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Opening of the International Conference "Twenty years of Lithuania's membership in the Council of Europe: Lessons and Prospects"

Vilnius , 

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me first thank the organisers of the conference for the opportunity to join the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Lithuanian membership in the Council of Europe.

Sometimes, entangled in the urgency and the details of responding to the pressing issues, we lose sight of the big picture.

So let us take a step back and remind ourselves of the path we have walked together since 14 May 1993 when Lithuania acceded to the Council of Europe.

Twenty years ago, Lithuania still had foreign troops on its territory and the "talonas" were in circulation as a temporary currency. The Council of Europe officials who went to Vilnius to prepare an urgent debate on what happened during the events of January 1991, recall being received in a barricaded parliament behind sandbags, defying attempts to reverse the course to independence.

For Lithuania it was not simply a matter of taking over a set of human rights. These rights had to be fought for. When you stand in front of the memorial of those killed in January 1991 at the television tower, you realise that the fight for freedom and freedom of speech can cost lives.

The Lithuanians paid this price. Those who were in the fortified parliament building at the time of the battle knew that democracy had to be won through a bitter struggle.

In fact, Lithuania's accession to the Council of Europe was a reason to feel that justice had finally been rendered. It was the first country of the former Soviet Union to be accepted as a full member of the Council of Europe. Everybody saw it as a sign.

A sign that dividing lines were blurring and disappearing. A sign of a better and just future. A sign that there was no going back – Lithuania has regained its freedom and has returned home, Lithuania has returned to the place where it rightfully belonged – in Europe.

On that day, Europe put right the wrong perpetrated against Lithuania fifty years before that.

And we were confident that others would follow.

Europe's dramatic transformation made its mark on the Council of Europe – and vice versa.

It was a privileged perspective to witness the rapid transformation of Lithuania, and of Europe alongside. We can say that these 20 years have been mutually beneficial: Lithuania has been solidly anchored in European human rights, political and legal systems, while the Council of Europe has benefited from the country's active contribution to its work.

To illustrate this speed of change: Lithuania was the 27th state to accede, and today the number of members has grown to 47. This development tells the story of a profound transformation of Europe itself, not only of individual states.

What we have today has no precedent. It is worth recalling what eight hundred million people in Europe share together today. The death penalty has been abolished, de jure or de facto, in all 47 member States. Torture is outlawed. After decades of ideological divide, we have reconciled our European continent. The European Human Rights Convention and a Europe-wide court allow individuals to seek protection of their fundamental rights.

More than 200 treaties have been drawn up to defend and extend the European values and to respond to threats.

And what is more, a majority of the countries that joined the Council of Europe over the past twenty years are today members of the European Union, or candidates to its accession. In this regard, membership in the Council of Europe has helped pave the way to EU membership. It has truly offered a European perspective, being a driving force of European unification.

Dear Friends,

The Council of Europe has its place in the European political architecture, with a mandate to defend across the 47 member States the values of freedom and human dignity of every individual, regardless of his or her nationality, ethnic origin, cultural background or religious beliefs.

Have we been successful in our mandate? Is Europe today a place where diversity is better respected?

We have certainly come a long way.  European nations have learned to "live together" in peace. For the last two decades, we have been a training ground for democratic evolution for many countries.

And this is probably one of the major lessons of the last decades – better inside than outside.

Some think that the membership of some countries was rushed. But it is worth recalling that the membership in the Council of Europe has helped to advance the European legal culture in these countries, slowly one might say, but slow progress is better than nothing. Membership helped to gradually root the rule of law and the legal certainty in those countries.

It is now important to build on this. It is important to avoid new dividing lines re-emerging, not necessarily between but also within European nations.

The most appropriate way to celebrate an organisation devoted to democracy, human rights and the rule of law is to demonstrate strong commitment to these values. This is what Lithuania has been doing over the past two decades and this is what all friends of Lithuania expect from you in the future.

Lithuania has sizeable groups of minorities. We know that it is not easy to assert and implement minority rights. But we have to keep in mind that human rights are very often about protecting the rights of minorities. These rights cannot be subject to shifting political winds.

This is in fact a common challenge of European states. And we need to work on a common response. Diversity is a fact of life in Europe today and trying to do away with it inevitably leads to disaster.

The question of different cultural and religious groups living together in European societies will be of growing importance over the coming years and decades. Managing diversity is arguably even more important for Europe than the economy, energy, and military threats. History shows us that mismanaged diversity can be one of the main threats to European stability and security.

This is why we have the European Convention of Human Rights. 47 member States have undertaken to respect a set of European fundamental values and submitted themselves voluntarily to the authority of the European Court of Human Rights.

This is our lasting achievement. All 47 member States recognise the Court's extraordinary contribution to human rights protection in Europe. But we have challenges that still need to be met.

Firstly – to improve national implementation of the Convention, so that systemic issues are addressed and fewer violations occur. Effective human rights protection begins and ends at home. The Court was never meant to take over responsibility of the national courts.

The other challenge is to complete the legal space through the accession of the European Union to the European Convention of Human Rights. Once finalised, the EU as a legal body will join a European family of 47 countries in a system which commits them to respect the same legal standards, enforced by the same Court. In future the EU will be liable for its decisions and actions if they contradict the provisions of the ECHR. This, again, is unprecedented.

The case law of the European Court of Human Rights has become an essential element in combating discrimination, making the concept of human rights a living and evolving one.

Our societies are evolving – so are our attitudes and perspectives – and we must be ready to respond. Combating discrimination, prejudice and discriminatory laws towards LGBT persons is one example of this evolution.

I am aware of the discussions in the Seimas on this. An informed approach – rather than emotional considerations – should represent the way forward in this area. Much progress is still needed throughout the continent. This is not a minor question: discrimination faced by LGBT is widespread; in parts it is considered to be justified and frequently involves physical and psychological harm for those targeted. There is no excuse and no room for complacency.

The Council of Europe is not a club of perfect democracies. It is a workplace, where governments accept legally-binding obligations and voluntarily submit themselves to monitoring of their compliance with those obligations. Some take longer, others are swifter, but the fact is that we build the foundations of a Europe based on freedom and diversity. A Europe-wide space of peace.

Our collective efforts should now be focused on safeguarding our common legal space from the threats generated by the economic crisis, such as the rise of extremism, hate speech, vilification of immigration, intolerance. Responding to this crisis of values demands renewed efforts from all.

One of the biggest threats to democracy all over Europe is corruption. It undermines citizens' trust in the rule of law, in institutions and in democracy.

We know how difficult it was for Lithuania as it embarked on the road to a market economy and a pluralist democracy. After declaring its independence, the country set with determination about establishing a pluralist democratic system.  

Today it is a free, democratic and sovereign state. In a few weeks, the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of European Union kicks off. Of course, it has problems and difficulties. Who hasn't?

The progress has been breath-taking, in all spheres of life. Today, we are at another crossroads, with another set of challenges, requiring new and ambitious responses.
I have launched a major reform of the Council of Europe in order to make this organisation capable of addressing these challenges in concert with the member States.

We have a moral obligation towards those who fought to make human rights a reality here.

Today, while we celebrate, it is hard not to think of the dark days of January 1991 in Vilnius. It is important not to forget the barricades, the burning of the Parliament, the young unarmed men preparing to fight for freedom, and the candles in the snow commemorating those who died in quest for human rights. We owe it to them.

[Thank you for your attention and good luck with tonight's football World Cup Qualifier against Greece.]