Parliamentary Assembly session : 31 March – 4 April 2003 

(Embargo until delivery)

Speech by Peter Schieder, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly President

at the opening of the Spring 2003 part-session of the Assembly, 31 March 2003

Dear colleagues,

Again, we have a full and challenging agenda for the session, but there can be no doubt that one subject – the war in Iraq – dominates in importance. If it were at all possible, I would certainly be in favour of holding the urgent procedure debate at the very beginning of the session, this afternoon. This would certainly be appropriate considering the seriousness of the situation and the weight of our concerns. But we all know that this cannot be done – not just because of procedural constraints but because in order to have a meaningful debate, we need to give the committee, the rapporteur, the political groups and all our members the time to prepare themselves.

The item “Europe and the crisis in Iraq” is on the agenda for Thursday, and it was decided to devote the entire day to it, with the exception of two important interventions, by the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers and the Prime Minister of Bulgaria. However, I believe that their presence in the Chamber on the day of the debate on Iraq is a welcome coincidence, as the subject of Thursday’s discussions will certainly be reflected in their speeches and in the questions asked from the floor.

Having said that, I nonetheless believe that we should not wait until Thursday before sending a message to all the parties concerned. I would like to use this opportunity to recall the terms of the resolution the Assembly adopted last January and put it in the context of the situation today.

Two months ago the Assembly noted that, at the time, it had been impossible to establish any substantive link between Iraq and international terrorist networks. Two months later, we are still waiting for convincing evidence to prove the allegation which was, and continues to be, a key argument for the use of force. The Assembly concluded from this that, in the circumstances prevailing at the time, the use of force against Iraq was not justified. Yet today, force, on a massive scale, is being used.

The Assembly said that inspectors had to continue and intensify their work one last time, objectively and impartially and without external pressure, so as to conclude the inspections within a reasonable time. Yet, in spite of the majority opinion within the Security Council, and the members of the United Nations as a whole, they were not given a chance to do so. They had to be pulled out hastily at the very moment when, in their own view, progress was evident, and there were genuine prospects for a peaceful disarmament of Iraq.

The Assembly recalled that public opinion in the member states of the Council of Europe was generally in favour of a solution to the Iraq crisis through political means. The opposition to war is not only still evident, it has grown dramatically, within the member states of the Council of Europe and throughout the world − including in the two countries at the helm of the military intervention against the Iraqi regime.

Finally, the Assembly asked all Council of Europe member states, observer states and candidate states to refrain from any action detrimental to the authority and role of the United Nations and to exclude any use of force outside the international legal framework and without an explicit decision of the United Nations Security Council.

This call, too, was blatantly ignored, not only by an observer state, but also by several members of our organisation. In my view, our debate on Thursday should focus on this regrettable fact.

All our member states have committed themselves to respect the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Whether they are legally bound to respect the right to life and to guarantee freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment also when they act outside their territory is a question for the Court, but there is no doubt that Council of Europe member states engaged in the conflict are under a political and moral imperative to do so when it comes to the treatment of the Iraqi people.

Let there be no misunderstanding: our criticism and indignation is not a vote for Saddam Hussein. The leader of the Iraqi regime is a cruel dictator, responsible for the worst violations of human rights. This Assembly will be the first to support and welcome any action which brings freedom, stability and prosperity to the people of Iraq − but only if such action has the support of a genuine and broad coalition of countries, including those in the region.

We do not want the United States and the United Kingdom to lose this war, we want them to end it! We want to bring the process of dealing with the threat represented by the Iraqi regime back under the legitimate and universally recognised mechanisms of the United Nations. We want action − but we want it to be taken in accordance with international law!

Today, this is not the case. The United Nations has been pushed aside, and its authority has been undermined. Such a seismic shift in the way the world deals with its problems may have the gravest consequences not only for this crisis, but also for any future crises the global community of nations may face. The “collateral damage” of this war is not limited to the civilian population of Iraq. There is also damage to the foundations of the system of collective security, based on international law, on which the world has attempted to build its peace and prosperity for fifty years. The rule of law must not give way to the rule of the mightiest.

Finally, the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom − and all other countries that support their action against Iraq − should be aware that the missiles raining down on Iraq as I speak are not Tomahawks, they are boomerangs. The cultural and religious divisions created and exploited by fanatics of all confessions and persuasions are growing deeper and ever more dangerous. Terrorists are reaping the rewards of a confrontation which may drive thousands of impoverished and disillusioned men and women into their arms, to sow terror and destruction for decades to come. We cannot, and we will not let this happen!

The Council of Europe was born of war. The ideals it was set up to defend − ideals shared by every one of us gathered here in this chamber today − are the fruit of the terrible suffering which Europeans endured only a generation ago. Let us not abandon these ideals now − when they are needed more than ever.