CM/AS(2012)2 26 January 2012
Communication on the activities of the Committee of Ministers
Address by Rt Honorable David Lidington MP, Minister for Europe, representing the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, to the Parliamentary Assembly (Strasbourg, 24 January 2012)
I am delighted to address fellow members of parliament from across our continent today, both as the representative of the United Kingdom Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers and as a British parliamentarian. I had the pleasure of welcoming members of your Standing Committee in Edinburgh at the start of our chairmanship in November.
Let me begin by congratulating Jean-Claude Mignon on his election as your new President, and paying tribute to Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu for his tremendous efforts and achievements during his period in office.
The Parliamentary Assembly is vital to the functioning of the Council of Europe, and to bringing the voices of the 800 million citizens whom we represent to this Organisation.
It is a sad coincidence that the news was announced today of the death of my former colleague in the House of Commons – and your former colleague – David Atkinson, who devoted many years of his parliamentary service to the work of the Council of Europe. I think that that is worth mentioning, not just so that I can pay tribute to David and his work, but so that I can say something about what he did and what he stood for. A prime example is the active, committed and positive role that has been played by members of all our political parties in the British Parliament in the work of the Council of Europe since its foundation.
I want to speak to you about developments in the Committee of Ministers since your last part-session in October, but first I want to set out the United Kingdom’s priorities for our chairmanship.
The overarching theme of our six months in the chair is the promotion and protection of human rights. Some members will already be aware of the priorities that we have set ourselves for our chairmanship in that context. Three of these were agreed as shared priorities across the successive chairmanships of Ukraine, the UK and Albania, namely the reform of the Court, the reform of the organisation and local and regional democracy.
The reform of the European Court of Human Rights includes our commitment to it. Last June, my colleague, the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, addressed the Assembly and spoke of the partnership between the three pillars of the state, each playing its own role in the implementation of the Convention, with each respecting the role of the other. As he said, individual member states must fulfil their responsibility to implement the Convention, and the Court must be careful to respect that primary role. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, will address the Parliamentary Assembly tomorrow about our work on this chairmanship’s priority and the UK’s continued and undeterred commitment to the Court.
The UK chairmanship, however, also wants to drive forward progress on broader Council of Europe work and our other key priorities.
We are fully committed to supporting the excellent work of Secretary General Jagland’s reform programme. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr Jagland publicly for his work on this, in looking at ways in which the Organisation can work in the most effective and efficient fashion. The new biennial budget for the Organisation, adopted by the Committee of Ministers in November, is a step towards achieving this. Maintaining the budget at a maximum of zero real growth, reflects the reality of the economic climate in which Europe now finds itself. We welcome the streamlined structure of the Secretariat, which the Secretary General has now put into place, as it will no doubt bring further efficiencies and synergies.
The UK will also work to streamline the Council of Europe’s activities in local and regional democracy to enable a more targeted, focused and overall more efficient approach. I am pleased to announce that the UK will be hosting a high-level meeting on this work on 13 February at Lancaster House in London, with the aim of giving greater shape and depth to the concept of a single programme that would bring together the activities of all the actors in this field. We look forward to the participation of the Parliamentary Assembly at that meeting on 13 February.
Equally, we are committed to strengthening the rule of law across the Council of Europe. On 2 March, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in conjunction with the Venice Commission and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, will host an event in London that will look at the recently adopted Venice Commission report on the rule of law. This event will provide an opportunity to explore two essential aspects of the rule of law: the quality of the laws and the control of executive discretion in implementing laws in order to prevent arbitrariness.
We will also drive forward work in support of the Council of Europe’s work on internet governance, including freedom of expression on the internet. The UK strongly supports the adoption of a cross-cutting internet governance strategy to bring together the various strands of the Council of Europe’s work over the next four years. The strategy will bring together all partners and ensure full implementation of existing human rights, while looking at the challenges posed by new fast-moving technologies. My colleague, Ed Vaizey, the Communications Minister, attended the recent Vienna Conference, which underlined the fact that internet governance has become a priority for the Council of Europe and that human rights apply online as well as offline.
The UK hosted the London Cyber Conference last November with not only governments but representatives from civil society and industry. Our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, highlighted the fact in his closing statement that, whatever country we represent, the rapid rise of cybercrime is a growing threat to our citizens. Following on from the London conference, my colleague, James Brokenshire, the Crime and Security Minister at the Home Office, attended the Octopus Conference here in Strasbourg, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Budapest Convention. The UK strongly supports both the principles of the Budapest Convention and the practical benefits it brings for international co-operation to tackle the threat of cybercrime to governments, the private sector and individuals. We would strongly urge those Council of Europe states that are not yet party to this instrument to adopt and ratify the Budapest Convention.
We continue to work during our chairmanship with other member states towards combating discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender or LGBT people and the tackling of discrimination against them has for too long been marginalised in the Council of Europe’s work. I would like to thank members of the Parliamentary Assembly for helping to make progress on these issues both within the Council of Europe and in their respective countries. Indeed, I gather that the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men was only this week replaced with the Committee on Equal Opportunities and Non-Discrimination. This new committee has a much wider remit to progress on broader equality, including LGBT rights. I am also pleased that the Council of Europe Secretariat has, with the benefit of voluntary contributions, been able to establish a unit to promote LGBT rights with certain partner countries. To further this work, I can announce UK plans to host a conference to promote the Council of Europe recommendations on combating discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender identity here in Strasbourg on 27 March and I hope that the Parliamentary Assembly will be represented there.
The UK’s priorities for its chairmanship showcase, I believe, the variety of the Council of Europe’s work, but I do not think that it is currently given the recognition by the public as the driving force that it is behind so many fundamental and universal values. We as politicians have a job to do to explain to all our citizens the benefits of the Council of Europe, and to do that I believe we must go back to the beginning.
The beginning, for the UK, takes us back a mere 800 years to 1215 and the Magna Carta. There is a copy of this great charter near the entrance to this room today. The Magna Carta started, in part, over something as mundane as a quarrel over property rights and turning to the law.
It was also an attempt to stop a civil war. In due course, however, that evolved into a document that became the first expression of a shared recognition that the decisions of government should fall within a framework of law, which gave expression to certain rights accorded to all individuals.
Moving swiftly forward 650 years, 1949 saw the Council of Europe’s founding treaty signed in London. The Second World War was a traumatic and devastating event for our entire continent.
Our leaders hoped that this would never come to pass again. They intended that this Organisation would be part of a structure of new institutions that would ensure our safety. The protection and promotion of human rights, of democracy and of the rule of law are the essence of promoting peace between and within states.
This impressive story of the Council of Europe’s beginnings as an Organisation for reconciliation and a beacon for fundamental rights is a good story to tell and one that we need to take to all the citizens that we serve. I know that in your hands, this task will be carried out with dedication.
As I said at the beginning of my address, I would like to discuss the developments in the Committee of Ministers since the UK took the Chair. We welcomed the initiatives announced by President Medvedev following the 4 December elections in Russia. The Council of Europe is ready to provide any assistance that may be required regarding election legislation and practice.
We are also pleased that at the end of 2011 agreement was reached between the major political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the constitution of a new central government, following the impasse after the general election of October 2010. It is hoped that this new government will take up its functions rapidly and agree on a programme of action to bring forward the European integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A particularly important issue for the Council of Europe will be reform of the constitution in order to align it with the judgment delivered by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Sejdić and Finci. It is hoped that Bosnia and Herzegovina will rapidly fill a number of its designated – but currently vacant – posts within a number of Council of Europe bodies, such as the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
We have noted that there have been recent positive signs in Albania after an extended period of tension between political parties. In particular, we noted the establishment in November, with cross-party consensus, of a parliamentary committee on electoral reform. The opinion on electoral law and electoral practice of Albania adopted by the Venice Commission in December 2011 provides useful recommendations on measures to improve the situation in this crucial area. The chairmanship is confident that appropriate follow-up will be given to these recommendations in view of the forthcoming Albanian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers.
The situation in Kosovo remains a matter of particular attention for the Committee of Ministers. EU-facilitated dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade has been making progress and we hope that further confidence-building measures will be agreed by both sides in the coming period.
The chairmanship is firmly convinced that the Council of Europe can make a most positive contribution to the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Kosovo through our standards and expertise. Stability and prosperity will be secured in Kosovo, and beyond to the whole west Balkans region, only if all her citizens, including persons belonging to minorities, enjoy the same rights as all Europeans.
A draft agreement with UNMIK on the implementation of several Council of Europe monitoring mechanisms in Kosovo is now under discussion in the Committee of Ministers. This agreement will be instrumental in bringing Council of Europe standards into people’s daily lives. The chairmanship strongly hopes that this agreement will be rapidly concluded.
The situation in Ukraine has retained the attention of both the Committee of Ministers and the Assembly over the last few months. The chairmanship supports the dialogue that Secretary General Jagland has initiated with the Ukrainian authorities on the detention of Ms Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of the former government. We hope that this dialogue will soon produce tangible results, in line with Council of Europe standards.
The chairmanship deeply regrets that the human rights situation in Belarus has continued to deteriorate. The Committee of Ministers will support the establishment of closer relations between the Council of Europe and Belarus only if, and when, Belarus demonstrates its respect for European values and principles. This requires, in particular, that the Minsk authorities establish a formal moratorium with a view to abolition of the death penalty. As the Committee of Ministers unanimously underlined in a statement on 30 November 2011, the chairmanship strongly hopes that the death sentences for two young men for allegedly bombing the Minsk metro on 11 April will be commuted.
From the beginning of the Arab Spring, the United Kingdom has strongly supported the legitimate and democratic movements that have swept through this part of the world. At a time when there are increasing doubts and questions about the role of democratic institutions in our member states, these movements only seek to reconfirm the relevance and importance of the Council of Europe’s central values that we have been promoting for more than 60 years.
Following the decision of the Committee of Ministers at its last session in May 2011, the chairmanship is pleased to have a more active neighbourhood policy. Action is now under way within the Organisation to translate this new policy orientation into concrete activities.
The chairmanship is pleased to inform the Assembly that two weeks ago the Committee of Ministers endorsed a number of priorities for co-operation with Kazakhstan and Morocco for the period 2012-14. The Parliamentary Assembly will be kept informed of the progress of this work and of the plans for co-operation with other countries situated in the Council of Europe’s neighbouring regions. Also, the deputies have accepted Kazakhstan’s request to join the Venice Commission.
All this is tangible proof that the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly share the same objective of promoting the Council of Europe’s values. You have been an essential partner in this work. Although we have individual mandates, we need to work together. However, it is legitimate too to say that each partner should have their own perspective. Indeed, a difference of approach between the parliament and the executive is the sign of a vibrant democracy.
I could not complete my address today without paying tribute to the work of Mr Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. During his six-year term, Mr Hammarberg has made an enormous contribution to the strides this Organisation has taken in promoting human rights in Europe. His candid reports and statements on situations in Europe have often helped to promote universal improvements of standards, while his dialogues with national authorities have produced tangible results.
We were pleased to see Mr Hammarberg in the UK in December, carrying out his role assiduously, in the way we would expect. It is vital that the Commissioner visits all member states to evaluate first-hand the human rights situation. Mr Hammarberg has brought the protection of the human rights of the most vulnerable to the forefront of the Council of Europe’s work and has worked tirelessly towards making this dimension of human rights a central concern of both the Council of Europe and its member states, notably with regard to the situation of Roma, of migrants and asylum seekers and of LGBT people.
Finally, I turn again to you, the Parliamentary Assembly. This Assembly is the best forum for making sure that our work, and that of the Council of Europe, reaches public notice. It needs to reach them. Your debates have the power to reach audiences stretching from the Atlantic to the Bering Straits and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.
Looking ahead – not only to the remaining three months of the UK chairmanship, but to all the months that will follow under successive chairmanships – we owe it to those we represent to make sure our leadership of the Council of Europe makes a positive difference to their lives.
The United Kingdom remains committed to the Council of Europe, its aims and its ambitions. We hope that the Parliamentary Assembly will continue to be active and ambitious in seeking to promote our common aims and values. Thank you very much.