Ref. :  000018430
Date :  2005-05-26
Language :  English
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The role of the Council of Europe in the new European institutional architecture

Speech by Maud de Boer Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Warsaw summit has just taken place. The Polish capital was the venue for the Council’s third summit (following Vienna in 1993 and Strasbourg in 1997), bringing together the heads of state and government of its 46 members. It was an important gathering and a solemn one given the commemoration of the end of the Second World War 60 years ago. It was also one celebrating the reunification of the continent which can at long last breathe again using “both lungs” as Pope John Paul II was fond of saying.

The Warsaw summit confirmed, above all, the core role of the Council of Europe: maintaining and promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, all of which are essential for stability and development. Implementing such fundamental principles is based on the key concept of collective and shared responsibility, on the standards drawn up in the Council and on the political and judicial mechanisms which ensure such standards are upheld and implemented.

There are many challenges facing the Council in applying these fundamental principles:

- First, the functioning of the European Court of Human Rights, seriously hampered by the large number of applications submitted each year, which could in the long-term undermine the effectiveness of the system.

- Another issue discussed at the summit concerned the functioning of democratic institutions and democracy as a whole, increasingly out of touch with citizens seeking new and diverse forms of participation more in keeping with today’s society. The Council intends to set up a Forum for the future of democracy which will look in detail at all democracy-related aspects: effectiveness, transparency, participation, education, etc.

- Third, our European societies are becoming increasingly more diverse: religions, languages and different cultures come together and sometimes meet head-on, often resulting in misunderstandings and opposition. The Council of Europe wishes to promote dialogue between our various cultures, as it is convinced that our differences are a rich source of mutual enrichment if they are firmly based on total respect for human rights and a clear policy of social cohesion and inclusion.

However, rather than dwelling on the matters discussed in Warsaw, the final declaration and action plan of which I have with me today, I would like to take this opportunity to speak to you first of all about the Council of Europe, and more specifically its role and what makes it unique, then to look at the challenges facing it in the broader and more complex context of the changing European institutional landscape, and lastly I would like us together to try and understand what all this means for the future and for your country.

I. THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE: A TRADITIONAL ORGANISATION BUT WITH AN INNOVATIVE SYSTEM OF TREATIES

The Council of Europe was founded on 5 May 1949, in the immediate aftermath of the war, as a practical response to the desire “never again” to experience the horrors of the Holocaust and the most barbaric crimes against humanity.

In response to such events and as an antidote to any possible repetition of such horrors, the Council of Europe has consistently sought to place the human dimension and defence of inalienable human rights at the very heart of its mission. This is the very foundation of all the Council’s action; all the activities it has undertaken in the course of its 50 plus years of existence have been based on the underlying conviction that unless there is respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law, there can be no stability, peace and progress for our societies.

The European Convention on Human Rights, drawn up in 1950, is the most significant illustration of the commitment of the member states of the time to go beyond declarations and set up a system of collective protection by means of a courageous, supra-national approach: the European Court of Human Rights. This Court can rule against contracting states where it finds that they are guilty of violating the rights protected under the Convention.

This was indeed a courageous move in the immediate post-war era. One sometimes wonders whether the same farsightedness and sense of responsibility could be shown today in order to address the many instances of serious human rights violations in Europe.

This means of protecting human rights – later to be supplemented by the European Social Charter and the Convention for the Prevention of Torture – is without a doubt one of the most innovative treaties in our organisation, and perhaps the one that makes it most well-known to the general public.

Nonetheless, the legal structure of the Council of Europe is that of a traditional intergovernmental organisation, where decisions are taken by representatives of its 46 member states, ie their Ministers of Foreign Affairs, whose deputies – sitting on the Committee of Ministers based in Strasbourg – have full powers in matters concerning the budget, the accession of new member states, policy guidelines, conclusion of conventions, adoption of recommendations, etc.

The Council’s second statutory organ is the Parliamentary Assembly.
The Assembly genuinely reflects all political complexions in the parliaments of member states, and can discuss any topic of interest to Europeans. It therefore has considerable freedom of action and plays a key role as a catalyst for the activities of the Committee of Ministers. Although it has no decision-making power, the Parliamentary Assembly performs a highly sensitive role, for example when a new country applies for membership.

On such occasions it analyses in depth that country’s intentions and undertakings before issuing an opinion that is then sent to the Committee of Ministers. The Assembly’s opinion contains all the conditions and obligations which the acceding state must honour and fulfil in order to become a member. Once the Committee of Ministers has given the green light, the Parliamentary Assembly continues its monitoring, keeping a close watch on how the new member state honours its commitments. This monitoring stage can last a long time: the road to democratic reform in some of our member states is full of pitfalls and obstacles of various sorts.

The Parliamentary Assembly’s public debates act as an important means of exerting pressure in order to guide the sometimes timid or inadequate steps taken by the authorities of new member states.

Over the years, our organisation has evolved and developed in order to respond to the requirements of greater democracy and to meet more effectively the real needs of society in our member states.

This has led, for example, to the setting up of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, a unique body comprising two chambers. In one of the chambers sit elected representatives of regions or sub-national entities, and in the other, the elected representatives of municipalities, ranging from large capitals to small villages. The Congress has the key role of looking after the interests of citizens in terms of local democracy, which needs to be closer to them, more effective and more familiar. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of local democracy, not only as a means of improving democracy at national level but also for the process of European integration and transfrontier co-operation.

It is often at local level that citizens can make their contribution to initiatives in the social, educational, cultural and artistic fields. The Council of Europe firmly believes in the power of such initiatives to give real meaning to the practical implementation of democracy and to serve as a basis for co-operation programmes between local authorities both within an individual country and across international borders.

At the Council of Europe citizens' active participation is also fostered through special relations with international non-governmental organisations, or "INGOs", which enjoy participatory status with the organisation. Among other things, that allows them to organise, as they did at a recent meeting in Warsaw, in order to lobby the organisation's decision-making bodies, so as to ensure that the INGOs' fundamental concerns, such as poverty, trafficking in human beings or intercultural dialogue, are taken seriously by the Council of Europe and to secure full recognition of the role civil society has to play in solving those major problems.

After the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, international non-governmental organisations now constitute the fourth pillar on which the organisation is founded. It accordingly offers a range of strong co-operation structures at all levels: governmental, parliamentary, local and civil society.

II. THE CURRENT EUROPEAN CONTEXT: PARTNERSHIP IN FACING MAJOR CHALLENGES

But the Council of Europe naturally does not stand alone on the wider scene of European organisations and institutions!

The present situation offers a number of interesting points for discussion, which I would like to share with you.

The multilateralism initiated in the 1950s has proved to be the best guarantee of peace for Europe and an excellent means of enabling states to cope with major changes, whether political (the Cold War), economic (industrial booms, austerity, recession) or social (divorce, abortion, the rise of the feminist movement).

Europeans have derived huge benefit from the existence of a variety of fora, having different responsibilities and acting on different levels, within which appropriate solutions have been found to problems which often transcend national borders.

With time many organisations have been set up, which today form the European architecture, including NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, to cite but the most significant, while of course not forgetting the United Nations, an organisation with global responsibilities.

Rather than describing all these institutions in turn, I shall attempt to give you a tangible example for each, showing how they are co-operating with the Council of Europe, so you can see that it is possible to work together on difficult, sensitive issues.

My examples are drawn from the field of protection of human rights, which is a subject close to my heart. As you will see, there are challenges to be confronted in co-operation with each of these organisations.

NATO

Let us begin with NATO, which, since it mainly deals with security and defence, is perhaps the most distant from the Council of Europe in terms of common concerns. However, as you know, particularly in recent years following the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, NATO has assumed important peace-keeping tasks, dispatching tens of thousands of soldiers to protect the fragile peace imposed by the international community.

In Kosovo, where there are still over 30,000 soldiers divided among four multinational brigades, NATO enjoys extended powers to detain individuals suspected of posing a security threat. These detentions, sometimes for lengthy periods, take place without any outside supervision, given that, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1244, Kosovo has been under United Nations administration in all respects since 1999.

Concerned about the existence of such a no-go area for the application of fundamental principles of human rights, the Council of Europe, through laborious negotiations, reached an agreement with the United Nations, extending the supervisory mechanism of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture to all places in Kosovo where individuals are deprived of their freedom.

Under that mechanism provision is made, inter alia, for surprise inspections, without advance notice, of all places of detention in Kosovo. Although the United Nations and their local administration - UNMIK - have accepted this control system, NATO has not yet given its permission for surprise visits to be made, thereby preventing full application of the Convention for the Prevention of Torture in Kosovo.

How can a military defence organisation be persuaded of the vital importance of full respect for human rights? Yet, NATO itself makes upholding human rights one of the requirements to be met by states wishing to join it.
This is a major challenge in a difficult region.

The OSCE

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is an institution with which the Council has a complex relationship. The two organisations are similar in many respects. They both deal with human rights, the rule of law, trafficking in human beings, the environment, the fight against terrorism and so on. However, from other points of view, they are very different.

The OSCE has fundamentally remained a diplomatic conference with large field operations, which are its great strength, whereas the Council has a large secretariat and small field missions.

In late June 2004, Norway's foreign minister, Jan Petersen, who was then chairing the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, launched an initiative for enhanced co-operation with the OSCE. The aim is to officialise co-operation which in many cases is already taking place on the ground and avoid unnecessary overlapping of efforts between two organisations with similar objectives.

In December 2004, following parallel decisions by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the Permanent Council of the OSCE, a Coordination Group was established.
This group has identified the fight against terrorism, protection of the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, action to combat trafficking in human beings and promotion of tolerance and anti-discrimination measures as the areas in which co-operation between the two organisations can be reinforced. The objective is of course to prompt greater participation by the member states so as to generate synergies and avoid duplication of efforts. These objectives are confirmed in the joint declaration issued at the Warsaw summit.

Nonetheless, beyond such declarations, it is a matter of seeing how the two organisations can and must work together, for instance in the field of defence of national minority rights.

For over a decade the OSCE has had a High Commissioner on National Minorities, who often works behind the scenes and sometimes serves as an intermediary in the efforts to reconcile minorities' demands and government policies.

On its side, the Council has some important international legal instruments, in particular the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which have become the international standard, par excellence, in minority matters. Both conventions provide for mechanisms to monitor states' honouring of their commitments.

This example clearly shows that by pooling the more political resources of the OSCE's High Commissioner and the legal instruments of the Council of Europe both organisations' effectiveness could be enhanced, and more coherent, more appropriate solutions could be found for Europe's subsisting problems in the field of national minorities.

The EU

I now come to the more difficult subject of relations with the European Union, which doubtless also concerns you more closely. As you know, the recently enlarged EU now has 25 member states, which account for more than half of the Council's member states. The enlargement process is continuing and in just two years' time at least two other member states (Romania and Bulgaria) will be joining the EU. Many commentators regard this as the beginning of the end of the Council of Europe.

That is not how I see things, nor was it the Warsaw summit's standpoint.
However, to show you how extremely complex the relations between the two organisations are, I have chosen to talk about a major problem: trafficking in human beings.

Such trafficking is an insult to human dignity, a disgrace for our civilisation and our democratic societies, an offence against the values which the Council of Europe has been defending for nearly sixty years.

In Italy, as in the other member states, trafficking in human beings has grown considerably in recent years.

The causes of trafficking lie, inter alia, in the conditions prevailing in the countries from which the victims originate - poverty, unemployment, undereducation and lack of resources.
Women are more likely to become victims, but growing numbers of men and children also suffer this modern form of slavery.

The Council of Europe includes the countries of origin, transit and destination of the victims of trafficking.

Our Organisation was therefore the ideal forum for negotiating a new convention against trafficking in human beings, focusing on the protection of victims' fundamental rights. The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings was opened for signature in Warsaw on 16 May 2005, on the occasion of the Summit.

Among the major novel features of the new convention I am pleased to be able to mention, for example, (i) the obligation incumbent on States to guarantee victims a recovery and reflection period of at least 30 days, (ii) the possibility of issuing a temporary residence permit irrespective of whether the victims co-operate with the judicial authorities, and (iii) a series of specific, compulsory measures concerning assistance to victims.

The negotiation of this convention undoubtedly highlighted the difficulties inherent in the relationship between international law and EU law.

In the case of treaties concluded within the Council of Europe, this relationship has for many years been governed by the so-called "disconnection clause".

The clause specifies that, with due regard for the provisions of the convention, and solely in the case of mutual relations between EU states that have ratified the convention, when an EU rule exists on a subject covered by the new convention against trafficking and when the States in question consider it applicable, the EU rule shall apply instead of the convention.

In the case of trafficking, the Council of Europe instrument contains much more modern provisions than Community law. This is hardly surprising, as the States that have, to date, drawn up EU anti-trafficking rules are mainly the victims' countries of destination. Our convention, on the other hand, takes specific account, in practical terms, for the first time, of the requirements of the countries of origin.

It is only by pursuing policies that reconcile the admittedly different requirements of the countries of origin and countries of destination of the victims of trafficking that it is possible to combat this phenomenon effectively. Moreover, it should come as no surprise that the Council of Europe leads the field where human rights are concerned.

While it is true that EU States Parties to the convention will, among themselves, apply the relevant Community law, it is also true that:

1. This can only be done if the provisions of the convention are fully respected;
2. It can only be done, in practice, when Community law contains provisions equivalent to or more favourable than those of the convention.

To guarantee this interpretation, the European Community, which is itself, as such, a potential party to the convention, made a declaration when the convention was adopted, which is appended to the proceedings.

Once again, therefore, while adopting effective measures to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings, the Council of Europe has shown that it is not prepared to compromise where human rights are concerned: human rights are not and never can be for sale.

The United Nations

The same fundamental concern to defend victims against violence underpins the efforts made at the Council of Europe, at my own instigation, to equip the Organisation with an effective programme for combating violence against children.

Violence against children is closely linked to other forms of violence and to organised crime. It affects children at school, in the street and even in their own families. In addition, children are victims of problems that are more global, such as child trafficking, drug trafficking, war and cybercrime. All this requires an appropriate global approach both to drawing up standards and to implementing policies at national level.

The United Nations is preparing a study on the scale of violence against children worldwide. It has entrusted the Council of Europe with co-ordinating the part of the study concerning Europe. In order to prepare its contribution and determine the action to be taken at European level, the Council of Europe and the Slovene authorities are to hold a regional Forum in Ljubljana in July.

The Council of Europe's contribution will seek not only to help member states conform to existing international standards, such as those set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the European Social Charter and the European Convention on the Exercise of Children's Rights, but also to put forward a series of instruments and methods to be adopted.

I am thinking in particular of the need to draw up, in addition to civil law child protection rules, European provisions concerning the criminal aspects of children's rights. This is a tricky but extremely topical issue.

III. FROM WARSAW TO...

As you can see, the Council of Europe's role in the new European institutional landscape is determined by:

1. A series of parameters specific to the Organisation, and

2. The position of the "sister" organisations with which we work on a wide range of topics. I have given you a glimpse of these by selecting those that are perhaps dearest to my heart.

So where does Italy come in? What is your country's role in the Council of Europe? And what view does Strasbourg take of Italy's commitment?

I admit that the image of Italy's commitment in the Council is somewhat mixed.
Yours is undoubtedly a country closely linked to European integration, since it has been involved in it from the outset with verve and enthusiasm. But present-day Italy is not the Italy of the 1950s and 60s, or that of Altiero Spinelli!

There is probably no longer the drive and vision among politicians and other eminent figures needed to mobilise an entire society in support of such a long-term project as one designed to achieve European unity and integration.

But while the authorities do not seem to pay particular attention to the Council, it has to be acknowledged that your country is one of the most active in, for instance, the area of local democracy (it is no coincidence that the President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is Giovanni di Stasi) and civil society.

Be it in the sphere of trafficking or in that of assistance to the regions involved in the conflict in the Balkans, Italy's civil society and highly organised NGOs have succeeded in taking innovative, effective action and, at times, actually acting in place of the authorities.

I am thinking in particular of the work of the Italian municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Italian volunteers in Kosovo and of the very delicate inter-religious dialogue project embarked on by the St Egidio Community. The Italians' unswerving commitment to the causes the Council defends is obvious, and indeed a credit to them.

Having said that, I should like to touch on a couple of subjects that I consider worth raising.

- The Council of Europe's key contention is that human rights, the rule of law and a healthy, pluralist democracy are objectives that are never really achieved, and ones towards which the various countries must constantly strive.
This is also true of Italy, which both the Council of Europe and the OECD have urged to take great care to safeguard media pluralism, which is of key importance in guaranteeing the expression of democracy.
It is not question of pointing a finger at anyone, but of ensuring, together, collectively, that human rights are always respected by all the member states.

- As indicated in the conclusions of the Warsaw Summit, today's challenges are sometimes too serious to be tackled by one organisation on its own.

Whether one thinks of combating terrorism, of trafficking or of dialogue between different cultures and civilisations, all of which are issues to which the Council of Europe is firmly committed, it is now clear that we must all address these issues at our different levels, in the light of our areas of responsibility and our strong points, if we really want to solve these problems.

Although the Council of Europe celebrated its 56th anniversary this May, it has not run out of steam; nor is it deaf to the concerns and demands you, as the youth of Europe, are voicing.

I am willing now to try to answer your questions on the Council's behalf and take your suggestions for improvements back to Strasbourg.

Thank you.


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