Minister for Europe, Foreign and Commonwealth Office,United Kingdom
representing the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers
on the occasion of the second part of the 2012 Ordinary Session
of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (Strasbourg, 23-27 April 2012)
I am delighted to be back in Strasbourg to address this Assembly for the second time on behalf of the UK chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers.
I pay tribute to your valuable work since January: the comprehensive observations of the presidential elections in the Russian Federation, the statement of your Standing Committee on the deeply troubling situation in Syria, and, Mr President, your visit to the Republic of Moldova; and much more besides. You continue to play a key role in keeping this Organisation politically relevant
It was European parliamentarians like yourselves at the first session in August 1949, who debated the issues of human rights. Winston Churchill addressed your predecessors then and said “We are meeting here in this new Assembly not as representatives of our different countries or different political parties but as Europeans marching forward, hand in hand”. We have witnessed the transformation of Europe since, which has led to 47 of us present here today.
Committee of Ministers Political Questions
I want to speak to you first about issues which have come to the Committee of Ministers since I spoke to you in January.
Outside our membership, the human rights situation in Belarus remains a matter of deep concern within the Committee of Ministers. In March, the Committee was unanimous in adopting a statement deploring the execution of the two young men alleged to have carried out the bombing of the Minsk metro in April last year. While we condemn the act of terrorism that caused the deaths and injuries of so many, we were deeply concerned about the flawed nature of the trial.
As the Committee indicated in its statement, in proceeding with these executions the Belarusian authorities ignored one of the basic values of the Council of Europe, the respect for human life. Such acts run counter to our common objective to bring Belarus closer to the Council of Europe.
I am greatly relieved that ex-presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov has been freed together with his campaign chief, Dmitry Bondarenko. I sincerely hope that these releases mark the beginning of a resolution to release all of Belarus’ political prisoners. The establishment of closer relations will only be possible if the Belarusian authorities demonstrate a clear will to respect the fundamental values of our Organisation.
Belarus’s citizens are not the only people of Europe who fail to benefit from the oversight of the Council of Europe; the people of Kosovo are also left outside. The UK’s position on Kosovo’s status is absolutely clear and very well known, and we acknowledge that this position is not shared by all.
However, despite our differences on status, we should – and I believe we do – all agree that the people of Kosovo should benefit from greater involvement by the Council of Europe. The mission of this organisation, to promote our values across the European continent, can never be realised if we prevent direct and meaningful contact between the Council of Europe’s staff and the Kosovo authorities.
I wish to pay tribute to the tireless work of your rapporteur on Kosovo, Mr Von Sydow. It is on the basis of the pragmatic recommendation – 1923 (2010) - that he drafted, and which you all adopted, that discussions on the intergovernmental side of this house have been able to make progress. This is a difficult issue, but we must find a sensible and pragmatic way for the Council of Europe to operate in a meaningful manner in Kosovo.
To return to our 47 member states, in the Republic of Moldova, the election by Parliament on 16 March of Mr Nicolae Timofti as President of the Republic of Moldova has been an important political step after almost three years of stalemate. The visit of your President in the wake of the election acknowledges this.
The UK Chairmanship hopes that Mr Timofti's election will provide the stability required for the Moldovan Government to advance its ambitious programme of political, economic and social reforms and for further progress to be made in achieving a sustainable solution on Transnistria. On this latter point, the Committee of Ministers adopted in February a new programme for confidence-building measures across the river Nistru/Dniester , following a visit to the Council of Europe by Mr Eugen Carpov, Vice-Prime Minister of the Republic of Moldova.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, the failure to implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Sejdic and Finci was twice discussed by the Committee of Ministers in March. The Committee deeply regretted that the Joint Interim Commission, which has been set up to present proposals for the constitutional and legislative amendments required by this judgment, had failed to make tangible progress in its work.
The Committee strongly urged the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina to take the necessary measures to execute this judgment without any further delay, and agreed to come back to this matter at one of its forthcoming human rights meetings. We hope the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina heed the warnings on non-implementation from the resolution you adopted in January. The Committee will follow with particular attention the exchange which the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mr Zlatko Lagumdzija, will have with your Assembly on Wednesday.
As far as the Russian Federation is concerned, the Committee of Ministers approved in March a new co-operation programme between the Council of Europe and the Russian Federation for the Chechen Republic. This programme will include training and awareness-raising activities on issues concerning the protection and promotion of human rights, countering threats to the rule of law and ensuring justice. A second component will focus on the promotion of democratic governance at local level.
The Committee has also approved an action plan outlining the assistance the Council will provide to Armenia. The 2012 to 2014 action plan will help support Armenia in fulfilling its statutory obligations and its specific commitments within the Organisation.
The priority areas of the plan include, amongst other areas, work to support free and fair elections.
The upcoming Parliamentary elections on 6 May will be a test of the progress made so far and an opportunity for closer integration with the EU. The invitation of observers, including from your Assembly, is a good start. I wish Baroness Nicholson, who will head your observation mission, a very successful visit.
Elsewhere, the development of a more proactive relationship with countries neighbouring the Council of Europe area has continued since my last address in January. The Committee of Ministers has now approved a number of priorities for co-operation with Morocco and Tunisia and similar priorities are being developed for Kazakhstan and Jordan. These priorities focus on areas where the Council of Europe can add real value and expertise.
As the question of equality between women and men will be discussed by your Assembly tomorrow under the item titled “a condition for the success of the Arab spring”, I would like to underline that the neighbourhood co-operation priorities with both Morocco and Tunisia include a specific chapter on the promotion of gender equality and the prevention of violence against women.
The documents also include a chapter on co-operation between the Moroccan Parliament and the Tunisian authorities and your Assembly. There is no doubt that you can provide a wealth of advice on the functioning of parliamentary institutions, and we must not forget it was your body that took the first step through the creation of your “Partner for Democracy” status.
I cannot talk about the spreading of the Council of Europe’s values to our neighbourhood without mentioning Syria. It is now more than a year ago that the Syrian people flooded onto the streets in an effort to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly, with aspirations for a democratic future, rights and values which the Council of Europe holds dear.
But, these aspirations are being brutally crushed by the Syrian regime: the UN estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed, including many children. I urge Council members to offer their full support to the efforts of Joint UN/Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan, as he tries to find a way to end the violence and facilitate a Syrian-led political transition.
The Syrian regime has also been accused of perpetrating widespread and systematic human rights violations, including torture and rape of men, women and children. The Commission of Inquiry has said that this amounts to crimes against humanity. The UK is clear that President Assad’s actions mean he has lost legitimacy and must step aside. He must understand that his actions have consequences.
One of these consequences is the need to ensure accountability. I urge Council members to work with the Commission of Inquiry, to ensure that evidence of human rights violations and abuses is collected and appropriately stored so that it can be used to hold the perpetrators to account.
The crisis is also having a severe impact on one of our own members, Turkey. I pay tribute to the Turkish authorities for their important role on the international stage. An organisation founded on respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy should not sit silently while this happens on our doorstep, and I am glad that it has not done so.
UK chairmanship priorities
But this is by no means all that we, my fellow Ministers in the Committee of Ministers, and you have been doing since we last spoke. Our work to reform the European Court of Human Rights brings to a conclusion the process set out at Interlaken and Izmir, which culminated in last week’s Brighton Declaration.
This step towards strengthening the Convention system followed two months of challenging negotiation. In the Declaration the member States re-affirmed their commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights. And they expressed their shared commitment to the right of individual petition, as well as to the primary responsibility of the States Parties for the implementation of the Convention.
The Declaration contains a range of measures to secure the future of the Court and the Convention. We must now proceed to implement these measures quickly and effectively. Those involved in the process must continue to work together in a spirit of co-operation to ensure in particular that the necessary amendments to the Convention are adopted by the end of 2013; and that the further consideration of important subjects called for in the Declaration is carried out effectively.
The other UK chairmanship priorities have also helped draw attention to key areas of the Council of Europe’s work.
Rule of law
On 2 March, the UK held a conference to look at the Rule of Law at Lancaster House in London. This work is a partnership with the Venice Commission and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. The Parliamentary Assembly also took part in the conference. As a result, the Venice Commission is drawing up a checklist for governments on how to ensure compliance with the rule of law. It is also developing practical guidelines which will add value to the work of policy makers and legislators tasked with drafting and passing laws across Europe and beyond.
Another key priority for us has been to support the Council of Europe’s work in tackling discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights have helped to improve standards across Europe.
In 2010 the Committee of Ministers adopted its ground-breaking Recommendation with the most far-reaching international standards on this topic. I am pleased that your new Committee on Equal Opportunities and Non Discrimination has a remit to progress broader equality issues, including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights. And last year, the Council of Europe secretariat was able to establish a Unit to promote LGBT rights thanks to voluntary contributions from certain partner countries, including the United Kingdom.
On 27 March the UK’s Equality Minister hosted a successful conference in Strasbourg which was widely attended including by Ministers from member states as well as by the Chair of your Committee on Equal Opportunities and Non Discrimination. This provided an opportunity to discuss a number of practical issues such as tackling discrimination in the workplace and prejudice-based violence and hate crime against LGBT people, as well as possible steps to advance transgender equality.
Local and regional democracy
As another priority, we have aimed to add value to the Council of Europe’s activities in support of local and regional democracy, through moving forward the process which led to the unanimous adoption of the Chaves report at the Kyiv Ministerial conference. This highlighted the benefits that greater coordination and cooperation between the activities of the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress and governments could yield.
The UK hosted a High Level Meeting at Lancaster House on 13 February where we discussed these ideas and, again, we were pleased the Parliamentary Assembly took part in this meeting. Taking full account of this discussion, our aim is to produce a roadmap for more streamlined handling of local and regional democracy activities, enabling greater focus and coordination between the actors.
Freedom of expression on the internet
I have noted with particular interest that the question of the protection of freedom of expression on the internet will be on your agenda on Wednesday. This, along with internet governance, has been another priority for us. The United Kingdom strongly supports an open internet, one which is accessible by all, one which allows all legal content and application, and one which champions freedom of expression.
We were very pleased that, in March, the Committee of Ministers adopted the Council of Europe Strategy on Internet Governance. This will be carried out over a four year period through a multi-stakeholder approach based on co-operation between governments, the private sector and civil society.
The UK has also committed £100,000 to the Council of Europe’s Global Project on Cybercrime. The project is now in its third phase after having already supported over 250 activities worldwide to promote global implementation of the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime.
Other human rights issues
Of other human rights issues which have come to the Committee of Ministers, the more general question of freedom of expression and information and of the protection of journalists was twice on the agenda over the last few months. The relevant Steering Committee has been invited to examine possible initiatives to be taken within the framework of the Council of Europe to strengthen the protection of journalists and other media professionals, taking into account the work conducted by other international organisations, as well as to foster ethical journalism, and to report back in due course.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
And we look forward to a fruitful co-operation with the new Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Nils Muižnieks, elected by you last January.
Human Rights Trust Fund
I am also pleased to confirm that the UK has contributed over €300,000 to the Human Rights Trust Fund.
In conclusion, I am sorry to say that this will probably be my last address to you on behalf of the UK as chair of the Committee of Ministers. As Benjamin Disraeli said “The secret to success is constancy of purpose” and I am proud to quote the British Statesman whose parliamentary constituency I now represent. Let us parliamentarians, whether in the Committee of Ministers or the Parliamentary Assembly, continue to be constant of purpose. Thank you.