Non-Governmental Organisations

The Conference of INGOS of the Council of Europe

Statement by the President of the Council of Europe Conference of INGOs,
Jean-Marie Heydt, before the Ministers' Deputies, Strasbourg, 10 June 2009

Madam Chair,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be speaking to you here today, first of all because this is my first opportunity to address you since my election in January, and secondly because I am delighted to be giving what has now become the traditional annual address by the President of the INGO Conference to the Ministers' Deputies. I think I can say that this occasion is completely consistent, for instance, with your recent Madrid Declaration of 12 May 2009, in paragraph 9 of which the Committee of Ministers stressed that “developing – with the help of the Conference of the International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGO) – interaction with civil society, whose action on the ground (it) applaud(s), will also remain one of (its) priorities”.

I will of course adhere to my allotted speaking time, confining myself to presenting a number of salient examples to illustrate the increasingly important role of the Conference of INGOs, one which it will continue to play in the future, in implementing the Council of Europe’s fundamental aims. My statement will centre on three points:

    1. safeguarding and promoting fundamental values;
    2. implementing our policies and promoting public well-being;
    3. reinforcing our institutional presence.

1. Safeguarding and promoting fundamental values: these are not mere words, as the Conference of INGOs takes practical action which focuses on:

    a. The defence of human rights: this is a permanent feature of our action (eg we provide regular assistance to human rights NGOs in Belarus, including organising a Round Table with Belarusian human rights defenders in January 2008 and inviting them to INGO Conference sessions). New impetus will be imparted in 2009 with the holding of a Regional Round Table of human rights defenders (in September) in close partnership with the Commissioner for Human Rights;

    b. Violence against women: we have taken a clear official stance in favour of a binding legal instrument to combat violence against women, wherever the violence may take place. The Conference of INGOs has been active as a guest participant in the Ad hoc Committee on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO), which will be reporting to you on the procedure for devising a Council of Europe convention in this field;

    c. European Social Charter: this is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding essential social rights in Europe. I would take this opportunity to encourage the three countries which have not yet signed and the twenty which have not yet ratified the revised European Social Charter to do so without delay. We are very closely monitoring the application of this instrument and helping to supervise its implementation via the system of collective complaints. We were recently invited to an exchange of views with the Governmental Committee of the Social Charter, on 25 May 2009.

2. Implementing our policies and promoting public well-being

    a. Code of good practice for civil participation in the decision-making process: this Code, which is both a fundamental text and a practical tool that we hope to make available to civil society and the European authorities, was prepared in response to one of the conclusions of the Forum on the Future of Democracy held in Stockholm/Sigtuna in June 2007. The Conference of INGOs approved the draft Code at its plenary meeting on 29 April last, and decided to notify the Committee of Ministers and consult the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. We are counting in particular on your help and those of the member States in implementing the provisions of the Code, whose final adoption is scheduled for the INGO Conference session on 1 October 2009. The Code is to be launched on 21 October 2009 at the Forum for the Future of Democracy in Kyiv. I welcome the organisation of an event to promote the Code in November this year in Ljubljana, together with NGO and governmental representatives, during the Slovenian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. I am sure that this work will be strongly backed in St Gallen in May 2010 during the Swiss Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers.

    b. Expert Council on NGO Law: our Plenary Conference in January 2008 decided to set up an Expert Council in order to help create a favourable environment for NGOs throughout Europe, but it was you who adopted Recommendation 2007 (14) on the legal status of NGOs in Europe, thereby providing us with the main basis for such an environment. The Expert Council has already presented its first thematic report on the conditions for setting up NGOs, which report served as the basis for my very useful exchange of views with your Rapporteur Group on Legal Co-operation (GR-J) on 17 February last. The Council of Experts is now working on a second report on internal NGO governance. I must specify that the Council of Experts includes practical recommendations in its reports with whose implementation the member States are expected to provide particular assistance, for instance with the conditions for setting up and registering NGOs in the different member States;

    c. Three-yearly framework programme in the Russian Federation (2008-2011): this programme is entitled “Reinforcing civil society and civic participation in the Russian Federation” and is geared to improving co-operation between the NGOs and the authorities and therefore enhancing the role of civil society in public life and policy-making. The programme prioritises the following issues: human rights, democracy, culture and education, social cohesion and gender equality. Special attention is also being paid to Russian legislation on NGOs and bringing it into line with Council of Europe standards and values. We are currently in close contact with our partners in Russian civil society in order more effectively to encourage the authorities of the Russian Federation to amend their legislation on NGOs (we held a conference on this matter last April in Moscow);

    d. “Strasbourg Dialogue”: the title “Strasbourg Dialogue” refers to recent initiatives by the INGO Conference to promote confidence-building measures at the civil-society level in post-conflict situations. Our last Regional Congress of NGOs in Penza (Russian Federation) in December 2008 set out the general framework for this venture, and we were able to create a “follow-up platform” during the Round Table which we organised in Strasbourg in February 2009. This platform is mainly geared to instigating practical exchanges and co-operation between NGOs in the region in order to deal with humanitarian problems and reinforce democracy and human rights, in the spirit of paragraph 12 of the Declaration adopted by the Committee of Ministers in Madrid on 12 May last. I can already tell you that some very positive perspectives are emerging, which I have discussed with the Georgian Ambassador. We will obviously be working in close consultation with the Committee of Ministers here.

3. Reinforcing our institutional presence: placing our action at the heart of the Council of Europe’s main work also meant revising our own mode of operation in order to streamline it with the rest of the Organisation and improve our co-operation with the other pillars:

    a. In connection with institutional reform as adopted by the Conference of INGOs in 2008 – the old thematic groupings were replaced by five new committees and two cross-disciplinary groups - we are now fully implementing this reform in 2009;

    b. Where reinforced co-operation with the other pillars of the Council of Europe is concerned: with the Committee of Ministers, the partnership remains intense (including with such Rapporteur Groups as GR-DEM and the aforementioned GR-J, such thematic dossiers as the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue or, obviously, participation by the INGO Conference in ministerial sessions); with the Parliamentary Assembly, the fact that our sessions coincide has regularly encouraged co-operation, which is today being consolidated with specific Assembly committees; and of course our relations with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities have been boosted with the conclusion of a memorandum between the local and regional authorities and the NGOs in the Council of Europe member States. Lastly, I would like to emphasise that the candidates for the post of Secretary General of the Council expressed the wish to hold an exchange of views with the President of the Conference of INGOs, a development which I consider very positive;

    c. In this context of the increasing role of civil society in the basic work of the Council of Europe, I would like to draw your attention to the Recommendation adopted by the Conference of INGOs at its plenary meeting in January 2009, concerning the material resources which it needs if it is to shoulder all its responsibilities as the fourth pillar of the Council of Europe. This recommendation emphasises the need for a secretarial service to help the thematic committees of the INGO Conference to carry out their work properly. I would draw your attention to the direct contribution provided by INGOs travelling to attend sessions, mostly on their annual leave or in their free time, and what is more, at their own expense, because only elected representatives on the Standing Committee have their travel expenses defrayed, paying for the all their own subsistence fees. This is clearly the price to be paid for our profound conviction of the need for European civil society to defend the values of the Council of Europe;

    d. Lastly, I would like to thank the member States for their co-operation with the Conference of INGOs during their Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers as well as for the voluntary contributions and support for specific activities. I will not risk mentioning the countries in question, in case I forget any of them! But I must stress that without these material, financial or logistical contributions we would be at a loss where our activities in the member States are concerned.

Madam Chair, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention.