CM/AS(2014)2 4 February 2014
Communication on the activities of the Committee of Ministers
Address by Mr Sebastian Kurz, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, to the Parliamentary Assembly (Strasbourg, 27 January 2014)
As the new Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs, I am pleased to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for the first time.
I do not know how well informed you are about Austrian domestic policy and the formation of the new Austrian government. Whatever the case, if you are surprised at my age, I can assure you that not all the new ministers in Austria are as young as me. For two and a half years, I served as State Secretary for Integration. A few weeks ago, when the new government was being formed, our deputy Chancellor, Michael Spindelegger, decided to accept the post of Minister of Finance. He asked me to pass on his very best wishes to you and he is grateful for the outstanding co-operation with Council of Europe. He also asked me to take up the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs, and this is not just a great honour for me, but also – and above all – a great challenge. I am pleased that in 2014 my country is chairing the Committee of Ministers. This poses an additional challenge, but it goes without saying that Austria is glad to be able to make a contribution to the work of the Council of Europe.
I thank you, Madam President, for the constructive talks we had earlier on today. I congratulate you on your election and would like to assure you straight away that you have Austria’s full support. I hope that we will be able to work closely together. I was particularly pleased to have met someone who has been in post for an even shorter time than I have as, over the last few weeks, I have met political figures who have been performing their functions for a lot longer.
As a representative of the younger generation, I do not have all the experience, that most of you have acquired over the years and decades. What I may be able to contribute, however, is the viewpoint of a young pro-European generation which has grown up in a Europe of freedom, peace and democracy. I can also express the gratitude of this generation, which is benefiting the most from the work done by the Council of Europe in the past. For this generation, it has always gone without saying that we can freely express our opinions, that we are not exposed to arbitrary action by the authorities or the police and that citizens’ rights are protected by an independent judiciary. This freedom which I have always known in Austria and is the case in many European countries is not, alas, an enduring reality for all Europeans. As you know, today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and I would like to take this opportunity to point out to you that Europe is still not free of racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination. We must make major efforts and work together to defend the Council of Europe’s achievements and ensure that every individual’s rights are protected.
As State Secretary for Integration, I have realised that it is in fact people migrating from one country to the other, who are fleeing their homeland or have decided of their own accord to seek a new one, who are the subject of discrimination. In a globalised world, where more and more people leave their home countries and settle elsewhere, we need to ensure that all people are judged not according to their origin, colour of skin or religion but according to their character, their skills and their work ethic. In our increasingly mixed societies, we have to make sure that everyone can play a part. Whatever people’s origins, it must be possible, in a united Europe, for them to make a contribution, whether in the labour market, the voluntary sector, the public services or as a political leader. It is important to insist, therefore, on the recognition of qualifications acquired abroad, or that may be harder to document. In this area, we must make an effort to ensure that everyone can make his or her contribution in their new homeland.
In our societies, which are becoming more and more diverse, religion also plays a leading role. More and more people have differing religious beliefs and religious diversity is an increasingly prominent feature of European States. Consequently, religion should be regarded not as a problem but as a part of the solution to living together more harmoniously. These are goals which the Council of Europe has always pursued with determination and I hope that this will continue to be the case in future.
Since joining the Council of Europe in 1956, Austria has always worked hard to make an active and constructive contribution to the Organisation. There have been two Austrian Presidents of the Parliamentary Assembly, three Austrian Secretaries General and two Austrian Presidents of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. We have also chaired the Committee of Ministers six times and also in 2014, we regard this task as the most important of our multilateral activities. During our chairmanship, it will be our honour to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the creation of the Council of Europe. I already look forward to being able to welcome you, Madam President, to the 124th session of the Committee of Ministers, in Vienna, at the beginning of May.
In the framework of its chairmanship, Austria has set itself practical objectives and thematic priorities.
The first is freedom of expression, without which there can be no democracy. It must be possible for people to express their opinions and this is the prerequisite for a proper civil society. Journalists undoubtedly have a key role in this area, in making sure that the public is well informed. The European Court of Human Rights rightly considers that journalists are society’s watchdogs, this means that they need our protection and support. As member States, we have a responsibility in this sphere. One of the priorities of our chairmanship therefore is to protect freedom of expression and to protect journalists.
Our second priority is to protect rights on the Internet. We can no longer live without this tool, which brings people together and helps them to take part in the life of the community. The Internet is an open forum and it is not just for young people. However, open does not mean outside the law. We should not ignore infringements of human rights and fundamental democratic principles on the Internet. The right to respect for privacy, for instance, is absolutely crucial. No country or company should be allowed, without clear legal basis or special authorising measures, to collect data on Internet users and use them without their knowledge. Recent events have shown that action is needed in this area to protect people’s rights. I heartily invite you therefore to attend an expert conference in Graz on 13 and 14 March, entitled “Shaping the digital environment – ensuring our rights on the internet”, which will address digital rights.
The third priority of our chairmanship will be combating trafficking in human beings. This is a crime and a scourge of our societies. We intend to use our chairmanship to encourage more and more States to support and accede to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. A conference will be held in Vienna on 17 and 18 February in partnership with the Swiss chairmanship of the OSCE. It will seek to take stock of the work done so far and chart the future steps to be taken.
The aim is to afford victims of trafficking better protection and also to take preventive measures.
We have already used our chairmanship so far to take an active role with regard to all issues, whether on structure, personnel or substance. For instance, we have managed to put in place a biennial budget for the Council of Europe's programme in 2014 and 2015. As Chair, a duty which we take as a particularly serious challenge indeed is the upcoming Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers for the election of the Secretary General. Our Permanent Representative in Strasbourg has been given very clear instructions to perform this duty as Chair with the utmost impartiality and necessary transparency.
Other important substantive issues have also been a focus of our attention. I am thinking, in particular, of the abolition of the death penalty, an issue on which Europe has assumed a global pioneering role setting worldwide standards. For my generation, which grew up in modern-day Europe, it is taken for granted, but death penalty is still applied widely in many other countries. It is our duty to strive to ensure it is abolished in all the countries where it still exists. In this connection, on 18 December 2013, the Committee of Ministers adopted a statement on executions in the United States and Japan, and we call on these countries to end this inhumane practice. At the very least there should be a moratorium on implementation of the death penalty. We call on the Council of Europe observer States to respect its values in this regard.
In addition to this statement on the death penalty, the Committee of Ministers also adopted a declaration on the situation in Ukraine. Things have deteriorated considerably there in recent weeks, including fatalities. I think it is clear that the crisis in Ukraine can be overcome only through peaceful and democratic means. Human rights, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression must be safeguarded to permit genuine dialogue and a solution to this crisis.
We welcome the announcement made by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to the effect that the controversial legislation passed in Ukraine will be studied in great detail and independently. An escalation of the violence must be prevented, and it must be ensured that peace, democracy and the rule of law, the historical achievements of the Council of Europe, are fully respected in Ukraine.
Our chairmanship must also contribute to the reform process.
The Council of Europe has provided itself with many instruments that can make a real difference to the everyday life of people in Europe. Our aim is to utilise them and also to optimise them, concentrating on core tasks.
Our principal objective is naturally to inform citizens and foster their participation. As members of the Parliamentary Assembly, you all know far better than I do that success with all our projects and common goals is achieved only once they are implemented on the ground in our respective countries. It should be our goal to explain Europe to our citizens, and let them take part in it!
The Council of Europe has particularly remarkable expertise in the field of human rights. The quality of the work done here enables us to improve our national human rights protection mechanisms. One example shows how fast this expertise can achieve change for good: during a visit to Austria in 2012 the Commissioner for Human Rights proposed that we adopt a national action plan for human rights; one year later we have taken this suggestion on board and it is part of the new Austrian Government's work programme.
In recent years, many encouraging advances have been made in the reform of the European human rights protection system. The European Court of Human Rights plays a fundamental role in this area and is symbolic of a Europe that takes the rights of each individual seriously. The right of individual petition is crucial in this regard.
For the above reason, it is unfortunately a matter of serious concern to see high-ranking politicians in one member State calling into question the Court and its judgments. This goes entirely in the wrong direction. The European Convention on Human Rights and the Court are indispensable to human rights protection and the rule of law in Europe. We must do everything possible to ensure that the system is not weakened. Under our chairmanship, we shall therefore seek to secure more effective implementation of the Convention and the Court's judgments at national level. Moreover, I have spoken to the President of the Court just today so that we work together in this direction.
Concerning the European Union's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, everything is ready. The relevant procedures have been launched within the European Union, and I hope to see further progress on this matter under our chairmanship.
Co-operation between the Council of Europe and the European Union must be paid considerable attention in the future. In recent years, practical co-operation has produced tangible results for the more than 500 million EU citizens and 820 million citizens of the Council of Europe member States. We should continue our meaningful co-operation and division of labour, and deepen it, while respecting the independence of each institution.
Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the Parliamentary Assembly, I look forward to working with you during our chairmanship. I am sure that I will benefit greatly from your experience and expertise, and that we will together be able to put the Council of Europe's potential to the best possible use. Let us fight together for the ideals and principles of this Organisation: human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Our aim must be to protect and promote these ideals and principles, so that many other people can benefit from the achievements of the Council of Europe, as I have been used to doing in Austria. Thank you for your attention. I look forward to an excellent co-operation with you and I also very much look forward to our discussion.