I am honoured to speak in front of the Assembly for the first time today, having had the pleasure of meeting some of you already in Tallinn on 27 May at the meeting of your Standing Committee.
Estonian Chairmanship has started with several high-level meetings and occasions, beginning with the ministerial meeting in Sofia and the recent, innovative and inspiring EuroDIG conference in Brussels. There, I had the opportunity to introduce Estonia’s chairmanship priorities related to internet freedom and to announce that Estonia would be the next host (of EuroDIG) in 2017.
It is indeed a great pleasure to be here with you, just before our Prime Minister´s visit to the Council of Europe tomorrow.
Estonia’s priorities for the period of our Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe have been already introduced on several occasions. But allow me to give this distinguished audience a very brief overview of our priorities.
I would like to emphasize at the outset that we stand strongly for Europe’s fundamental values – human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We will continue with the issues raised by Bulgaria during its chairmanship and we will add other dimensions.
Firstly, human rights and the rule of law on the Internet. I would like to thank the Council of Europe for its efforts to ensure that our core values are ‘fit for purpose’ in the digital age and help us to maintain a people–centred approach to the Internet’s development.
As information communication technologies develop rapidly and affect the lives of people in Europe, the protection of human rights and the rule of law online are needed more than ever. In this respect, the Council of Europe’s instruments, its unique mandate of core values, its extensive network of State and non-State actors within and beyond Europe, and its potential to develop agile, hybrid working methods are of considerable added value.
During our chairmanship, we will work together with all partners to ensure the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, both offline and online, contribute to the implementation of the Council of Europe Internet Governance Strategy (2016-2019), and promote relevant Council of Europe standards. Estonia is committed to making the Internet a safe, secure, open and inclusive environment. This will require global multi-stakeholder co-operation, in particular between governments and major Internet companies.
We welcome the Council of Europe’s work to include such companies in the its international legal frameworks dealing with human rights and the rule of law. Making business part of the solution, and not part of the problem, this is the way forward.
Secondly, we will focus on issues related to gender equality. Achieving gender equality is central to the protection of human rights, the functioning of democracy, respect for the rule of law, and economic growth and sustainability. More equal societies work better for everyone, and for this reason in Estonia we work hard to have equal representation at decision-making levels and equal treatment in the labour market in terms of competiveness and pay.
We stress the importance of the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Strategy 2014-2017, which aims to increase the impact and visibility of gender equality standards, and to support their implementation in member States.
There are clear inter-linkages between gender equality and human rights. Societies, honoring the principles of gender equality also stand out in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Thirdly, children’s rights are an integral part of human rights. For example, on the 1st of January this year, Estonia enacted a new Child Protection Act. It is based on the concept of creating a supportive environment for children, making the best interests of children the primary consideration and ensuring that children receive the necessary assistance and care in a timely manner, in close co-operation with relevant institutions at national and local level.
We will continue Bulgaria’s work in this field, emphasizing three key areas of the new Strategy for the Rights of the Child: child participation, children’s rights in the digital environment, and children in migration.
The prevention of and fight against the sexual abuse of children will also remain one of our priorities in the children’s rights agenda. Estonia will ratify the Lanzarote Convention during our chairmanship and will emphasize the need for better implementation of the Convention throughout the member States of the Council of Europe.
In addition to these priorities, we will continue to advance other areas of political importance for the Council of Europe and further improve the Council’s co-operation with other international organizations. Our agenda is ambitious and the tasks ahead of us are considerable.
Dear members of the Assembly,
Let me now inform you about some of the main developments within the Committee of Ministers since your previous session.
The most significant event from an institutional viewpoint was of course the 126th Session of the Committee of Ministers, what took place in Sofia on 18 May. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the outgoing Bulgarian chairmanship for the work done during its chairmanship and for its hospitality during the meeting in Sofia.
Under the Session’s theme of democratic security, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs discussed the key issues which are currently at the forefront of the European stage. Among these, combating violent extremism, radicalisation and terrorism continues to be a crucial goal, as the recent incidents in Turkey, France and United States have so tragically reminded us. In Sofia, the ministers welcomed the progress made on implementing the Action Plan they had adopted the previous year and called for as many states as possible to sign the Council of Europe convention in this area. To date, the Protocol on foreign terrorist fighters, which was opened for signatures in Riga in October 2015, has already been signed by 29 states and by the European Union. This is good news but we could achieve a still better result. We must continue to draw members States’ attention to the importance of this treaty so as to ensure its entry into force as soon as possible. And for this, honourable members of the Assembly, we look for your help and the influence you have in your respective parliaments.
In Sofia the ministers also discussed the contribution that the Council of Europe can make to the on-going refugee crisis. Yesterday, on 20th of June, World Refugee Day was marked in many countries around the world to raise awareness about the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, conflict and persecution. We cannot insist enough on the need to work together to meet this immense challenge and to deal with the many human tragedies that result.
The debate you held this morning reminded us of the need to strengthen solidarity among European countries so as to be able to rise to the challenge and ensure that the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees are respected in Europe. I welcome the ever increasing involvement of the Assembly in these matters, such as the recent visit to Greece by a delegation led by President Agramunt. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that all persons within the jurisdiction of member States can enjoy the protections afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights.
I would also like to welcome the steps taken by the Secretary General to contribute to this collective effort, including his recent appointment of a Special Representative on Migration and Refugees. For its part, the Committee of Ministers is determined to step up its activities, encouraging the preparation of practical means to prevent and combat illegal trafficking in migrants and acting to protect children affected by the migrant crisis.
In an informal setting in Sofia, we also considered possible means of securing compliance with human rights standards in conflict areas. It is indisputable that all people living in such areas should be entitled to fully enjoy the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Council of Europe bodies responsible for monitoring compliance with human rights should be allowed access to such areas and be able to perform their tasks freely, without hindrance and in complete safety. Although of course, such operations in conflict areas should in no circumstances lead to, or be interpreted as, a de facto recognition of the authorities exercising control over these areas.
This consideration naturally leads me to the situation in Ukraine.
We have two causes for satisfaction. The first is the presence here in this Chamber of Ms Savchenko. Your release, Ms Savchenko, which the Committee of Ministers also called for, is a great relief. I hope that it will be followed by the release of other hostages and illegally detained persons.
The second is the recent adoption by the Verkhovna Rada of constitutional amendments relating to the reform of the judiciary. This marks an important stage in Ukraine’s democratic development, which I hope will be followed by further progress. The Council of Europe will continue to actively support Ukraine’s efforts towards the consolidation of democratic institutions, including through the implementation of the 2015-2017 Action Plan.
Nonetheless, the situation in Ukraine is still a major cause for concern,both for the security of this country and the stability of Europe as a whole. At the end of April, the Ministers’ Deputies reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. They reiterated their condemnation of the illegal annexation of Crimea and expressed their grave concerns about the deterioration of the human rights situation, as reflected by the recent ban on the activities of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People. The recent worsening of the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine is also a major source of concern, making it all the more necessary for all the parties to implement the Minsk agreements promptly and fully.
The Committee of Ministers also continues to follow the development of the conflict in Georgia very closely. For this purpose, it can rely on the valuable information provided regularly by the Secretary General. In Sofia, the Committee of Ministers took note of the Secretary General’s consolidated report on the conflict for the period from November 2015 to March 2016. As you know, an item on this conflict is also included on the agenda of every meeting of the Deputies. The Deputies recently reiterated the member States’ unequivocal support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called once again on the Russian Federation to comply with its obligations and commitments under international law.
As in Ukraine, the question of access by Council of Europe bodies to territories beyond the control of the legitimate authorities is a key issue. The Secretary General has been invited to engage in dialogue with the Russian Federation and Georgia to arrange for unrestricted access.
The Council of Europe is also fully committed to working with the Georgian authorities on the implementation of Council of Europe standards in Georgian legislation and practice. It was for this purpose that a new Action Plan for Georgia was officially launched in Tbilisi at the beginning of May by the Georgian authorities and my predecessor, Minister Mitov, the Bulgarian Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Elsewhere in the Caucasus, the situation remains tense between Armenia and Azerbaijan following the violent confrontations in April in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. Fortunately, discussions are under way under the aegis of the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group with a view to resuming negotiations on an overall settlement. The fact that the Presidents of both countries met yesterday, is a positive sign.
Armenia and Azerbaijan jointly committed to a peaceful settlement of this conflict on joining the Council of Europe, and I would encourage these countries to redouble their efforts to bring to an end a conflict that has already lasted far too long.
In Armenia, the Council of Europe is also keen to support the authorities’ efforts to further enhance democracy, human rights and the rule of law, in particular through a new action plan launched officially last month. In Azerbaijan, an Action plan was adopted nearly two years ago and the Ministers’ Deputies will soon review its implementation.
The recent decisions of the Azerbaijani authorities to release several journalists and political opponents is a welcome development. I hope to see other releases follow, particularly that of Mr Ilgar Mammadov. Earlier this month, the Committee of Ministers once again insisted that Mr Mammadov should be released without further delay and agreed to examine his case at each of its weekly meetings until it takes place.
Finally, regarding Belarus, the recent news is unfortunately not encouraging. Since the Assembly’s last session, the Ministers’ Deputies have had to condemn another execution, an unwelcome addition to the three death sentences handed down in 2016. The Committee of Ministers has repeatedly called on Belarus to bring an end to the death penalty. Establishing a moratorium as a first step towards abandoning this barbaric practice would be a major advance for this country, which hopes to join the Organisation.
Our aim remains to integrate Belarus into the Council of Europe, but this can only be done on the basis of our values and principles. These include the organisation of free and fair elections. I therefore very much hope that the Belarusian authorities will organise the forthcoming parliamentary elections – which your Assembly has been invited to monitor – in compliance with democratic standards.
And last but not least, I would like to draw your attention to another high-level event promoted by our Chairmanship that took place last week on the protection and promotion of human rights in culturally diverse societies. This event was directly linked to the core principles of equal dignity of all human beings, and the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by all members of society. The recent tragedy in Orlando only confirms the ongoing need to continue our efforts to improve the protection and promotion of human rights. Terrorism and hate crimes have no place in our societies. Such horrific acts of violence that take the lives of innocent people and cause despair and grief. We condemn them absolutely.
This was just a brief presentation of the major developments I wished to share with you. I set much store by constructive co-operation between the Committee of Ministers and the Assembly. I am therefore very willing to answer any questions that you may wish to put to me.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
Assuming the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is a great responsibility. I would like to assure you that we approach our Chairmanship with the highest commitment. We hold the Council of Europe in great regard as an organization for creating norms and standards. In our second chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, we aim to reflect in the Council of Europe the same spirit of leadership and same spirit of inspiration, from which our country has benefited in the last 23 years.
But the efforts of the chair are only part of the story. I strongly believe that the best results can only be achieved by working hand in hand with you, the Assembly. To quote Bertrand Russell: “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”
Thank you for your attention!