Parliamentary Assembly session : 26 – 30 January 2004 

(To be checked against delivered speech)

Speech by the Hon. Dr. Bernard Bot, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and Chairman of the Committee of Ministers at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

(Strasbourg, 28 January 2003)

Mr Chairman, distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly,

At the 113th session of the Committee of Ministers in November, the incoming Dutch Chair expressed its intention to uphold the continuity in the Council’s regular working programme. Furthermore, the Netherlands set out its priorities in the fields of human rights and monitoring mechanisms, integration and social cohesion as well as on the synergy between the Council of Europe and other international organisations.

You have all received the document outlining the activities of the Committee of Ministers so I will not dwell on details but focus on issues meriting special attention.

In Chisinau, the ministers were pleased to note that the Protocol Amending the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism had been signed and ratified. They called on States to ensure its early entry into force. They also welcomed the results of the 25th Conference of Ministers of Justice in Sofia in mid October 2003. Significant progress has been made in the implementation of anti-terrorism activities. The committee of experts on terrorism will present its views on a new comprehensive Convention this Spring.

The ministers in Chisinau restated their commitment to the establishment of a draft European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, focussing in particular on the protection of victims. This issue, one of the focal points of the Dutch OSCE chairmanship, requires the Council’s undivided attention. Trafficking in human beings is a serious offence to human dignity and integrity. The Chair is firmly resolved to expedite the negotiation process and have this draft Convention finalised and presented to you as soon as possible.

In Chisinau, not all members were represented at ministerial level. In order to enhance the interest in Ministerial meetings, the Dutch presidency and Norway launched in December 2003 proposals for a new ministerial session format. A format that would enable the Council to draw the fullest benefit from what is the quintessence of Ministerial participation: political dialogue at a pan-European level. Also a format that promotes substantive debate on political developments in the area of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, implementation of Member State commitments in these areas, and elaboration of fresh norms and standards. We trust that this will encourage ministerial participation.

Over the past several months, many eyes have focused on events in Georgia, which culminated in the inauguration of President Saakashvili last Sunday. President Saakashvili is here with us today and I wish to extend my sincere congratulations to him once again. We will closely monitor developments in Georgia. President Saakashvili faces the momentous task of implementing necessary –and sometimes tough measures. He will also have to ensure that expectations raised in his country and abroad are not disappointed. The Council of Europe is fully prepared to co-operate, but the real work must be done in and by Georgia itself.

A positive, solution-oriented relationship between Georgia and the Russian Federation, about which encouraging words have been expressed by the presidents of both countries, will contribute to a European house built on common values and legally binding commitments in a spirit of co-operation.

Agreement has again been reached with the Russian authorities on the expanded involvement of the Council of Europe in Chechnya - a region requiring specific, well-focused attention. To my mind, the agreement signals the mutual understanding which the international community in general, and the Council of Europe in particular, can bring to improving the general situation in Chechnya. I am confident that the Council of Europe will have ample opportunity to provide assistance and expertise.

In reference to Azerbaijan, I wish to mention the recent pardon granted by the new president to a large group of prisoners, many of whose names appear on the Council of Europe’s list of alleged political prisoners. This is an encouraging step toward Azerbaijan’s fulfilling the crucial commitments it made at the time of its accession to the Council of Europe. It strengthens our confidence that further steps will soon be taken in respect of the remaining prisoners on the Council of Europe’s list.

Regarding the debate in the Ukraine about changes to the Constitution in the current political circumstances, I wish to reiterate the recommendation to the Ukrainian authorities that they utilise fully the expert advice of the Venice Commission. I look forward to a constructive debate in the Parliamentary Assembly on this subject.

I welcome the active co-operation between the Council of Europe and Moldova which continued after Moldova’s successful chairmanship of the Council in 2003. The EU-Council of Europe joint programme is in the final stages of preparation. It will be instrumental in aiding Moldova to move closer to the European norms and values which are central to its European vocation.

Upholding the Council’s standards in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law calls for effective monitoring and review mechanisms. This is one of the Chair’s priorities. Since the role of the European Court of Human Rights is pivotal for the protection of human rights, I welcome the progress in the reform process. The Chair will continue to work actively towards reaching a decision on the reform package at the 114th session in May this year. It expects that this will allow the Court to cope more effectively with the increasing number of cases. It is important that the Court’s finances be put on a more solid, predictable footing.

On 8 and 9 December 2003, the Netherlands hosted a meeting of Government Agents at the European Court of Human Rights. Their relation to the Court and to their national authorities was reviewed. The meeting provided many opportunities to exchange ideas on best practices. It recommended that the Steering Group for Human Rights formulate a recommendation on the status of Government Agents.

Judgements of the Court must be complied with. The authority of the European Court of Human Rights and the credibility of the Council of Europe must be maintained. This is why it is important for the Committee of Ministers to fully live up to its responsibility to supervise the execution of the Court’s judgements in accordance with article 46 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Under our chairmanship, a financial settlement was reached in the Loizidou case in December 2003. The Chair expects the solution to enhance the credibility of the Committee of Ministers in its supervising role.

Ever since 1949, the protection of the individual citizen has been at the top of the Council’s agenda. Because the Council of Europe Conventions guarantee the fundamental rights of individuals, the Committee of Ministers should see to it that all Member States implement policies based on these principles. It should therefore ensure that the Council’s monitoring mechanisms are adequately equipped to do what they are supposed to do. The Chair is planning to organise a seminar in the Netherlands in April this year on how to improve implementation of human rights standards in the Member States.

In this connection the Chair wants to pay tribute to the work of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Àlvaro Gil-Robles. We are aware of the importance the Parliamentary Assembly attaches to the institute of the Commissioner and will co-operate in all efforts to enhance, if and where possible, the Commissioner’s Statute.

The Chair welcomes the recent proposals from Armenia and the Secretary General for strengthening the Committee of Ministers’ monitoring capacity. This month a working group with a time limited-limited mandate has been established to elaborate these and other monitoring reform proposals that may come up. I trust that the 114th Ministerial Session will be able not only to review and endorse the proposals but also to instruct the Deputies to examine more thoroughly the question of how monitoring by the Committee of Ministers can be made more effective.

The Council of Europe offers a very broad framework for the protection of human rights. In late 2003, the Netherlands organised a seminar on how to deal with conflicting fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The feeling was that the seminar would provide the best forum for exchanging ideas on what the best practices are.

Working closely with the Secretariat, the Chair also organised a one-day conference on one of the most topical issues of our time, how to live together in an increasingly multi-ethnic society, entitled ‘Focus on integration in the community and the workplace’. Three specific aspects of the integration process were highlighted: introductory programmes, labour market participation, and urban policy. Last week, a conference on Migration and Integration was organised by the Assembly and the French delegation. My colleague, the Minister of Justice, representing the Chairmanship here, pointed out that uncontrolled immigration entails a risk of overburdening social services, completely disrupting the labour market and gradually dividing the population. Furthermore, he observed that immigration must not be devoid of mutual obligations, while underlining that the objective of integration is not standardisation, but sharing citizenship. He called for co-operation between the Council and the EU on this issue.

Fostering co-operation and synergy between the Council and the EU and OSCE are clear priorities for the Chair. In October 2003, the Netherlands set up a meeting between the Council, the EU and WHO to discuss health issues. As a result of the meeting, a strategy paper was prepared for the future agenda of the Council of Europe’s health-related activities.

In Chisinau, the ministers stressed the need for closer consultation and co-ordination. They also expressed their hope that the EU will accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. It was that the topic of enhanced co-operation with the EU was of particular signification in the light of the forthcoming enlargement of the European Union with 10 new member states and also in the light of developments in the Intergovernmental Conference. It is the intention of the Chair to discuss at the upcoming quadripartite meeting between the Council of Europe and the European Union, on the 23rd of March this year, the scope for putting the relationship between the EU and the Council on a new footing. Although insufficient progress in the IGC unfortunately poses limitations on a successful exchange at this junction, further reflection and discussion is timely and desirable, as can also be seen from the debates on the subject in this Assembly.

When Minister Roche presented the program of the Irish Presidency of the European Union in the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies meeting of two weeks ago, he was struck by the empty seat of the European Commission whose representatives only incidentally show up in Strasbourg. He clearly saw this as a lacuna and considered it a win/win situation if we would be able to develop that relationship. I share these views. The Council of Europe and the European Union have common roots, common values; we share a flag, an anthem and even a town, almost every month, Strasbourg. We are active in many areas with identical interests and aims, promoting greater European unity on the basis of Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law. Clearly there is ground for a substantially enhanced relationship. A permanent presence here in Strasbourg would enable a permanent exchange and a continuing exploration of comparative advantages so as to allow optimal results. Together with the Irish Chairmanship of the European Union we may succeed in attaining this goal.

No decision was taken at the 113th ministerial session on the timing of a possible Third Summit of the Council of Europe, intended to provide political impetus to the organisation. We agreed that a decision on this issue would be taken in May of this year at our 114th Session, provided that a substantive agenda and possible concrete results thereof have been identified. Since that time, the Secretary General and several Member States have put forward ideas on how best to approach the Summit.

The Chair is committed to facilitating a responsible decision. Debate on these suggestions will continue in the coming months.

We have not quite reached that point but we do know which questions must be asked. First, how can the Summit contribute to a Europe without dividing lines? Second, how will this impact on the Council’s own operations?

The Netherlands considers that a Summit should seek to ensure that the Council’s pan-European normative perspectives – its acquis – will be appropriately reflected in the respective policy frameworks of the Member States and on the agenda of the European Union. At the same time, the Council should, as appropriate, facilitate projecting relevant norms and standards developed by the EU into the pan-European context. The Council and the EU should commit themselves to the closest institutional co-operation possible. It is my view that the Summit’s final document should unambiguously bring to the fore the communality of purpose provided for in the Statute of the Council of Europe and in the founding documents of the European Union.

On the subject of the Summit's impact on the Council of Europe, I believe that the Summit should reaffirm the Council’s primary objective: achievement of greater unity among its members as stipulated in the Statute. It should also attempt to determine what are the Council’s primary concerns and core activities. The organisation derives its excellent reputation primarily from its concern for human rights, its promotion of pluralist democracy and the strengthening of the rule of law. These should continue to be the mainstay of its activity. Attention to national minorities and the promotion of cultural diversity can be taken up as issues because they contribute to these three areas. The Dutch view on these matters is consonant with a recent report by the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs on the Council of Europe. The initiative for this report originated with our active Parliamentarians.

The Council has never lost sight of the need to create an appropriate enabling environment for making democracy, human rights and rule of law possible. It should be encouraged to continue its work on these issues. Activity to strengthen social cohesion is an example. In this connection it is with satisfaction that I can inform you that last Friday the Netherlands signed the revised European Social Charter and also, subject to acceptance, the Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter providing for a system of collective complaints.

I believe that the Summit should recognise and confirm the Council of Europe’s institutional functions:
- its expertise and experience in defining norms and setting standards;
- its role as a pan-European platform for political dialogue;
- its capacity to supervise the implementation of the Council’s conventions through the European Court of Human Rights and the Committee of Ministers;
- its capacity to provide assistance to Member States in respect of implementation of the acquis.

The Summit should narrow its focus to core activities and functions. It should not, of course, be expected to present a fully adjusted programme. Programme choices and decisions on resource allocation must be made in due course through the Council’s regular programming and budgetary processes.

I suggest that the Summit should provide new impetus to the functional performance of the Council’s institutions and should instruct the Committee of Ministers:

- to develop a more integrated concept of monitoring and verification of all Member States’ obligations;
- to put the advocacy and assistance programmes which accelerate integration of all Member States into the Council’s mainstream on a more solid footing;
- to better carry out its role of political platform and ensure implementation of the Council of Europe’s obligations.

I believe that progress in these areas will breathe new life into the Council of Europe, give it broader recognition and ensure that the Organisation becomes more responsive to the expectations of all its members old and new. Progress will enhance the Council’s position vis-à-vis other European organisations and make it a more effective tool for the pursuit of European co-operation in which the EU, OSCE and United Nations all have a role to play.

In conclusion, I wish to express my appreciation for the vision and active participation of the Assembly in developing a common perspective on the emerging roles and responsibilities of the Council of Europe. I trust that the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, together with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, will continue to strive for a Europe in which all people are not only entitled to their fundamental rights but also to enjoyment of those rights in their daily lives.