Buffet Dinner for Heads of Delegation - 124th Session of the Committee of Ministers
Sixty-five years ago today your predecessors assembled in London to launch a new institution. At that time they could not have met in this great city of Vienna, which was still the desolate landscape immortalized in the film The Third Man. It was occupied by four of the victorious powers of World War Two, which meant that it was also divided – like Berlin – between the two sides in the Cold War. Europe had barely begun to recover from the one conflict, but was already torn asunder by the other.
It was, in the circumstances, an act of great courage and faith to found a new international organisation, dedicated to rebuilding European societies on the basis of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The countries which took this bold initiative were responding to the clarion call for a "kind of United States of Europe", issued by Winston Churchill in Zurich on 19 September 1946. But there were only ten of them, and they were obliged, for the time being, to limit their vision of unity in Europe to a relatively narrow band of territory, from Norway and Sweden in the north to Italy in the south.
Yet the ideas they proclaimed were powerful and magnetic. As and when other peoples on our continent achieved the freedom to choose their own destiny, one after another they used that freedom to espouse those ideas, and in every case one of their first acts to demonstrate and bind themselves to that commitment was to join this Organisation.
Within three months the founders were joined by Greece and Turkey, and then the following year by the Federal Republic of Germany – a moment of high symbolism – as well as Iceland.
Austria, which so generously hosts us today, followed in 1956; Cyprus, Switzerland and Malta in the 1960s; Portugal and Spain in the 70s; Finland in 1989 – and then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than 20 countries in central and eastern Europe, all of which wanted passionately to become democracies overnight.
They soon found that that is not so easy, and I think we can all be proud of the role the Council of Europe played in helping them to achieve it. Indeed, if we compare Europe today with what it was on May 5, 1949, we must all be thankful for the enormous progress that Europe has made, not only in material terms but, even more, in building democratic societies in which human rights and the rule of law are respected. Of course, this one institution cannot claim all the credit, but it can surely be proud of the part that it has played.
It can be proud, but it cannot be satisfied – and still less complacent. Yes, our societies in Europe today profess to be democratic, and to respect human rights and the rule of law. But none can claim to do so perfectly, and in many there is a wide gap between principle and performance – especially in the area of human rights.
No European country is without human rights problems, and Europe is not divided into countries which have such problems and those which do not. It may, on the other hand, be divided between those which acknowledge their challenges, and are ready to co-operate with the Council of Europe in addressing them, and those which do not.
I would urge all member States to acknowledge that current problems make the values and principles that the Council stands for more relevant, not less; and that, thanks to recent reforms, the Council itself is now much better focused and better able to give practical advice and help where they are most needed. Its strengths derive from an approach based not on political preference but on impartial application of a shared and freely accepted body of law.
It is based, ultimately, on the obligation to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights – an obligation which all member States have accepted. It is up to them to nurture these distinctive strengths, and to make full use of them.
The situation of Ukraine is, of course, on all our minds. No other European country, at this moment, has to confront such acute internal and external pressures, and none is in such dire need of assistance. A very dangerous precedent has been set: territory has been transferred from one sovereign State to another by unilateral action, justified by the alleged need to protect a national minority. This is something we have not seen in Europe since the 1930s. We thought that we had learnt, in the Europe of the 21st century, to deal with such problems differently – through negotiation, compromise, and mutual respect both among States and among their citizens.
I cannot reconcile myself – and I hope that you cannot, either – to the idea of going back to the bad old ways.
Ukraine needs economic assistance, no doubt, but no less crucially – and perhaps more fundamentally – it needs the kind of assistance which this Council is best equipped to provide: assistance in planning and implementing necessary reforms, including a new Constitution and a revised electoral law, as well as the assistance we are giving, in cooperation with the International Association of Prosecutors, in overseeing the investigation of killings and other violent events which occurred during the recent revolution.
As you know, the Committee of Ministers decided to deploy a mission under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, while the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Commissioner for Human Rights have also visited Ukraine. In short, we have given assistance in many forms, and we will continue to do so.
Ours, I believe, is the kind of assistance the new Ukrainian authorities need in order to restore the unity of the country – a unity that can only be based on the full-hearted consent of all its citizens, and on confidence in new institutions which will be fully accountable, governed by law, and accessible equally to all.
Ukraine's situation is peculiarly difficult right now, but let no one imagine that similar problems cannot arise elsewhere. There are other Member States where one can see many of the prodromal symptoms – corruption, lack of an independent judiciary, lack of media freedom, etc. – which preceded the crisis in Ukraine. I urge the States in question to take action to resolve these problems, and to seek the Council's assistance in doing so, before it is too late.
In short, ladies and gentlemen, I believe there is an urgent need for all member States to recommit themselves to our common European values, and to the unique Convention system we have in Europe, of which the Convention on Human Rights is, of course, the cornerstone. The essence of this system is that the rights and liberties of individual citizens are protected by binding Conventions, which all States have voluntarily and solemnly entered into, and to which they hold each other.
Only by reaffirming and strengthening that system, I believe, can we safeguard the peace and unity which, since 1989, we had come to take for granted throughout this continent.
That is too great a prize to let slip, yet I fear it is now seriously threatened. I therefore appeal to you all to agree to hold a Council of Europe Summit in 2015, devoted to Democratic Security. This Summit should be the occasion for all member States to renew their commitment to fundamental rights, and to set priorities for the Council – and for themselves – for the years between now and 2020.
Together, we can put Europe back on the path of unity and co-operation, based on common values, standards and legal obligations.
Let us seize this occasion to work towards it.
Thank you very much.
22 December 2017
Letter to the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis