Back Address by Thorbjørn Jagland, to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Strasbourg , 

As delivered


Mr President,

Honourable members of the Assembly,

I am pleased to address you today at a critical time for the Council of Europe.

May I begin by congratulating Michele Nicoletti on his election as President.

In recent months Mr Nicoletti has been clear in his commitment to the unity of Europe, the integrity of this Organisation and the value of a fourth Council of Europe summit.

I have no doubt that he will be a very fine President.

He succeeds Stella Kyriakides whose short but impressive presidency has helped restore confidence in this Parliamentary Assembly.

The past year has been a difficult one for PACE, and the Council of Europe as a whole.

Throughout, I have been determined to support you as you have sought to strengthen your accountability, integrity and transparency.

The lessons learned should mean that the Parliamentary Assembly meeting here today can turn a page and move forward with confidence.

And recommendations from GRECO and the independent external investigation body will be of critical value in achieving this.

Because as we begin 2018 the challenges we face together are considerable and every element of this Organisation must be fully-focused on getting the right response.

I am aware that a significant number of you are joining us for the first time.

That’s why I think it is worth being clear today about the mission of The Council of Europe.

Our mandate is clear: to promote and to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law across each of our forty-seven member states.

And by doing that – by merging judicial standards in member states – we are enhancing European unity.

But how did this idea of establishing a common legal space come about?

As many of you will know, it was born of a certain set of circumstances, at a very particular time.

In the aftermath of the Second World War there was near consensus, in Europe and beyond, that absolute sovereignty and unbridled nationalism constituted a threat to peace.

This shift in values required a new system of checks and balances to defuse conflict, rebuild trust and ensure that the horrors of war and persecution were not repeated on our continent.

Constraints were therefore required on the interactions both between states but also within states, placing limits on the power of the authorities over the individual.

A new international order was built, and has prevailed.

And it rests on two primary pillars.

The first is the United Nations Charter, which came into force in 1945.

And the second is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted in 1948.

Article 24 of the Charter made clear that member states confer on the Security Council the primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security.

It confirmed that the 15 members of the Security Council act on behalf of all the member states.

On this continent, it is the OSCE that helps the Security Council to fulfill its mandate.

Therefore, the OSCE plays a role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and in negotiations on Transnistrian settlement.

Our mandate is to implement the Universal Declaration. To that end the European Convention on Human Rights has established a number of bodies with the European Court of Human Rights on top of it.

The 47 Council of Europe member states have an obligation to implement judgments of the Court.

They have, by ratifying the Convention, recognised that the Court’s word is law.

So our mission is to protect the individual against the arbitrary use of power by their own state. We are dealing with human rights and rule of law problems within States. We call it democratic security, or soft power.

To fulfill our mandate the Council of Europe must act independently of any geopolitical, geostrategic or economic interests.

We have to protect individual rights – including in times of conflict.

I would compare our role, without creating any misunderstanding, with the role of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross must carry out its humanitarian task under all kinds of circumstances and must therefore avoid being dragged into conflict.

We must protect people’s human rights wherever they live and regardless of political circumstances.

All our bodies have taken a clear stance on the illegal annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

But under the current international order it is not for us to solve these conflicts.

And they should not prevent us from protecting people’s rights in Ukraine – including in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine - and in the Russian Federation.

On the contrary, simply because there is an open conflict, we should deploy all our instruments in these areas, including those in the hands of this Parliamentary Assembly.

This should be our contribution to dealing with problems; namely to hold both parties responsible for protecting peoples’ rights.

That means we need to be present on both sides too.

But PACE is currently unable to do this.

I do hope that we are able to find a way out of this situation.

More broadly, we all know that the threats to our values today are real.

Among some of our member states nationalist and populist politics are on the rise.

Populism is an emotional appeal that harnesses public grievance against the establishment.

And populists claim exclusive moral authority to enforce the “will of the people”.

This us-versus-them polemic delegitimizes opposition, threatens pluralism and undermines our essential institutions.

Institutions that are designed, among other things, to protect our minority groups.

In a period of significant migration and economic upheaval, this is happening in Europe today.

For example, there is an increasing tendency to question the authority of the European Court of Human Rights.

They assert that their domestic laws or constitutions take precedence.

And they resist following some of its judgments – to the detriment of their own citizens.

This undermines fatally the system as a whole.

Another threat to the stability of the system and our capacity to act is the “underfinancing” of institutions because member states continue the policy of non-compensation for inflation year after year.

We are even witnessing the suspension of payments and immediate changes to the level of contributions agreed.

I have to make it clear - our statutory bodies can only be preserved if they have stable and predictable funding.  And paying the contribution is not an option, it cannot be used as a tool for political purposes. To pay the fee is an obligation.

First pay, then participate.

So in 2018, we have a perfect storm:

Our values, and the authority of the Court, are being challenged.

Our leadership, strength and activities are therefore required urgently.

But our capacity to act is being limited quantifiably by a failure of politics and vision.

Those who pay the price are the citizens.

A high price – a very high price.

If you are in doubt about our relevance, look at the realities: we co-operate across our member states and the benefits are real.

The examples are clear.

In Azerbaijan, there have been criminal law measures to increase the use of non-custodial sentences.

And in the Russian Federation, over the past two years, more than 500 European Court cases have been implemented resulting in a clear reinforcement of the judicial system’s efficiency.

The Venice Commission´s opinions became a reference for the most complex laws across our member states, be it in Georgia, Poland, the Republic of Moldova, Hungary or Ukraine.

And in Turkey, a national commission to examine the dismissal of public officials and other measures adopted under the current state of emergency is now operational.

It is issuing decisions and paving the way to possible appeals at the national level and then at the European Court here in Strasbourg too.

And Armenia has got a new constitution with our assistance.

These and many other things did not happen by chance.

They happened because these countries are part of our family of nations, and we worked together to ensure that standards are met.

They are not unusual either.

Day in, day out, we engage with academics, experts and officials, in a network of mutual support that criss-crosses our continent and improves lives in thousands of ways for millions of citizens.

2017 was no exception.

Over the past year, in many member states, we have seen improvements in the execution of judgments and a record number of cases were closed.

We have seen significant improvements in detention conditions and treatment of detainees as recorded in our CPT reports.

Our Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women has attracted new signatories – including the European Union – and new ratifications too.

We have signed a co-operation agreement with internet companies to promote an open and safe web where human rights, democracy and the rule of law are respected.

Our Platform for the protection of journalism has enlarged.

We have launched an action plan on protecting refugee and migrant children and our qualifications passport for refugees has proven a success.

Our criminal law convention to prevent and combat the illicit trafficking and destruction of cultural property – or blood antiquities – was adopted.

We launched the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin, which will be led by Roma activists, scholars and artists themselves.

Our Gender Equality Strategy was agreed and will now be implemented.

We adopted a new recommendation to recognise migrants and refugees’ qualifications.

Our Riga Protocol to stop foreign terrorist fighters entered into force.

And on top of this – all of this – we continue our work to implement Action Plans in member states. In Ukraine, for example, we have the biggest Action Plan ever, worth 23 million Euros. And we are doing this for people in Ukraine, to combat the corruption of which they are victims, and to put in place a judiciary they can trust –

Thus securing the sovereignty and independence of this state.

These things don’t always make the headlines, but they make a huge difference to the lives that people live.

And we must make further progress still.

In 2018, we need national governments in our member states to resist the siren call of narrow nationalism and political populism.

The European Convention created a shared legal space in which the same standards are applied, and trust is therefore built.

I call on you to contribute – to help preserve the unique legal space, from Vladivostok to Lisbon, from the high north to the south Caucasus.

Therefore I would like to commend you, this Assembly, for establishing the Ad Hoc Committee that I believe will be an important instrument to that end.

I see that harmonising rules in the Organisation is part of its work.

We need to look at this regardless of the current situation concerning the voting rights of the Russian delegation.  There are many issues that the Committee must consider in order to strengthen the Convention system as a whole. Achieving this would be the best way to celebrate the 70th anniversary of this Organisation.

To have all member states on board on such important reform work is indispensable. 

The aim should be for all of us to use the difficult situation we face to achieve something important.

Namely that all 47 member states recommit themselves to fulfill their obligations and co-operate in good faith with all our statutory bodies.

With equal obligations come equal rights.

Equal obligations – equal rights – is the only concept that can keep our family together.

Europe must not be divided anew.

There would be no winners – only losers – from institutional failure and retreat to the past.

So I call upon the Committee of Ministers to join the efforts of this Assembly to resolve our problems, with strength and determination.

Dear friends,

Modern Europe, after the Second World War, was defined by the values enshrined in the European Convention, particularly by articles 2, 3, 4 and 7

  • No death penalty
  • No torture
  • No forced labour or slavery
  • No punishment without law

These articles can never be derogated, not even in times of state of emergency.

They represent the most fundamental values. They define the soul of Europe, the new Europe.

Any member state that violates these fundamental values cannot be a member of our family.  On this there can be no compromise.

This does not mean that member states are free to violate other articles.  If there is a violation of other articles in the Convention and a systematic absence of willingness to improve, then the high contracting parties to the Convention can ask the Court, under article 46.4 to judge whether a member state is in compliance with its obligations. 

So there are limits to what we can accept. 

But the fundamental idea must be to preserve the common legal space, for the sake of the people.  We must never forget that the Convention with its Court is the last resort for so many across our continent.

I have in mind the town hall in Siena and the two paintings by Pietro Lorenzetti which hang there. The first one is called “Allegory of the effects of good government”.

It shows a living Middle-Age city in the 13th century with the gate in the City Hall wide open and lively people working in the fields outside the wall. The second painting is called “Allegory of the effects of bad government”. It shows a disordered, closed Siena destroyed by in-fighting and wars.

Dear friends, let us keep both paintings by Lorenzetti in our minds. Humankind can be its own worst enemy but it can also produce the most astonishing results. Look at the Europe we have created: the open borders; the internal market; the common currency; a common legal space for human rights and the rule of law.

Further European unity cannot be achieved without that common legal space. Without it Europe will once again go the same way as Siena. But we can resolve to ensure the opposite. We can keep the gate open for all 47 member states, just as it was open in Siena during that city’s shining moments.