1. Opening of the meeting by the President, Annelise OESCHGER
The President opened the meeting and spoke of some of the encouraging developments in 2007, in particular the adoption by the Committee of Ministers of Recommendation 2007(14) on the legal status of non-governmental organisations in Europe, on 10 October, and Resolution 1589(2007) of the Parliamentary Assembly on co-operation with the Conference of INGOs, on 23 November.
Annelise Oeschger also welcomed the 15 INGOs which had recently been granted participatory status and said that a meeting would be held especially for them on the morning of Thursday 24 January.
2. Approval of the agenda [INGOs Conf (2008) OJ1]
The agenda was approved.
3. Approval of the report on the meeting held on 26 June 2007 [INGOs Conf (2007) CR2]
The meeting report was approved.
4. Statement by the President of the European Court of Human Rights, Jean-Paul Costa
By way of introduction, Annelise Oeschger said that the INGOs and the Court often shared the same concerns. She raised three specific points: the fact that countries sometimes refused to acknowledge the binding nature of the Court’s judgments; the guarantees that the Court might be able to give concerning the processing of applications; and finally the Court’s position on the threat posed by sects, in connection with the study day which the Conference of INGOs had held on 28 June 2007 - she gave him a copy of the corresponding report on this subject.
Jean-Paul Costa began by saying that co-operation with the NGOs was one of his priorities and that it was most certainly in the field of human rights that the NGOs made their most important contribution (they provided assistance to applicants, exerted pressure to secure the adoption of judgments and played an active role on the ground). Two years ago, the Court had held a very successful initial exchange of views with the NGOs. The next exchange was due to take place towards the end of 2008 and from then on would take place every two years. NGOs’ participation in procedures was provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights. The NGOs had, for example, had the opportunity to give their opinion during the drafting of the Wise Persons’ report and the drafting of Protocol 14, which, by amending the system for monitoring the European Convention on Human Rights, would leave more time for dealing with complex cases. This Protocol was, however currently being blocked by one member state, the Russian Federation.
The large number of applications lodged with the Court was increasing by 25% every year and the length of time required to hand down decisions was unacceptable.
He wished to reply to the three points raised by the President. States, which had not been obliged to sign the European Convention on Human Rights sometimes obstructed the execution of judgments, or criticised them, but that seldom happened. With regard to guarantees that applications would be processed, he referred to Rule 39 of the Court’s Rules of Procedure, providing for the possible adoption of interim measures, but acknowledged that it was sometimes difficult to ensure compliance with this type of emergency procedure. The assistance provided by NGOs and lawyers was valuable in this respect because they provided assistance in securing the implementation of such measures. Finally, he preferred not to anticipate the future decisions of the Court concerning the threat posed by sects.
In reply to questions concerning the final adoption of Protocol 14, Jean-Paul Costa said that a year had already gone by since the latest ratifications. If the final ratification enabling Protocol 14 to come into force did not take place, it would be necessary to introduce internal procedures based on Protocol 14.
Annelise Oeschger warmly thanked the President of the Court for accepting her invitation and said that she hoped that the exchanges between the Court and the Conference of INGOs, in particular the Human Rights Grouping, would continue.
5. Liaison Committee 2007 Activity Report
Annelise Oeschger first paid tribute to Micheline Galabert, former President of the Association of Women of Southern Europe (AFEM) and member of the Liaison Committee, who had recently passed away. She gave the floor to Karin Nordmeyer and Sophie Dimitroulias who also wished to say a few words about her and then proposed that they observe a minute of silence.
Jean-Marie Heydt (Vice-President of the Conference of INGOs) presented the 2007 activity report [OING CL (2007) RAP/ACT] and placed special emphasis on the following points: support for civil society, intercultural and inter-faith understanding, support for vulnerable groups, human rights violations, commitment to the development of democracy, co-operation with other Council of Europe bodies, developing relations with the European Union and the reorganisation of the Conference of INGOs.
Annelise Oeschger welcomed the establishment of the Council of Experts on NGO law. Nina Belyaeva (Interlegal Foundation) thought that each member state should monitor its NGO legislation and that the Conference of INGOs should have an action plan in this field.
Christoph Spreng (Initiatives of Change - International) regretted that the adoption of the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, which should have taken place in January 2008, had been postponed and suggested to the President of the Conference of INGOs that she write to the Committee of Ministers on this subject; several speakers endorsed this proposal. Irene Donadio (International Family Planning Federation– European Network) said that the European Union had declared 2008 the “Year of Intercultural Dialogue”. Alain Mouchoux (President of the Education and Culture Grouping) said that the Conference of INGOs should not wait for the official adoption of the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue before taking action in this field and Annelise Oeschger said that she would like to hold a study day on the theme “intercultural dialogue and the rule of law” on 26 June 2008.
Several speakers said that a substantial amount of important work had been done in 2007.
The Liaison Committee’s 2007 activity report was unanimously adopted.
6. Thematic Groupings’ 2007 Activity Reports
Jean-Claude Gonon (General Rapporteur for the Liaison Committee) presented the 2007 activity report [INGOs Conf (2007) RAPACTREG] and particularly emphasised the following points: efforts had been made to make all Council of Europe bodies aware of the expertise the Conference of INGOs’ had to offer, the contribution NGOs had made to defending the Council of Europe’s values, the adoption of new working methods and the fact that the NGOs had continued to monitor and propose activities and to take appropriate action.
Gabriel Nissim (President of the Human Rights Grouping) would have liked a specific point to be included in the report, namely human rights education, which he considered to be a priority, not to mention the implementation of texts relating to human rights.
Uwe Holtz (Society for International Development) was concerned at the fact that several countries were withdrawing from the Council of Europe’s North-South Centre and called on the Conference of INGOs to defend the Centre.
Francis Rosenstiel (European Democracy Forum) suggested that the Conference of INGOs should from time to time invite a prominent figure for an exchange of views on specific subjects.
The Groupings’ 2007 activity report was unanimously adopted.
Finally, the President gave the floor to Jenny Schuler (Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe) for the presentation of a survey on the life of young people in Europe, which had been translated into ten languages and was part of the Council of Europe programme “Building Europe for and with Children”. She thanked the INGOs which had replied to the questionnaire and said she would like to present the results of the survey at the INGOs’ session in June 2008.
7. Statement by Philip Blair, Director of Democratic Institutions
Philip Blair began by welcoming the positive achievements of the Conference of INGOs in 2007, in particular the establishment of the Council of Experts on NGO law, its activities concerning Russian NGO legislation and the NGO Regional Congress in Kyiv.
He also welcomed the NGOs’ commitment to and enthusiasm for the Forum for the Future of Democracy, which had taken place in Stockholm/Sigtuna from 13 to 15 June 2007, and their contribution to the implementation of the Forum’s conclusions, for example the code of good practice on civic participation. The draft additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government on citizen participation was a good example of the type of contribution the Conference of INGOs could make to the work of the relevant steering committee.
He also referred to the Strategy for Innovation and Good Governance at Local Level, which was based on twelve principles of good democratic governance and which he thought had good chances of being adopted by the Committee of Ministers. The INGOs would be able to contribute to the implementation of these principles.
He also mentioned European Local Democracy Week, which would take place in October 2007 and said that a contribution from the INGOs would be welcome.
Finally, he welcomed the efforts made by the Conference of INGOs to reorganise its structure and pointed out that the Secretariat was willing to provide any assistance the Conference might require in ensuring the success of this undertaking. He invited as many members of the Conference of INGOs as possible to attend the meeting on Belarus which would be held just after the Conference of INGOs.
During the ensuing discussion, Michel Senimon (Association Europa) drew attention to the close link between Philip Blair’s statement and the draft memorandum on partnership between local and regional authorities and NGOs in Council of Europe member states, which sought to strengthen grassroots democracy.
Philip Blair thanked the Conference of INGOs for its interest in the strategy for good governance. In reply to a question concerning the possibility of drawing up a European convention on democracy, he said that, although such a convention was a good idea, it was difficult to agree on provisions that were precise enough to ensure that it would be of use and value to the entire European continent. It would also be very difficult to adopt a binding instrument in this field. He drew attention to Recommendation (2001)19 of the Committee of Ministers on participation of citizens in local public life and pointed out that an additional protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government concerning this point was to be adopted.
8. Reorganisation of the structures and working methods of the Conference of INGOs
Annelise Oeschger began by saying that she wished to open the discussion on this point just before lunch so that the discussions could continue during the break. A number of documents were available, including a main document on this subject and a proposal, which was her own personal contribution. She also referred to the discussions which had taken place the previous day at the Liaison Committee meeting and asked Patrice Collignon to make a short report on this subject.
Patrice Collignon (President of the Countryside and Environment Grouping) presented the main thrusts of the reorganisation of the Conference of INGOs discussed the previous day at the Liaison Committee meeting and underlined the specific role that each of its organs should play: a Conference of INGOs, which would be central to the framing and adoption of policies and would meet at every INGO session; a Bureau comprising seven members elected by the Conference of INGOs (a President, three Vice-Presidents, two rapporteurs and the President of INGOs-Service), which would be responsible for implementing the decisions taken by the Conference and for representing it; a Standing Committee comprising the seven members of the Bureau, the committee chairs, the chairs of the cross-sectoral working groups and three members elected by the Conference of INGOs, i.e. a total of twenty people, in other words a restricted membership reinforcing the role of the Standing Committee as the body responsible for co-ordinating the activities of the Conference of INGOs. The question of opening up the Standing Committee to observers was still outstanding. Finally, the thematic committees would be in charge of specialised activities. The standard timetable for an INGO session would be as follows: meeting of the Bureau (Monday morning), meeting of the Standing Committee (Monday afternoon); meeting of the Conference of INGOs (Tuesday morning) and finally meetings of the thematic committees.
Following this presentation, Annelise Oeschger opened the floor for discussion. Edouard Jagodnik, President of INGOs-Service, said that the presentation reflected only part of the discussions at the Liaison Committee meeting the previous day but that it was a suitable basis for the debates. Robert Lafont, President of the Towns Grouping, said that the presentation was a good summary of the discussions but was concerned that the meeting of the Conference of INGOs should be reduced to half a day; he thought that the time allocated to meetings of the thematic committees should be limited.
Annelise Oeschger reminded members that the aim of the debate was to give clearly indicate the steps that should be taken to reorganise the Conference of INGOs.
Various statements were then made, endorsing either the main proposal as presented by Patrice Collignon (a Conference of INGOs comprising three bodies: a plenary conference, a Bureau and a Standing Committee) or the President’s own proposal (a plenary Conference and a Bureau).
Annelise Oeschger noted that the majority of members who had taken the floor were in favour of the option presented by Patrice Collignon. She pointed out that, under the proposed reform, elections to the Standing Committee and the Bureau would no longer concern the INGOs as such, as their representatives would be elected in a personal capacity, as was already the case for the Bureau. She also proposed that a document be drawn up summarising the option that the majority were in favour of and including indications on the time allotted to the various meetings and a calendar for carrying out the reforms. She then invited the members to discuss the thematic committees, pointing out that the list of subjects to be dealt with by the different committees was only a suggestion and would remain so.
Malou Weirich (International Office of Allotment and Leisure Garden Societies) said that committee meetings should not overlap so that members could attend all the meetings and supported the idea of setting up a “globalisation and external relations” committee instead of a “gender equality” committee, which was a cross-sectoral theme. Karin Nordmeyer, Vice-President of the Gender Equality Grouping thought, on the contrary, that the Conference of INGOs needed a gender equality committee which could be a full partner of the other Council of Europe committees.
Annelise Oeschger closed the discussion of this item saying that the decisions concerning the reform of the Conference of INGOs would be taken at the Conference meetings in April and June.
9. Terms of reference of the Conference of INGOs’ Expert Council on NGO law
Annelise Oeschger said that the Expert Council on NGO law had been set up to help strengthen NGOs in all Council of Europe member states. The terms of reference would be adopted for three years. The Expert Council would prepare reports for adoption by the Plenary Conference, which would also give an opinion on the action to be taken. The President proposed that Cyril Ritchie be appointed President of the Council.
The terms of reference of the Expert Council on NGO law and the appointment of Cyril Ritchie as its President were approved.
10. Belarus: Resolution following the Regional Congress of NGOs in Kyiv, Ukraine (25-27 November 2007)
Annelise Oeschger announced that this Resolution would be adopted at the meeting on Belarus, which would be held at the end of the meeting of the Conference of INGOs.
11. Statement by Jérôme VIGNON, European Committee, Director of Social Protection and Integration
Jérôme Vignon said that he wished to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the strategy for combating poverty within the European Union. Social inclusion had been one of the European Commission’s aims for the past thirty years but on a participatory basis. As a result poverty had been measured in terms of relative income, which represented 60% of median income. Since the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, the European Union’s strategy in this field had a legal basis (for example the Progress programme with a budget of 25 billion euros per year, 50% of which was earmarked for civil society).The 27 member states had adopted 12 common objectives for combating poverty and were free to decide how to achieve these objectives (the involvement of civil society was one of the objectives accepted by the member states). In Brussels, the NGOs had laid great emphasis on the European Union strategy in this field but the NGOs’ commitment to implementing the strategy varied from one country to the next. Weaknesses had been pinpointed in the fields of housing, health and finances, where it had been difficult to operate in any areas other than social policy. As for co-operation with the Council of Europe, Jérôme Vignon pointed out that social cohesion was one of the seven priorities identified in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Council of Europe and the European Union, a priority which could take the form of comparing examples of good practice, particularly in terms of social security standards and income levels.
Various questions were put to Jérôme Vignon: in particular the fact that social exclusion was not one of the spheres of competence of the new EU Fundamental Rights Agency, the absence of a structure similar to the Conference of INGOs at EU level and the need for closer co-operation between the Council of Europe and the European Union at civil society level but also with regard to the implementation of international conventions in the social field.
In reply to these questions, Jérôme Vignon said he thought that it was necessary to consider whether European social norms (such as the European Code of Social Security) were still up to date. The European Union and the Council of Europe took different approaches to relations with civil society. There was an article in the Lisbon Treaty officialising the European Union’s relations with civil society but keeping it at a certain distance. He approved the fact that the Council of Europe NGOs felt that they were treated on an equal footing and said that the European Union ought to follow this example.
12. Presentation of Soli TV
Annelise Oeschger gave the floor to Silvana Bertoldi (Association for Voluntary Action in Europe), who made a brief presentation of the objectives of Soli-TV and to Georges Habib (Soli-TV), who described in detail the work of this television channel, which was committed to international solidarity and sought to be the voice of NGOs in their international solidarity activities. She warmly thanked the speakers and said that they should now consider practical co-operation between Soli-TV and the Conference of INGOs.
13. Other business
Annelise Oeschger told the members of the Conference of INGOs that following Edouard Jagodnik’s retirement, Michel Muller, Vice-President would take on the role of Acting President of INGOs-Service until the elections in June 2008.
The next meeting of the Conference of INGOs would take place on Tuesday 15 April 2008 (morning).