Opening and Introduction to Lisbon Forum 2014
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Special Representative Leon,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour to be able to participate in the official opening of the Lisbon Forum 2014, and
I am very grateful to the Aga Khan Development Network for hosting us here today in the Ismaili Centre.
This Forum is also strongly supported by the European Union, through our joint South Programme aimed at strengthening democratic reform in the Southern Neighbourhood.
The Council of Europe’s North-South Centre and our partners in organising this Forum, the Aga Khan Development Network, International IDEA, and the Anna Lindh Foundation have all developed valuable knowledge and expertise in promoting democratic consolidation.
A culture firmly rooted in human rights and free and fair elections, a culture consisting of a strong civic responsibility and active electoral participation.
This is something Europe as well as our southern neighbours need now more than ever.
Across Europe, electoral turnouts are low.
Membership of mainstream political parties has fallen.
At the same time radical political movements, whose democratic credentials are more than questionable, are gaining ground.
Citizens feel less and less as if their vote matters. They feel that while they may be able to change who is in power, they are not able to affect what actions their leaders take.
Further afield, on our doorstep, we have seen how the lack of democratic checks and balances, free media and an independent judiciary can lead to widespread corruption and the misuse of power.
In my recent report on the State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Europe, the question of free and fair elections features very prominently and recommendations are given to improve electoral processes and guarantee their credibility.
These recommendations tackle crucial issues such as the right to vote and to be elected.
Issues such as the accuracy of voters’ lists and the buying of votes.
But also wider issues such as equal opportunities for political contestants in the pre-election period and the involvement of women and minorities in the electoral process.
All of these issues are vital to our democracy, we cannot simply pick and choose the ones which take our fancy.
I therefore think that the theme for this year’s Forum – “Electoral Processes and Democratic Consolidation in the Countries of the Southern Mediterranean” – is particularly well chosen as it clearly links electoral processes to the consolidation of democracy.
The importance of this link is clear for all to see.
Elections are the ultimate expression of democracy.
Genuine democracy is impossible without genuinely free elections.
Elections represent not only the culmination of a participative political process; they also structure the democratic debate.
They give the opportunity to political parties to present societal and economic options and to field men and women for government posts.
This is why the strengthening of the electoral process is an important part of what we do at the Council of Europe.
Over the years, the Council of Europe has developed solid expertise in this field.
We have European election standards, stemming from the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.
We have at our disposal the Venice Commission which has put together a “Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters.”
To this day, the Code remains the European reference text on elections.
We also have, of course, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional authorities.
At the request of the country holding elections these bodies take an active part in the international observation of elections.
We also provide election assistance to central electoral commissions to help ensure their impartiality and accountability.
These efforts are complemented by the work done by GRECO in overseeing the financing of political parties and campaigns.
While it is vital to ensure free and fair elections, it is just as important that citizens take an active part in them.
Perfectly administered elections with very low turn outs and little credibility in the eyes of voters is a half-hearted response to the democratic aspirations of our societies.
In order to have real ownership and credibility of the electoral process, the Council of Europe is redoubling its efforts to boost voter participation.
We are putting a special focus on first-time voters, on women, and on individuals belonging to minorities.
In particular, we are now working on an innovative tool: a Council of Europe “Participation Index”, which tackles the challenges of non-participation.
The index will serve to identify patterns of participation.
It will explore why citizens choose not to participate in political life.
And, most importantly, it will help us better focus our future action in this area.
This is an ambitious project: no other intergovernmental organisation has yet published a comprehensive index measuring participation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It would not be an overstatement to say that electoral processes are the beating heart of our democratic societies.
They set the pace of the political agenda within our capitals.
This is true for Europe.
But it is, of course, just as true of our southern neighbours.
The “Arab Spring” in Tunisia and other countries in the region brought to light fundamental issues regarding the respect of human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
These are issues which lie at the heart of the Council of Europe’s mandate.
In this respect, the Council of Europe and its partners, foremost among them the European Union, share the same objectives, namely to promote democratic values and the respect for human dignity in the region.
The South Programme is the perfect example of this.
Over the past two and a half years the Programme has enhanced efficiency and independence of the judiciary by improving Courts' performance and by facilitating judicial reform, using as a reference relevant Council of Europe standards.
It has promoted good governance through increased prevention of corruption and money laundering.
This too has been done on the basis of relevant Council of Europe standards, mechanisms and instruments.
More generally, the Programme has improved the basic framework for regional co-operation, strengthening and protecting the human rights infrastructure.
The Lisbon Forum is yet another example of the effective partnership between the Council of Europe and the European Union for the benefit of the southern Mediterranean region.
With an eye on the future, I am very pleased to report that Tunisia has recently submitted a formal request to accede to the Centre and this year’s Lisbon Forum is co-presided by the Tunisian Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr Gouiaa.
This is very encouraging news, and it follows the accessions of Morocco in 2009 and Cape Verde in 2010.
Tunisia’s valuable perspective on electoral processes has been and continues to be a valuable model for other countries in the region, not least due to its involvement of women in the electoral process, as voters but also as members of decision-making and elected bodies.
I would like to conclude in this spirit of optimism and determination.
What is perhaps most important about the Lisbon Forum is that it provides a privileged space which enables us all, from the “South” and from the “North” of the Mediterranean, to meet and exchange on an equal footing.
It allows all pieces of the puzzle – national authorities, parliaments, local elected bodies and civil society – to profit from each other’s experience.
It strengthens dialogue.
It promotes universal values.
It reinforces co-operation and solidarity.
This is what the Council of Europe’s neighbourhood policy is all about. This is what
I wish more of for our continent and for our neighbours.