranteeing the long-term effectiveness of the individual petitions system. We know that this kind of reform process will take time, but unless we set it in motion now the results of this process are liable to come too late to save the Court. That is why, in Interlaken, the member states will need to send out a loud and clear political signal by tracing the path to be pursued later by the experts in the relevant Council of Europe committees. We count on the co-operation and commitment of all states to achieve it.

While the Court is the cornerstone of the system for protecting human rights in Europe, the system does not yet reach all Europeans. That is why we shall carry on the endeavours of our predecessors for closer ties with Belarus. In this matter, I consider co-ordination with your Assembly’s activities necessary as regards the rapprochement in progress. I am convinced that our efforts converge in a joint approach for the future accession of this country, which is part of the European family.

Besides this essential question, the Committee of Ministers continues the efforts towards rapprochement by following a variety of avenues. One concerns the accession of Belarus to certain Council of Europe conventions. Accordingly, the Committee of Ministers will very soon consider the request by Belarus to accede to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. We also continue to work for Belarusian civil society, particularly through the Info Point inaugurated in Minsk in June 2009.

The Swiss chair and the entire Committee of Ministers sincerely hope that the agreement to set up the Info Point will be renewed before it expires this coming March. The Swiss chair also hopes that a solution regarding a more stable and long-term Council of Europe presence can be found.

The second main strand of the Swiss chairmanship’s priorities deals with strengthening of democratic institutions in the Council of Europe member states. Democracy, with human rights and rule of law, represents one of the fundamental values of the Council of Europe. A special role in the promotion of grassroots democracy falls to civil society acting inter alia at the local and regional levels as well as elsewhere. Consequently, there is a need to foster means of enabling citizens of both sexes to participate, to build the democratic authorities’ management capability, and to encourage good governance at every tier. Democracy, whether at national, regional or local level, is an essential trait of governance in Europe.

To reinforce the democratic idea, Switzerland will organise in conjunction with the University of St Gallen and the Venice Commission a conference on the theme of democracy and decentralisation on 3 and 4 May 2010.

The aim of the conference is to provide a platform for the representatives of the member states of the Council of Europe and for known personalities of science, politics and civil society where they can delve into various aspects of democracy, decentralisation and participation, and pool their experiences. I hope to be able to welcome a large number of you at this conference.

Reinforcement of democratic structures is an important part of Council of Europe co-operation and assistance activities in its member states. Switzerland financially supports the Council of Europe project to enhance local and regional government structures in Albania.

Last week, the Committee of Ministers approved an action plan intended to support the general elections scheduled in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the current year. Alignment of the constitution and the electoral law of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the European Convention on Human Rights is a particularly important and urgent matter in this context, following the important judgment recently delivered on this issue by the Strasbourg Court. The Committee of Ministers has firmly encouraged the country’s authorities to call upon the Venice Commission for assistance in completing this task.

Our attention also focused recently on boosting co-operation activities with Moldova. Just a few days ago, the Committee of Ministers approved a “democracy package” of aid to the strengthening of institutions, and a set of proposed confidence-building measures for the Transnistria region. We will follow very closely and regularly evaluate progress made in these activities.

As you know, we also examine the situation in Georgia on a regular basis. Consideration of the consequences of the conflict in August 2008 appears on the agenda of all Ministers’ Deputies meetings. A full review of the Organisation’s action has been made, and we held a discussion on the direction to be given to subsequent stages of this action at the handover meeting of the chairmanship on 18 November 2009. The Committee of Ministers will come back to this question very soon, in the light of the proposals which we shall be receiving from the Secretary General.

I can assure you that the Swiss Chair assigns a high priority to the situation in Georgia. That is why I made a point of going there personally last week. On this occasion, I commented on the one hand on the commitments entered into by Georgia, on accession to the Council of Europe and, on the other, on the humanitarian consequences of the conflict of August 2008.

Indeed, I stressed the importance of the dedication of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Hammarberg, whose action over the last few months has centered on access to the regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia and on cases of imprisoned or missing persons. I encouraged my Georgian contacts to keep up support for his efforts and proposed on behalf of the Council of Europe to make experts available to assist in the search for missing persons.

In this connection I should also like to thank Mrs Jonker, the Rapporteur of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, for drawing to our attention the humanitarian situation arising from the war between Georgia and Russia.

Observation of the human rights situation in the territories affected by the conflict is certainly a contribution which the Council of Europe could make. Finally, I called upon the authorities to complete the exchange of prisoners and of victims’ remains with the other parties to the conflict.

Lately, the result of a Swiss federal referendum caused a great stir in Switzerland, in the Council of Europe member states and further afield.

I am speaking, obviously, about the referendum that resulted in a ban on building minarets in Switzerland, a decision taken by 57.5% of voters following a popular initiative launched in accordance with the Swiss Constitution by a group of citizens. The government and parliament had recommended the refusal of the initiative. This ballot is probably an expression of fears and anxieties, enflamed by the universal presence of extremist images and misdeeds.

I am convinced that the majority of my fellow citizens who expressed their opinion, nearly two months ago now, have not turned against the Muslim community settled in our country. Indeed, Muslims in Switzerland – some 400 000 – are generally well integrated in Swiss society, which as you know is itself marked by great cultural and religious diversity. Men and women among the Muslims so wishing may continue to attend the country’s 200 or so mosques, since only the construction of new minarets is henceforth prohibited in Switzerland, not the construction of new mosques.

None the less, we remain concerned by this vote which might be seen as a slight to the co-existence of different cultures and religions and might be construed as a lack of tolerance likely to cause provocations, to fuel extremism. The question to be resolved concerns us all, Council of Europe member countries, whatever our religious differences and our choice of society. I consider that the fears and prejudices which appeared during the campaign must be frankly confronted.

Should an admissible application be lodged with the European Court of Human Rights, it will be for the Court to decide whether the new Swiss constitutional provision is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. If it comes to that, we shall have to draw the inferences which any state respecting the Court’s authority has a duty to make from its judgments.

Finally, I come to the third chapter of our priorities headed “increasing the transparency and efficiency of the Council of Europe”.

Our Organisation performs an irreplaceable role in building a wider Europe without dividing lines, as was emphasised by the Heads of State and Government at the Warsaw Summit. It is essential, in the present institutional and international context, to make the Council of Europe as effective and efficient as possible. That presupposes an overhaul of its programme of activities with a view to greater impact and greater visibility, and to its meeting the present challenges that face our societies still more effectively.

But be reassured, the Swiss chair has no ambition for upheaval in our Organisation. On the contrary, we are determined to do our utmost to ensure sustainable financing of the expenditure linked with the operation of the Council of Europe and of its activities. The Secretary General, Mr Jagland, will put to you his proposals before the end of day.

Nobody casts doubt on the quality of the work done by the Council of Europe, or on the importance of the fields in which it is engaged. What is at stake is the role which our Organisation must perform in the present context which, as we have just seen, has undergone significant changes. The end of the Cold War and the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the iron curtain are among the historical changes which have shaped the life of our continent in the political redesign which has gone on for 20 years.

Besides this – and perhaps every bit as importantly, above all when we contemplate the future of the Council of Europe – there is the intensification of international co-operation in an ever larger number of fields. The process of European integration, which came to be coupled with the intergovernmental co-operation carried on most notably by the Council of Europe since the 1950s, has enjoyed constant and considerable development.

Thus, the majority of Council of Europe member states are now part of the European Union. With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the integration of the 27 has gained a fresh quality. The Union now possesses legal personality and so will be able to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The success of this integration process, which is in the best interests of our continent, is also fully significant for the Council of Europe. It seems to me essential that we ponder together the role that it behoves our Organisation to perform in the present context. What are the assets and abilities that the Council of Europe will be able to bring into play? This question should in my opinion be asked before any other: what is the added value that the Council of Europe can offer today? What difference can it make to the lives of Europeans?

The Council of Europe is the sole pan-European organisation capable of setting credible standards in crucial areas with an unarguable practical bearing for the citizens of Europe.

The need for probing strategic reflection about the Organisation’s future is also dictated by the dearth of resources. If we are to ensure sustainable funding of the Organisation and of its activities, when we are facing a difficult budgetary situation, it is imperative that we scrutinise its mode of operation and its structures. I am glad to see that the Secretary General made this question his priority as soon as he took office, and that the member state governments, through the Ministers’ Deputies, signified their support to him.

I know I can rely on the backing of your Assembly to effect this task that will enable our Organisation to perform a strengthened, lasting role on the international scene. Switzerland sees in the Council of Europe an important agent in the consolidation of a democratic Europe, united around the values of human rights, democracy and rule of law thanks to its impressive standard-setting attainments and to its tools for monitoring the member states’ honouring of their commitments. We must give the Council of Europe the means to continue fulfilling this fundamental mission.

By way of conclusion, I wish to tell you that I am extremely pleased to be able to work with you and to meet with you again on the occasion of your next session at the end of April.

Thank you for your attention, and I remain at your disposal to answer your questions.