Thorbjørn Jagland: Greater coherence, cohesion and consolidation through reform

Strasbourg , 

Mr President, dear members of the Assembly,

First of all, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to speak to you, for the second time since you elected me last October.

I know that my predecessors usually spoke to the Assembly once a year, namely on the occasion of the state of the Council of Europe speech.

My intention, and I hope that you will respond positively, is to engage in a much closer, substantial and dynamic dialogue with you.

Today I want to inform you about the progress in the reform process, but I want this to be an exchange of views, because it is very important that I get your opinion and feedback on the reform which affects the Council of Europe as a whole.

The reform process is about making the Council of Europe more politically relevant and influential. This is why the best way to illustrate the case for the reform and the measures adopted so far is through a discussion on some topical political developmments in Europe.

I will return to a more detailed description of the reform package so far later on.

In terms of political action, the beginning of my mandate has been marked by two important and complex situations, namely continued efforts to reinforce the role of the Council of Europe in dealing with the consequences of the conflict in Georgia, and the constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I am of course not drawing any analogies between these two cases, except in three aspects; they largely coincide in time, they have both seen substantial involvement of various Council of Europe bodies and mechanisms, and in both cases the overall and cumulated impact of the Council of Europe has been less than it could and should have been. At least so far.

When it comes to the situation in Georgia, the Council of Europe has clearly not done enough in its fields of competence and responsibility to help the population affected by the conflict in August 2008. This was not for the lack of trying, but mostly due to the obstacles which exist in accessing all areas affected by the conflict and the level of mistrust resulting from the hostilities.

The two exceptions to this overall assessment are the work of the Commissioner of Human Rights and also the activities of the Assembly, notably the work of the Rapporteur and the Chair of the Migration Committee, Corien Jonker.

The Committee of Ministers, which should be the driving force for meaningful intergovernmental action, has been locked in an 18 month long discussion on the format of the reports on the situation in Georgia. I repeat, for a year and a half, there has been an argument on how to report on a situation, rather than doing something about it.

I believe that we experienced a beginning of a breakthrough a month ago, when the Committee of Ministers approved my proposal for a new format for the reports on the conflict situation in Georgia. This format is forward-looking and aimed at reinforcing our action to improve human rights situation in all areas affected by the conflict.

The new series of reports – the first one will be presented in early May – are not a means in themselves, but a platform to facilitate a mutually-reinforcing action of different Council of Europe bodies and mechanisms. As I have said, most of the obstacles preventing more Council of Europe work are external and beyond our control, but this is no excuse for not trying to group all our efforts and pull in the same direction.

The second situation in which many different bodies of the Council of Europe, and notably the Assembly, have been involved for quite some time, is the constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition to the Assembly, which has been calling for a comprehensive revision of the constitutional arrangements agreed in Dayton for some time, we have also had a very active involvement by the Venice Commission. This has resulted in a set of opinions which is broadly accepted by the international community as a blueprint for the constitutional reform.

So far however, all international efforts have not succeeded in overcoming the resistances to change the ethnically-based arrangements which were put in place to end the war, but which have proven inadequate to provide for sustainable peace, stability and prosperity of the country.

The situation changed in December last year, when our Court of Human Rights ruled that the existing constitutional arrangements violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since that moment, the constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina is no longer only a matter of international expectations, but a legal obligation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a member of the Council of Europe. This gives our organisation a particular role and responsibility and this is also why it will be discussed at the forthcoming session of the Committee of Ministers on 11 May.

The next parliamentary elections, planned for October, are adding to the urgency of having a clear, co-ordinated and consolidated position – within the Council of Europe - and within the international community, on all aspects of the execution of the judgment and its implications for the constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Perhaps I could also add a third example, somehow different because it concerns a non-member country, namely Belarus. However our relations with Belarus also provide arguments in favour of more co-ordinated and mutually reinforcing approach of all Council of Europe bodies and mechanisms dealing with the most important political and legal challenges which fall within the mandate of our Organisation.

When it comes to the relations with Belarus, the Assembly has played, and continues to play, a leading role. This was the case in the past when it offered the Belarus parliament the status of special guest, again when this status was suspended and when the Assembly decided, last June, that the special guest status will not be reinstated until a moratorium on the executions is put into place by the Belarus authorities.

Against this background, there has been a series of undertakings by successive chairmanships of the Committee of Ministers as well as by the Secretariat to develop the relations with Belarus in order to maintain the pressure on the authorities in Minsk to improve their respect for democracy and human rights and, by doing so, make this European country closer to our standards and values.

The outcome of these efforts was mixed. On the one hand, we had some successes – namely the opening of the Council of Europe Information Point in Minsk, the nearly achieved accession to GRECO and the request for accession to the Council of Europe anti-trafficking convention.

But there were also setbacks, the most dramatic being the executions of two persons in March.

This was a bitter disappointment to those who hoped and worked for an improvement in relations with Belarus. In response to the execution, I have decided to postpone or cancel all planned Council of Europe activities with the Belarus government which are under my authority, until I get a clear signal from Minsk that they are serious about their intention to come closer to the Council of Europe and to adopt a substantially different approach to the most fundamental Council of Europe values and principles.

As a result, I recently received a letter from the Belarus Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov. In the letter, the Minister reaffirms the wish to improve relations and also the commitment to pursue consideration on the moratorium on the execution of the death penalty, including in co-operation with the Council of Europe. The Belarus authorities have also recently decided to prolong activities of the Council of Europe Information Point by one more year. The presence of this Council of Europe office is not only positive for maintaining contacts with the authorities, but even more important for our constant and well established work with the representatives of the civil society.

This is of course not enough, but it is something. I therefore believe that our approach should be the one of continuous engagement, aimed at achieving progress with regard to the moratorium, but also all other critical aspects of Belarus' compliance - or rather non-compliance - with Council of Europe standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

I hope we shall be able to agree on a common policy and ways of supporting each other in our activities on this topic.

As I mentioned earlier, I raise these issues not only because they are very important in themselves, but also because they allow us to draw important conclusions on our strengths and weaknesses in the Council of Europe's action today. They show us why the specific reform measures are so vital.

When I took up the office of the Secretary General, my first impression about the Council of Europe was that it was a fragmented organisation.

We – and by this I mean all the parts of the Council of Europe – the Committee of Ministers, the Assembly, the Court, the Commissioner, the Congress, the partial agreements, the monitoring mechanisms, all operational directorates – have a strong, joint interest in more cohesiveness, co-ordination and prioritisation in our work.

Let me be clear: cohesion does not mean that there will be any interference in the autonomy and prerogatives of the independent bodies such as the Assembly, the Court, or the Commissioner for Human Rights.

Nobody can or will tell you what to discuss or how to vote. Nobody can or will tell the European Court of Human Rights how to rule on the cases before it. Nobody will interfere with the autonomy of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, which is absolutely essential to its mandate.

But I think it should be evident to all, for example, that it is in the interests of the Assembly that your important reports are followed up and supported by intergovernmental work. It is clear that it is in the interest of the Court of Human Rights if their rulings are accompanied by systematic European and national measures, standard-setting and co-operation activities. Our ultimate joint goal must be to prevent future human rights violations, not only sanction the ones which already occurred! If we cannot do this then most of the impact is simply lost.

The opposite is also true. Our standard-setting and monitoring work cannot be fully effective without the political and legal groundwork provided by the Assembly, by the Court, the Commissioner and the Congress.

In my opinion the Council of Europe is a team with excellent individuals, but we have neglected the importance of team play.

This is why we are pulling below our weight in Europe. This is why our influence is not what it should be, this is why we are perhaps heard, but not always listened to.

The reform is intended to change all that, through a greater coherence, cohesion and consolidation of our teams and activities.

Very briefly, here are the key points of the reform package.

First, structural and administrative measures, which include the setting up of a policy-planning cell, the internal oversight service and a review of the programme and budget document, which is much shorter, clearer and more transparent. It states clearly what we intend to do and by what means we will accomplish it.

Next is the prioritisation of work. In the past, we have been spreading ourselves too thinly over far too many activities. They may have been all worthy, but without the critical mass of financial and staff support, they simply did not have the required effect.

With the new budget, we are focusing on what we can do best, in areas where we are leaders, and where we can make a real impact. That is why a number of projects will have to be suspended or discontinued, while some activities will continue but via different mechanisms. For example by the creation of partial agreements or through more reliance on voluntary contributions.

The savings will be used to reinforce our monitoring mechanisms, provide extra resources for the Human Rights Commissioner, reinforce targeted co-operation with our member states and do more on key priorities such as our work on Roma.

The reform also includes the review of our external presence. I know that this is also very closely followed by the members of the Assembly, who regularly rely on the assistance and the support of our external offices during their missions in Council of Europe member States.

Today the network consists of six different types of offices, with very different mandates, structures, staff and logistical arrangements. Some of the offices are clearly no longer adapted to priorities.

The objective of the reform is to rationalise the existing network of Council of Europe offices, to reinforce our project-management capacities and to improve our liaison with international partners. We need a smaller but more efficient network.

The next segment is the reinforcement of our work with the non-governmental organisations and the civil society.

Finally, the reform package also includes a number of measures related to the staff of the Council of Europe. The overall objective is to maintain the quality of the staff and their motivation, and at the same time introduce measures to limit the overall staff-related costs. This is absolutely necessary in the present economic situation in all our member states.

All these measures are designed to reinforce our impact, to turn our activities into results, to ensure that your relevant decisions and reports are followed up by specific action, making a real difference for real people. We will achieve this by doing less but doing it better. We will work together, pool our resources and influence and cumulate our impact. We shall be more relevant in Europe because we shall all pull in one direction.

Achieving this will not be easy, but the end result is well worth the effort. Such a fundamental change both in method and in the mindset cannot succeed without a high level of responsibility and flexibility from all involved – the governments, the parliamentarians, the staff of the Council of Europe.

We cannot have unanimity on every aspect of the reform, but I am doing everything to obtain and sustain the critical mass of support for the overall objective of the reform. I believe that we all have a strong interest in making it successful.

This is not about our respective influence or status, it is for the sake of the mission we were given 60 years ago. To defend and extend human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. In Europe, for Europe and for all people who live on our Continent.

Thank you.