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17 May 2005
16 May 2005
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(To be checked against delivered speech)

Speech by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of the Republic of Latvia

Warsaw, May 16, 2005

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank Poland for hosting this timely summit, which is taking place on this sixtieth anniversary year of the end of the Second World War. A week ago today, the people of Europe commemorated the Allied victory over the Nazi Germany. This was, however, only a partial victory, for at the end of that terrible conflict, the Western democracies accepted without protest the renewed subjugation of over a dozen countries in Central and Eastern Europe by the totalitarian communism of the Soviet empire and its satellites.

Having sacrificed the fundamental values that they claimed to stand for in favour of a simplistic Realpolitik and an ultimately elusive security, the Western powers were soon faced with the Cold War, and the perilous instability of a European continent divided into two opposing camps. We believe that there is a lesson to be learned from these historical misjudgements, which is, quite simply, that there can be no compromise regarding those principles that the Council of Europe and that we, as Europeans, must all stand for.

Over the course of the past 56 years, the Council of Europe has come to be seen as a stalwart defender of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. This is what we must reconfirm here today: that we will not accept double standards by any of the organization’s current or prospective members, no matter how large or how small in size they may be. We may be flexible regarding the speed of the implementation of obligations, but not on the need for their implementation, or else the credibility of our organization will come into doubt.

Mr. Chairman,

In the years that have passed since the first and second summit meetings of the Council of Europe, our nations have produced tangible achievements. The death penalty has been abolished in almost every country on the continent. The Commissioner for Human Rights has made a visible input in promoting and in defending the values that this organization stands for. Important monitoring mechanisms have been set up. The protection of minority rights has been advanced, most importantly through the Framework Convention. My own country of Latvia is set to become a party to the Framework Convention later this year.

Nevertheless, many of the same issues that were addressed at the previous Summits are still relevant today. We still require measures to improve the effectiveness of the European Court of Human Rights. We need to maintain cooperation programmes for achieving the full integration of the Council of Europe’s more recent member States. We need to re-conceptualize the Council’s cooperation with the European Union in the light of its recent – and future enlargements. Measures on the protection of minority rights must be supplemented by inclusive integration policies to ensure equal opportunities for all.

Furthermore, the list of challenges has grown. During the past eight years Europe has witnessed events that we hoped never to see again. Acts of terror have wiped out hundreds of innocent lives. New technologies have been used for spreading messages of hate in the virtual world. Not only virtual, but also physical attacks by extremist groups of all ideological colourings have continued against countless individuals.

For these reasons, I believe that our societies require a renewed immunization against the dangers of totalitarianism through a variety of measures, including a persistent campaign of education. This must be undertaken first and foremost in our schools. We want our children to know that intolerance and prejudice are unacceptable; and that human beings must not be divided into such categories as us and them. We must inform our children of our past mistakes, so that these are never repeated again.

For it is only once we have fully dealt with the legacy of the past that we will be able to successfully address the challenges of the future in a united Europe. Every society has some dark events in its history. Is it best to ignore these events and to pretend that they never took place, or is it better to risk opening old wounds and to expose these events fully? We in Latvia have chosen the second approach, even on the most sensitive issues. We believe that an honest – even if painful – debate is necessary for the truth to be uncovered and for genuine healing to take place.

No wound can truly heal if it is festering beneath the surface. It is to be hoped that those countries where such a debate has not yet started will ultimately follow the positive example of countries such as Germany, which has been long ago ready to apologise and to atone for its Nazi past. I feel that the Council of Europe can do valuable work in this area by promoting joint projects for the teaching of history among the member States. We owe the full picture of our past to our future and to our children.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest challenges for the Council of Europe in the coming years will lie in optimizing the operations of the European Court of Human Rights and in reducing the tremendous backlog of cases that the Court is facing. If the Court is to operate effectively in the long term, then Protocol No 14 should be ratified without delay, and other measures agreed upon last year for improving human rights protection at the national level should be implemented. At the same time, we must not succumb to the temptation of releasing the Court from so-called "less important" cases and leave it with only the challenging ones. While a repetitive or minor case may not be of great interest to international legal experts, it is of fundamental interest to the party concerned.

We have lately seen the march of freedom reach several societies in Europe. However, those values that spur entire nations into action and bring about peaceful revolutions must not be forgotten the day after. Such values as freedom, democracy and the rule of law must be preserved, nurtured and shared. They must be preserved in our legislation, they must be nurtured together with our civil societies, and they must be shared with those who do not enjoy them yet.

Against the background of the recent democratic changes in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the recent expansion of the European Union, I see enormous potential for strengthening the cooperative links between the Council of Europe and the European Union. I believe that the EU should spare no effort in furthering its European Neighbourhood Policy. In so doing, the EU will simultaneously promote the Council of Europe’s standards, as well as support the strengthening of civil societies, independent media, NGOs and human rights defenders in the EU’s neighbouring countries.

One European country, a neighbour of both my own country, Latvia, and of this host country, Poland, is strikingly absent from our meeting today. That is, of course, Belarus. I have no doubt that we all feel a particular sense of empathy with the Belarusian people, who deserve far better than the authoritarian rule that they are now experiencing under the last dictator in Europe. I hope that the Council of Europe will increase the scope of its efforts to strengthen the civil society in Belarus, and that one day Belarus will join our community of democracies.

Many years ago, just at about the time when the Council of Europe was born, a tyrant is reported to have sneered: How many divisions does the Pope have? The peaceful revolutions that brought down totalitarian communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe have revealed that you do not necessarily need military force and armed divisions to be strong. What you do need is the strength of conviction and the power of the written and spoken word, and the means for expressing it freely. The values that the Council of Europe stands for: freedom, democracy, the respect of human rights and the rule of law can and must become so integral a part of our ordinary lives, that some day in the future, we shall no longer need to talk about them. We shall be just living them and taking them for granted.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.