Parliamentary Assembly session : 31 March – 4 April 2003 

Speaking notes for the press conference by Peter Schieder, President of the Parliamentary Assembly

31 March 2003 at 11 am

- Iraq

This afternoon, the Assembly will be asked to approve a request for an urgent procedure debate on Europe and the crisis in Iraq. I have no doubts that they will do so. You will have noticed that the title of the debate is different from the one held in January. The emphasis is on Europe, its position, or rather its divisions, with regard to the conflict. This of course does not mean that we are giving up on raising our voice against the unilateral decisions of the United States which led to the start of this war. Our position was, and remains, clear and straightforward:

Saddam Hussein 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, and only if it is carried out with the consent of the United Nations and respects international law. This is not the case today.

At the opening of the session this afternoon I intend to speak about Iraq, against the background of the resolution adopted by the Assembly last January. It is clear that the views expressed in our Chamber – which in my view very accurately reflected majority opinion among Europe’s citizens – were ignored, not only by an observer state but by several member states of the Council of Europe. I believe that the debate on Thursday will focus on this fact, as well as on ways to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, end the conflict and bring the whole process of disarming Iraq back into the United Nations.

- Chechnya

The Assembly shall deal with Chechnya both this afternoon – when it will discuss the progress report of the Bureau, including its decisions regarding the observation of the referendum of 23 March − and on Wednesday, when the Legal Affairs Committee will present a report on the human rights situation in Chechnya, prepared by Rudolf Bindig from Germany.

Just days before the referendum I published a contribution in the Russian newspaper Izvestia, in which I explained the Assembly’s position on the constitutional process. Briefly, I would like to recap the points I made there.

Firstly, the Assembly supports any initiative aimed at bringing peace and stability to Chechnya, in accordance with our standards and principles.

Secondly, the Venice Commission, at my request, prepared an opinion on the draft constitution which, while regretting the absence of more tangible incentives to attract the support of those Chechens sceptical about or even hostile to the Russian authorities, accepts that the future constitution would allow the establishment of a new tier of institutions at the level of the Chechen Republic and could represent the first step in a process of devolution of power to the Republic on the basis of the possibilities offered by the Russian Constitution.

Thirdly, during our debate in January, the majority of Assembly members, while remaining concerned about the political, security, human rights and humanitarian circumstances in which the referendum was to take place, felt that asking the Russian authorities to postpone the referendum without offering an alternative was not an option either.

Fourthly, the Bureau on two occasions discussed the possibility of observing the referendum, and on both occasions decided against, on the grounds of security. I stated clearly that our final evaluation of the constitutional process would take into account the outcome and the conduct of the vote, but would depend first and foremost on the extent to which the political process it is supposed to launch brings Chechnya closer to peace.

Finally, I stressed that respect for human rights, which is still deplorable, remains the key to the success of any kind of political initiative. As long as crimes and abuses committed by members of the Russian security forces remain unpunished, the people of Chechnya will not trust the authorities to protect them, and will therefore refuse to participate in the political process the referendum was meant to launch.

All these points remain fully valid now that the vote has taken place. We shall know more about the Assembly’s likely follow-up after the debate this afternoon.

- Accession of Serbia and Montenegro

You will recall that, with the adoption and ratification of the Constitutional Charter on relations between the two republics last November, Serbia and Montenegro fulfilled the pre-condition for membership set by the Assembly in September.

In the aftermath of the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, I took the personal initiative of asking the governments of the Council of Europe to accelerate the accession procedure for Serbia and Montenegro. I am pleased that there was a positive response to my appeal and that in three days the country will become the forty-fifth member of our organisation. This will be a proper and timely tribute to the late Prime Minister. But let there be no misunderstanding - Serbia and Montenegro will not join the Council of Europe because Djindjic was killed, it will join because of what the progressive forces in the country achieved when he was still alive.

I believe that co-operation with the Hague Tribunal remains a key issue in relations between Serbia and Montenegro and the international community – but that greater understanding and effort is needed on both sides if further progress is to be made.

There must be changes in Belgrade. There are things that can be done immediately, and with little public opposition, such as changes in legislation and providing access to documents. Indicted persons should continue to be encouraged to surrender to the Tribunal or − when appropriate and possible − should be arrested and handed over. Political leaders in the country should abstain from any statements detrimental to normal co-operation with the tribunal.

On the other hand, the international community, and the ICTY itself, should show greater understanding of the political and security risks which co-operation with the Tribunal represents for the authorities. The mixed record of arrests by the international forces in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina shows that arresting war criminals remains difficult and dangerous.

Finally, while we understand the reasons that led to the introduction of the state of emergency, we would certainly hope that it is lifted as soon as possible. We are also appealing to the authorities to apply the emergency measures in strict compliance with Council of Europe standards. The Assembly’s monitoring mechanism will be operational immediately after the accession and will certainly provide a useful source of assistance and advice but also scrutiny in this regard.

- Constitutional referendum in Liechtenstein

Report on the outcome of the debates in the Bureau.