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Address by Mr Gianni Buquicchio, President of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission)

Yerevan, 19-21 October 2010

Mr Nalbandian, distinguished Armenian hosts, Ladies and Gentlemen,

For two days Yerevan has been the centre of intense discussions and exchange of ideas about one of the most demanding topics of our time: the power and the vulnerability of democracy and its evolution in the modern world.

At this point in our discussions, just before the closing session, let me recall that democracy was invented more than 2000 years ago as a response to local needs in the city of Athens and has evolved into a codified form of government that serves as a generally accepted standard for legitimate political authority, virtually across the globe.

The reasons that explain this successful development are multiple and diverse. Among others, it is the simplicity of its appeal and power:

The essence of democracy is about “rule by the people”, about who participates in the decision-making process and how. As a mechanism of self-determination, democracy must be based on the freely expressed will of the people, through fair and free elections, with free information, opinion, expression, association and assembly. In a democratic society, the rights, interests and voice of minorities, and vulnerable and disadvantaged groups must be safeguarded. Human rights norms, with their emphasis on governmental accountability and the rights of the individual, are thus an essential part of the democratisation process.

Democracy is also a matter of good rules and procedures. In order to give effect to the democratic principles and the standards contained in human rights instruments, it is necessary to have strong institutions, based on the rule of law, including an accountable executive, an elected legislature and an independent judiciary. The substance of good democratic government cannot be achieved without sound constitutional law and good practice.

Last but not least, the reality of democracy depends on various social and cultural factors, such as the existence of an active and pluralist civil society, as well as a political and legal culture supportive of constitutional regulations.

Mr Nalbandian, distinguished Armenian hosts, Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is no single model of democracy or democratic institutions. The ideal of democracy is rooted in past and emerging philosophies and traditions from all parts of the world. The choices to be made are affected by the political and constitutional tradition and the state of political and legal culture of the country in question.

Over the last two centuries, and especially in the past 20 years, constitutional representative democracy has been extensively tested out in a wide variety of settings, with a varying degrees of success.

The Venice Commission has witnessed several of these attempts. It has assisted in a complex, at times exciting, often painful process of development of country-specific solutions. There does not exist two recent European constitutions which are alike. For example, if several States have adopted forms of government which may be called “semi-presidential”, the actual constitutional arrangements are very different and are indeed unique.

This variety represents one of the richnesses of Europe. These different choices and models make up the constitutional heritage of Europe, which the Venice Commission proudly advocates as a fundamental feature of our continent.

As proud as we may be of the democratic achievements of our continent so far, Europe must not rest on its laurels: democracy is never fully achieved, and is never forever achieved. Constitutions may and must be perfected. Societies need to face the new challenges with which they are continually faced.

As our debates have shown, there is no room for complacency. A crisis of democracy seems to be marking the beginning of the XXI century: Transition processes slowing down or reversing, increasing intolerance against immigrants, a decline in democratic trust towards representative institutions and increasing lack of citizens’ confidence in the international and European organisations. The recent global economic crisis is having an additional negative impact on the institutions. These trends also work in favour of extremist thougths and approaches.

None of these challenges can be met unless we act together. And no common action will be possible if we don’t seek involvement of all those concerned.

Mr Nalbandian, distinguished Armenian hosts, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe that the Council of Europe has an important role to play when it comes to achieving democracy. Three Council of Europe events which take place this week confirm this.

First of all, this Forum: thanks to the commitment of our Armenian hosts, this important event aims at assessing what we have achieved in terms of democracy, with a view to providing impetus for the challenges to come. It is a unique opportunity to focus on existing deficiencies and shortcomings and identify ways to stimulate co-ordinated action needed to tackle them.

Secondly, the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights : an occasion to support this fundamental text with its mechanism which is so vital to the survival of the community of values of Europe. A support which is unconditional but not acritical: the Council of Europe has taken up the challenge of adapting the Convention to a “public” of more than 800 millions Europeans; it is still struggling with it, but will not give up and will continue to deliver human rights justice to its citizens in the best possible way. The discussions of these days at the Forum on the impact of the European Court on Human Rights case-law on shaping democracy confirm that the reflection is continuing.

Thirdly, the High-level meeting on the situation of the Roma: the Council of Europe takes the leadership in tackling this issue which touches the core of the European values. It shows what values the Council of Europe stands for and shows that a constructive attitude is possible. It is thanks to the farsighted leadership and the inspiring vision of our Secretary General , Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, that the Council of Europe is asserting itself as Europe’s core of values, intellectual and human acquis, experience, know-how in the field of democracy, human rights, the rule of law.

Mr Nalbandian, distinguished Armenian hosts, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This European heart should not go wasted. It should not go lost.

If European States are left alone facing the terrible challenges which are ahead, they might succomb the temptation to choose the easy way out: the way consisting in renouncing their values and choosing security or welfare over human rights, democracy, the rule of law. States must not be left alone, and the Council of Europe pledges for supporting them and federating all the European States in the fight.

In this most important mission we should wish ourselves the best of luck. We have done it before - we can do it again.

Thank you for your attention.