Tuesday, 7 June 2022
Organised by the CeSPI and the School of International Studies of Università di Trento
At the conclusion of Italy’s six-month Preisdency of the Council of Europe
May I first thank you for inviting me to this Seminar on "Human Rights and solidarity in Europe today". This issue is of particular relevance for the future European architecture and the multilateral cooperation based on protection and promotion of the rule of law, human rights and democracy as fundamental values for civilized national and international cooperation, values that we want to protect and promote at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which I have the honour to preside.
Human rights are officially guaranteed in Europe, as almost all European States participate in Europe’s oldest and broadest treaty organization, founded in 1949: the Council of Europe, with Italy as one of its founding fathers. Since then almost all States in Europe have joined the organization, including former authoritarian States like Spain and Portugal and, since the end of the Cold War, the former communist States, including Russia And Ukraine.
By doing so they all have committed themselves with regard to their citizens to respect the human rights and freedom formulated in the European Convention of Human Rights. This is a unique binding international convention, which allows all European citizens to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in case they feel themselves violated in their fundamental rights and freedoms. The guidance given by the Court verdicts has substantially improved the development of one legal sphere in member States and therewith in the whole of Europe. The enormous caseload of the Strasbourg Court, however, indicates as the same time that until today far too many member States still commit themselves far too less to what they should guarantee their citizens under the Convention. And due to a recent series of crises, we witness in member States even an erosion of these rights and freedoms. So: human rights are a great idea to civilize our societies and protect our citizens as well as a stubborn challenge for authorities to fully commit themselves to their obligations towards their citizens.
Since 24 February 2022, many of the fundamental human rights and freedoms are brutally attacked in our member State Ukraine by an illegal Russian military invasion. Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, waged in open defiance of international law, has done enormous harm to the international order set up after the end of the 2nd World war and the Cold War and put the existing European multilateral architecture at great risk.
Half March our Parliamentary Assembly concluded therefore, unanimously, that the Council of Europe membership of the Russian Federation should come to an end. Starting a war of aggression against your neighbours in spite of your solemn commitment to pursuing peace, means crossing a red line with the Council of Europe and therewith means there is no longer place for you in the Council of Europe.
Having heard the Assembly’s opinion, the Committee of Ministers – the intergovernmental part of the Council of Europe - decided only one day later to indeed and immediately end Russia’s membership. No other international organization did act so quickly and decisively. I am sad that we had to do it, but I am glad that we dared to do it, showing that membership of the Council of Europe and European multilateralism is not for free.
Since then, however, the military aggression of the Russian Federation continues. Due to this devastating destruction tens of thousands have been killed, injured, maltreated; millions of citizens were forced to leave their homes and over 5 million – half of them children – had even to leave their country, seeking shelter in one the 45 other member States of the Council of Europe. I am glad to witness a concrete solidarity in Europe with those who are now seeking shelter. Heartwarming – nevertheless, it is not enough. Much more help should be provided by our 45 member States and other States and international organizations. Today, tomorrow and in the future. International solidarity is needed now and will be needed in the years to come, as the humanitarian consequences of armed aggression will be immense and will last long. Destruction only takes days and months, reconstruction needs years and decades.
In April, I visited Ukraine, at the invitation by the Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament. There, I underlined our Organisation's solidarity with the citizens of Ukraine. Every day this war goes on, means one more day of almost unbearable suffering of the Ukrainian people and violation of fundamental rights and freedoms. That is why this war, that should never have started, has to stop immediately. And that is why the Russian authorities have to be held accountable for their violation of international law and their violation of fundamental human rights of the citizens of Ukraine.
Our Assembly expressed in its latest session, at the end of April, its full support for all efforts aimed at investigating violations by Russia of international human rights and international humanitarian law and other international crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and ensuring the accountability of the aggressor, including through setting up an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.
Such a tribunal should apply the definition of the crime of aggression as established in customary international law. It could be based in Strasbourg, in view of possible synergies with the European Court of Human Rights and should have the power to issue international arrest warrants and not be limited by State immunity or the immunity of heads of State and government and other State officials. At the same time, member States should support and co-operate with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and make use of universal jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.
In my opinion, Russia's unilateral war of aggression against Ukraine has shown the weakness of actual multilateralism, from the United Nations and its Security Council, to the OSCE, the European Union and the Council of Europe as well. They all aim to prevent war and pursue peace – but altogether they could not prevent Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s suffering. But brutal unilateralism, now shown by Russia, leads to nowhere, as history taught us, and only underlines the increased urgent need to structurally strengthen our European multilateral political architecture, in order to better protect and promote the rule of law, respect of human rights and the development of democracy. Therefore I am glad that on 20 May 2022 our Ministers of Foreign Affairs, chaired by your Minister Luigi Di Maio, agreed to organize as soon as possible a special Summit of all Heads of State and Government of our 46 member States to discuss the future of the Council of Europe and effective multilateralism. By now this preparation is underway. And I am keeping a close watch on it, as it was the Assembly, more specific Professor Michele Nicoletti, who insisted that such a Summit was unavoidable.
The upcoming Summit should and could lead to a renewed, improved and reinforced Council of Europe, with new competencies, better equipped to protect and promote democratic security and embedded in a renewed and inclusive European political architecture; capable of taking more timely and effective collective actions to protect and develop rules-based multilateralism, in order to be able to better deal with existing and emerging threats in Europe.
Now that the European Union is not capable nor willing to include other European States at short notice into its structures, joining of the Council of Europe structures by the EU could create a sort of pan-European union for non-EU-members, to which President Macron recently referred. Instead of a new union, the creation of which would cost a lot of time and cause a lot of problems, it would be far easier to re-new the Council of Europe, open to all European States. A similar move we saw at the end of the Cold War, when President Mitterrand proposed a new union for former communist States. Instead of doing so, it was decided to open the Council of Europe for these States and to make participation in the Council of Europe a precondition for joining the European Union. And so it happened, to the benefit of old and new member States of the Council of Europe as well of the European Union.
To strengthen the unique protection of all European citizens by the European Convention of Human Rights, and as was already stipulated in the 2008 Lisbon Treaty, the European Union must adhere to the Convention as a matter of urgency. This would give an enormous boost to the convention-system, the European Court of Human Rights, as well as to both the Council of Europe and the European Union. Therefore, this issue should be on the top of the upcoming Summit’s agenda.
A similar effect would be created in case the EU would also accede to the European Social Charter, which formulates essential socio-economic rights of European citizens. We need to admit that the austerity policies our member States pursued after the 2008-2009 financial crisis did a lot of harm to our social protection systems. Socio-economic inequalities in society have grown larger and deeper, both within and between States, and our resilience to external shocks has weakened. Something that became especially visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our member States need to discuss in the coming Summit how to structurally improve the protection and implementation of social rights and strengthen the effectiveness of the Charter system, preferably with the European Union as partner. Only if we are able to structurally mitigate social and economic inequalities, human rights application as such will be able to flourish.
As social rights and environmental protection go hand-in-hand, a healthy environment is a precondition for human life. Therefore it has to be a part of all fundamental protection mechanisms – including the European Social Charter. Our Assembly wants that the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment should be considered as a human right, by the drafting of an additional protocol to the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as to the European Social Charter. The Summit should initiate such protocols.
To champion equality and the elimination of discrimination on any grounds has to remain another priority for a European human rights structure. This includes promoting the ratification and the effective implementation of the groundbreaking standards and tools of the Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention. Here again, EU accession would be an important signal that Council of Europe conventions create a pan European legal sphere of protection of fundamental human rights. Again an issue for the Summit's agenda.
In 1949, Winston Churchill when addressing the Parliamentary Assembly’s first session, concluded his intervention with the hope that the Council of Europe could take "a leading and active part in the revival of the greatest of continents, which had fallen into the worst of misery". Almost 75 years later, a revival of effective multilateralism in Europe is essential, to avoid we again fall into the worst of misery. The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine is a horrible sign on the wall. War is the most brutal violation of almost all human rights. We therefore need a strengthened multilateralism which can avoid new wars from happening. Being part of such a multilateralism should lead to real commitment to respect the rule of law, human rights and democracy. Because it is in the real interests of all citizens, and of the State itself. Being outside that system, makes you a real outsider, lacking the many advantages of inclusion.
Allow me, in conclusion, to quote President Sergio Mattarella. The President honoured us with his presence at our April Session and declared: "The Council of Europe is the child of the drive towards multilateralism (…). A drive based on an elementary consideration: collaboration reduces opposition, counteracts conflicts, increasing the possibility of a positive settlement of disputes". "As much as war is supposed to be a flash in the pan – although this is not the case – so much so that peace is the result of the patient and unstoppable flow of the spirit and practice of collaboration between peoples, of the ability to move from confrontation and the arms race to dialogue, control and the balanced reduction of weapons of aggression. It is a laborious construction, made up of coherent and continuous behaviors and choices, not of an isolated act. It is the fruit of an unfailing trust in humanity and a sense of responsibility towards it. (…) If we pursue common goals, in order to "win" it is no longer necessary for someone else to lose. We all win together".
Fine words from a wise statesman with regard to a more effective European multilateralism with a specific role for Europe's oldest and broadest treaty-based organization, the Council of Europe. Sustainable human rights need solidarity, at the national and the international level. If we are not able to organize this solidarity, we might end up in misery where not the rule of law but the rule of brutal power prevails once again. And where power prevails, human rights erode and vanish. So: it is time to act, and to act now. The upcoming Council of Europe Summit should and could be the starting point for a more effective European multilateralism, on the basis of the values of the rule of law, human rights and democracy.
I hope I was able to give you some insight in both our problems and our possibilities. If you have any questions, I would of course be glad to answer them.
Thank you for your attention.