Secretary General's official visit

Brussels , 

"Strengthening Human Rights across Europe" European Policy Centre


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When I come to Brussels I often come to think of Sir Humphrey in the outstanding TV series "Yes Minister".

Sir Humphrey once explained to the Minister that Britain's policy objective in Europe was to get inside the EEC to break it up, and make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing in setting the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. As Humphrey concluded: The Foreign Office is terribly pleased, it's just like old times."

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

I think we are definitely more unified in Europe compared to the old times.

This year we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights which was opened for signature in 1950, only five years after the end of the Second World War. These were times of unhealed wounds, great hopes but also of great uncertainty. But it was a sign of a Europe united on the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The Council of Europe – and the European Convention on Human Rights – reflected the conviction of the European governments at the time that peace and stability in Europe could not be protected and promoted through military means alone. There was a need to deepen our security by establishing institutions which would anchor our identity, our history in enlightenment, the rights of man and freedom - and from that make us move forward. The concept of soft or deep security was born.

Four decades later, after the hostile ideological divide of the European continent had come to the end, the first of the former communist countries – Hungary – signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1990. The dividing lines across the continent began to disappear.

The fact that the political and institutional reconciliation of Europe began with an accession to the European Convention on Human Rights is in no way coincidental.

Today, we are in 2010. Another round date and a new, historic development related to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Two very important events with direct and far-reaching implications for the protection of human rights in Europe have taken place in the past two months. On 1 December last year, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force. And only a few days ago, the Russian Parliament ratified Protocol 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights.

These two legal instruments have been adopted in the framework of two different organisations for very different purposes, but they have one very important thing in common – they both provide for the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Article 6 of the Lisbon Treaty says, and I quote "The Union shall accede to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental freedoms". I should like to ask you to contemplate on the terminology, especially on the meaning of the word "shall". Not "may", or "might", or "could", not even "should". The word, Ladies and Gentlemen, is "shall".

On the Council of Europe side, we have Article 17 of Protocol 14 to the Convention, which says "The European Union may accede to this Convention".

Now, the sharper legal minds in the audience have certainly spotted the difference between the words "shall" and "may", but I assure you that the "may" is there out of courtesy, not through lack of enthusiasm on the Council of Europe side. We are very keen on marriage, but even though the bride already decided to say yes, we do not want to appear as taking her for granted until she walks down the aisle. And there is still a prenuptial agreement to be sorted out.

But speaking seriously, the future accession is an event of great political and legal importance, not only for the European Union or for the Council of Europe, but for European citizens and for Europe as a whole. It will create a safe haven for human rights stretching from Lisbon to Baku and from la Valetta, over Brussels to Vladivostok.

The European Union has a huge economic and political power to do good, but the exercise of any power always carries the risk of making mistakes, of breaching human rights. By accepting to submit the work of its institutions to the same rules and the same scrutiny which apply to all countries in Europe – with the regrettable exception of Belarus – the European Union is sending a very powerful message - that Europe is changing – and that the most influential and the most powerful are ready to accept their part of responsibility for that change and in that change.

And there are very important – and related – changes taking place in other parts of Europe as well. Just before Christmas I was in Moscow for a meeting with President Medvedev, and last week I was in Istanbul and Ankara for discussions with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdogan.

As to President Medvedev, he was very clear about the motives behind the decision to finally ratify Protocol 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Protocol, apart from providing the legal basis for EU accession, also introduces measures for streamlining the Court procedures which should help it to deal with its ever-growing backlog of cases.

President Medvedev told me that he wanted a functional and efficient European Court of Human Rights in order to benefit from its case-law to reform and modernise Russia's institutions, especially its judicial system. The signals we have been receiving from Moscow in recent months are pointing in one direction:

Russia is coming of age and it sees its future in Europe.

The EU accession to the European Union is also very relevant in this respect. Bringing everyone – including the institutions of the European Union – under the same system of legally-binding standards and under the same court –– will help to de-politicise and de-dramatise the interaction on matters of human rights between the European Union and countries such as the Russian Federation. Instead of monologues and communiqués, we will have a chance for a genuine and productive multilateral dialogue on these matters.

Does that mean that from now on, it will be smooth sailing all the way?

Of course not. But we have a window of opportunity for a historic change in the co-operation on democratic security and stability in Europe. I could not think of an objective which would be more in the European Union's interest, so this is a an opportunity which we really cannot afford to miss.

My visit to Turkey left me with similar impressions. Those who object to Turkey's full place in Europe tend to ignore the fact that Turkey has been a part of political Europe for years - at least since 1949 when it joined the Council of Europe and 1950 when it signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Of course, seniority is no guarantee for performance, and a quick look at the statistics of the European Court of Human Rights will show that Turkey tops the list of countries found in breach of the Convention. But things are changing, and in recent years the Turkish authorities have done a great deal to bring the laws and practice in line with European standards. But there is still a long way to go to complete this process - and the extremely harsh prison sentence for a Kurdish journalist by a Turkish court last week is a clear reminder of this fact.

It is very important that the driving force behind this process is the Turkish adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, and not merely outside pressure. The country's relations with Europe must not be perceived exclusively in the context of the protracted and often frustrating negotiations with the EU.

Political and administrative reforms, sometimes controversial, should no longer be seen as concessions to a partner who is not always the quickest to uphold their part of the deal, but as a compliance with a system of values which Turkey itself has helped to create and develop over the past sixty years.

Turkey is coming of age too, and it too sees its future in Europe.

The EU accession to the Convention will undoubtedly have a positive effect and help to reinforce the sense of Turkish ownership of the European human rights protection mechanism. Again, we have a chance for meaningful and productive dialogue and co-operation on issues related to human rights. This is good for Turkey, it is good for the EU, it is good for their future relations and it is good for Europe as a whole.

Turkey and Russia are of course only two examples of the positive ripple effect the accession of EU to the European Convention on Human Rights will have on countries outside the current EU membership and on Europe as a whole. The point I am making is that the accession is a development with far-reaching implications which go beyond the consequences the accession will have on the protection of human rights within the EU. And these are very important in themselves.

What is gradually falling into place is a new, continent-wide zone of dialogue, co-operation and interaction in the areas of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The concept of deep, or soft security, invented in the aftermath of the Second World War, is given the opportunity to live to its full potential and create a Europe which is safe, stable and genuinely without dividing lines.

The European Union is a global player, and with its huge political and economic clout, will continue to play the leading role in the process. Its accession to the Convention will in no way diminish its importance and influence, to the contrary. By accepting the same rules which are valid for everyone else in Europe it will gain in legitimacy and in its power of persuasion.

When the European Union accedes to the European Convention on Human Rights it too will have come of age. Seeing its future as a part of a pan-Europe anchored in human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The Council of Europe, as the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, will of course also play a major role in this new emerging situation. Here is why I think its role is indispensable.

Firstly, because the Council of Europe work on defending common European values through standard-setting and monitoring of obligations is free from economic, military and geostrategic considerations.

Secondly, because the Council of Europe is the only European organisation which covers the entire continent. The EU does not do that, even when extended to the candidate countries and associated countries. The OSCE includes non-European countries which may not share fully identical views on human rights and the functioning of democratic institutions.

Thirdly, because the Council of Europe is the only organisation which has both the mandate and the necessary tools to effectively and comprehensively monitor member States' compliance with obligations related to the respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Fourthly, because the Council of Europe is an extraordinary database of knowledge and information. The fact that we are reaching out to all European countries, possess monitoring tools, presence in the field, parliamentarians in 47 countries, unique contacts with local and regional governments and maintain close co-operation with the civil society gives us an exceptional access to knowledge and information.

Fifthly – and the list is of course not exclusive – because we are the host organisation to the European Court of Human Rights. The fact is that the Court deals with individual complaints about human violations which have already happened – but it is for the Council of Europe as a whole to transform the case law on individual cases into systemic and general measures for the prevention of human rights violations in all Council of Europe member states. This is an important point to bear in mind when we think of the EU accession to the Convention. To make it meaningful, functional end effective it cannot be restricted to the membership in the Court, but must include a more closer and more integrated relationship with all relevant parts of the Council of Europe.

It was because of the comparative advantages described above that the Prime Minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Junker described the Council of Europe as a "full scale factory for democracy", with an indispensable and unrivalled part in steering Europe in the right direction.

But you know how it is with factories. You cannot stay in the market if you are not flexible and quick to adapt to new circumstances. You cannot be competitive with machinery and production lines which have not changed for the past sixty or fifty years. This is the reason behind a comprehensive reform of the organisation which I presented to the 47 governments a few weeks ago, and which is aimed at making the Council of Europe more relevant, more effective and more flexible. You can say that we also have to come of age.

The Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, recently voiced a need for a new understanding of the political set up of European institutions in taking on future European security issues, and he specifically asked for the parties of the Corfu Process to work within a pan-European structure and monitoring mechanism as developed by the Council of Europe.

In conclusion, I should like to leave you with one thought. Since I took up the post of Secretary General just over four months ago, I have been constantly exposed to questions about the relationship between the Council of Europe and the European Union. With the perspective of EU accession to the Convention, the excitement has risen even further.

What struck me was that many people, in Strasbourg as well as in Brussels, see this relationship in terms of competition. This is how some perceived the creation of the Fundamental Rights Agency, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and this is how they may see the accession, trying to figure out who wins and who loses out.

This, of course, is a complete nonsense.

The EU and the Council of Europe are not in competition. The overlaps and frictions should be seen for what they are – dysfunctional deviations from our respective missions – not a part of them.

Still, we must ask the following question: what is the goal of the European Union? Is it the Union as such? Or is it greater European Unity?

For me it is very clear. All the developments in recent years which have increased the involvement of the European Union in the areas of human rights, are a part of and the continuation of the same process which started in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the creation of the Council of Europe and later the European Communities – and which has helped to safeguard peace and stability on our continent for the past six decades.

Yes, I believe it is very clear – the goal of the European Union is greater unity in Europe. A Europe without dividing lines, with institutions reinforcing one another for the purpose of a higher common good. Freedom, peace, law, diversity and solidarity which have become so fundamental to Europe.

The developments today are an opportunity to bring this process even further – towards more human rights, better democracy, a stronger rule of law and greater security and stability for ALL Europeans. This is incredibly important. I remind you of the words of Willy Brandt who once said that security in Europe was indivisible. Either it was for all, or it was for none!

I can assure you that the Council of Europe will be ready to meet its part of this historic opportunity. We will be an active and constructive partner in the negotiation - if we can even call it a negotiation. After all, on both sides of the table we have the twenty seven members of the European Union which already decided, not once, but twice - through the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and Protocol 14 - that the European Union should accede to the European Convention on Human Rights.

I know that the accession is a complicated legal and administrative project, but this should only motivate us to start sooner, rather than later.

My long political experience has taught me that there are two categories of people – those who make problems and those who solve them. The time has come to decide in which category we want to be.

History has no patience and no use for legalistic nitpicking, bureaucratic turf wars and those who see Europe as twelve stars rotating around their navel. This is my message to my colleagues in the Council of Europe and I know that it echoes the attitude of the political leadership in the EU. When I met President of the Commission in October, only days after I took up my office, the message was clear – the accession is a priority and should happen as soon as possible.

Now it is time to make it happen. We should not loose sight of the bigger picture. We have a historic opportunity to advance the European project. The time has come to ask ourselves what we can do for human rights and security in Europe, not the other way around. To solve the problems.

Thank you very much.