Opening a high-level panel on “Upholding democratic security in Europe”, PACE President Tiny Kox underlined that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not only a direct and real threat to peace and stability on the continent but has also severely damaged the mechanisms of multilateral co-operation created 73 years ago.
“Today we stand in solidarity with millions of European citizens, first and foremost Ukrainians, but also with millions of European citizens who are not directly touched by the war, including those in the Russian Federation and in Belarus who oppose the war and strive to uphold democracy and fundamental rights against authoritarian and undemocratic governments,” he said.
“The Council of Europe is not in charge of ‘hard security’. Its role in addressing the consequences of the war of aggression which is waging on the continent is nevertheless extremely important. Because sustainable peace cannot be built without respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This is what democratic security is all about,” the President concluded.
Irish Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister Simon Coveney, speaking for the Irish Presidency of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers, said that “securing democracy demands that we protect the tapestry of institutions that collectively hold states and all of us to account. It means safeguarding freedom of expression, association and assembly. It means promoting an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary. It means guaranteeing the absolute integrity of our electoral systems.”
Democracy, Mr Coveney added, is “a precious metal, but it tarnishes easily. Without press freedom, without a vibrant civil society, without independent courts, democracy corrodes. We've seen the consequences when that happens. Over time, gradually, then suddenly it can collapse into autocracy. If we're to avoid this trend, as democratically elected leaders we must recommit to the first principles of the Council of Europe.”
“That is why, in the wake of war on our continent, I believe it's time to convene a fourth summit of Council leaders,” he declared. "That is why Ireland has made support for the Council's core institutions, above all the European Court of Human Rights, the first priority of our Presidency in the months ahead."
“We need to have more Council of Europe in the lives of Belarusians, and more Belarus in the Council of Europe,” said the leader of the Belarus opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, calling on the Council of Europe to establish a steering committee on relations with Belarus.
“Despite remarkable progress, the tragedy of Europe evoked by Churchill at Zurich is not yet over. The fires of war burn again on our continent – and again, voices are heard urging us to appease rather than oppose this behaviour. This is the antithesis of everything this organisation stands for. Ladies and gentlemen, we must, once and for all, end the tragedy of Europe”, she said.
“Our victory in the 2020 election was a message loud and clear – we are Europeans, and we want our country back, back to us Belarusians, and back to Europe. The tragedy of Belarus will become a new tragedy of Europe if it is not met with a determined, principled and practical response”, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said.
“Civil society and human rights defenders in Belarus and beyond need our support,” underlined Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto. In Belarus, he stressed, “the regime has liquidated over 300 NGOs and more than 1200 people are currently political prisoners. These people should be released immediately and without preconditions.".
Mr Haavisto said Europe was at a historic junction, where support for democratic forces is in high demand. “We have to be innovative to find ways to support civil society, human rights defenders and free media in Belarus – and quite separately, also in Russia. This can be done through dialogue and tools that we have available – and tools that are yet to be created,” he said.
Directly addressing Ms Tsikhanouskaya, he stressed that opposition groups and parties are equally worthy of support. “The Council of Europe can have a role in demonstrating concrete support for opposition groups that are working for democracy and human rights. Democracy needs people who work relentlessly to counter the actions of authoritarian leaders. You are one of those courageous persons,” Mr Haavisto concluded.
“The time has come for a fourth Summit of Heads of State and Government”, to agree on how we best fit in the newly-reshaped geopolitical architecture of Europe and how to put democratic security on a firmer footing in the years to come, said Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić.
The rise of populist and nationalist extremism “is a direct threat to our values, for multilateralism and democratic security. The most obvious example of this is the brutal aggression committed by the Russian Federation against Ukraine,” she added.
“We are now all united with Ukraine,” said the Secretary General. “This is the reason why the Council of Europe has decided to reopen its Kyiv office, to assist the Office of the Attorney-General in the investigation of gross violations of human rights, and to adapt its Action Plan for Ukraine”, she concluded.
The leaders of PACE political groups and several PACE members took also the floor (see full video).