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22 January 2024 afternoon

2024 - First part-session Print sitting

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Opening of the sitting num 2

Debate: Progress report of the Bureau and the Standing Committee

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:37:24

Dear colleagues,

Please be seated.

We will start with the proposed changes in the composition of Committees which have been published in Doc. 202401 Addendum 2.

Are there any objections to these changes?

So, since there are no objections, they are adopted.

And the first item on the agenda is the continuation of the debate on the progress report of the Bureau and the Standing Committee presented earlier by Mr Tiny KOX. This will be combined with a consideration of the report of the ad-hoc committee of the Bureau on the observation of the early parliamentary elections in Serbia (17 December 2023), presented by Mr Stefan SCHENNACH.

The debate will conclude at 4:30 p.m. I will therefore interrupt the list of speakers at around 4:25 p.m.

I remind members that speaking time is three minutes.

I now call Mr Stefan SCHENNACH to present the report of the ad-hoc committee of the Bureau on the observation of the early parliamentary elections in Serbia.

Dear Stefan, you have three minutes.

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH

Austria, SOC, Rapporteur

15:38:36

We were in Serbia for a pre-electoral mission and observation of the early elections. In total, we were 23 members from 12 different member states and the Venice Commission was with us.

Already during the pre-election mission, we noticed a few things that we reported with great concern; for example, the negative campaigning or, for example, the serious attacks against the opposition and journalists. On 17 December, we were then a joint international monitoring team, OSCE/ODIHR, European Parliament and PACE. And we came to a fairly unanimous conclusion that, technically speaking, the election was very well administered. The polling stations were open, all the voting material was available. But politically speaking, this election was simply not fair and we found a whole series of inconsistencies and irregularities - such as copied ballot papers, what we call in ODIHR language ballot box stuffing or group voting or voter mobility, we even put the words "voter migration" in there, people who were bussed in.

And what surprised and concerned us very much was the extreme role of the President of the Republic of Serbia, who was not a candidate, but was number one on all ballots - whether in a city, in parliament or in Vojvodina. And a president should normally unite a country. But the president was one of the strongest in the entire dispute and election campaign. It was also unfair; about 92% of all media content was from the ruling party or the president, and only 8% about the whole opposition - and that 8% in a very, very negative tone. What we have found is that the electoral rolls need to be further developed. And that was already a proposal of the Venice Commission and the ODIHR, but it was not taken into account.

And I would like to make one point in particular here, because Serbia is under monitoring; if you hold three early elections within four years, then you weaken the system of democracy, the voting system and the parliamentary system. You obviously don't want parliamentarians to learn the skills that are necessary to succeed in a parliament. That is something that has to be made clear, that you must have greater regularity in the entire system. That is why we have proposed - as we did in North Macedonia and last year in Bosnia - that we hold a post-electoral seminar. I think that would be helpful for all sides, and would bring an end to violence on the streets. People will be able to discuss things in a consensual fashion and work on the issues concertedly. Hopefully this will be effective in elections to come.

I think that would be one of the important things. Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:42:33

Thank you, Mr Stefan SCHENNACH.

In the debate I call first now Mr Frank SCHWABE, President of the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group on behalf of his party.

Mister SCHWABE, you have 3 minutes.

Mr Frank SCHWABE

Germany, SOC, Spokesperson for the group

15:42:48

Dear Mister President,

I didn't have the opportunity until now: so, congratulations from here, Mister President.

And I really want to use the opportunity to thank Mr Tiny KOX.

As someone who has a very clear position in the spectrum in the Netherlands, is located quite on the left - I would think so, maybe others in the Netherlands have other ideas - with clear ideas, I think you really represent this Parliamentary Assembly from the middle. You were the one who led the Assembly in recent years with your wisdom, your knowledge, and with a kind of balance as well. When it was difficult you always tried to organise unity in this organisation.

I think it could not be much more important than in the situation of the Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Maybe some of our colleagues didn't expect it, that it was you in the end who could unify this Assembly behind a very clear position, with a unanimous decision at the end, which made very clear to the Committee of Ministers that they had no other choice than to follow this idea, this advice from us. I think you played a very important role.

Another thing was the Reykjavík Summit.

As I mentioned in our group already, where I was a guest before, it was Mr Michele NICOLETTI, our former chair of the group and the former President of the Assembly, who had the idea of such a summit. But at the end, I think it makes a lot of sense that we fulfilled this under your presidency.

So I really want to thank you, in the name of our Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group, very much for the work you did.

So on the one hand we have to say thank you.

On the other hand it is a very sad day because, as you mentioned before already, we lose some very important members in in this Parliamentarian Assembly.

It was Mr Dick MARTY who made history for this organisation with maybe his most well-known report about CIA illegal prisons in Europe. He passed away. I have to say this has touched me personally in my group very much. It is Sir Tony LLOYD who was with us some weeks ago and in the end he passed away. Now he had to die. He was a very, very, very well organised guy and always tried to balance us well, very warm-hearted. In the end he died in the arms of his family. It's a big loss for us and I think for the whole Assembly.

The last seconds I would like to use to thank Mr Stefan SCHENNACH very much for the whole election observation mission in Serbia. As you mentioned before as well, we are not [here] to ask for elections, we don't say elections are not right in the country. We can only describe the situation, and you described that these elections are not the elections which we would like to see, due to our standards.

We really have to ask Serbia to do better.

Thank you very much.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:46:18

Thank you, Mr Frank SCHWABE.

On behalf of the Group of the European People's Party I call now Mr Anastasios CHATZIVASILEIOU.

You have 3 minutes, Mister Anastasios CHATZIVASILEIOU.

Mr Anastasios CHATZIVASILEIOU

Greece, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group

15:46:29

Thank you, Mister President.

Congratulations on your election. I declare myself as a proud Greek deputy and I am sure that your mandate will be marked with achievements and lasting positive impact.

So, dear colleagues, according to the remarks and the conclusions of the national election observation mission where Assembly members participated, there is a consensus in this room that the December elections in Serbia, though pluralistic and technically well-administered, were marked by irregularities and inefficiencies, partly overshadowing the whole political process of this country.

There is no need to repeat what our esteemed colleague has mentioned in his report. There were indeed both structural and procedural deficiencies that need to be immediately addressed.

First, the frequency of early elections in Serbia undermines the public trust in democratic institutions.

Second, the campaign period, marked by harsh rhetoric, media bias and the strong presence of the Serbian president, distracted voters from the democratic process.

And third, yes, there were procedural deficiencies including inconsistency in voting and counting.

Dear colleagues,

We strongly believe in Serbia's European future. This is why we urge the Serbian authorities to demonstrate a strong political will to reform and align with the European democratic standards as soon as possible.

We eagerly anticipate the forthcoming report and recommendations from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) and the expected prompt implementation well before the next electoral cycle. Reforms are necessary, and we call on Belgrade to act as soon as possible.

Moreover, we do expect that any credible reports of regularities will be thoroughly and transparently followed up by the relevant domestic and national authorities. It is essential, dear colleagues, that all concerns raised are addressed with the utmost seriousness to uphold the democratic process.

Finally, dear colleagues,

We strongly encourage the political leadership in Serbia to foster a constructive and inclusive dialogue that spans the entire political spectrum. It is time for Serbia to move forward towards reforms and embrace a future where the democratic process is well respected.

Serbia has an important role to play in the Western Balkans. Strong democratic institutions will be to the benefit not only of the Serbian people, but the whole neighbourhood itself.

Thank you, Mister President.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:49:02

Thank you, Mister Anastasios CHATZIVASILEIOU.

Now, on behalf of the European Conservative Party, I will call Mr Ian LIDDELL-GRAINGER, the President of the party.

Mister Ian LIDDELL-GRAINGER, you have the floor.

Mr Ian LIDDELL-GRAINGER

United Kingdom, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group

15:49:27

I am very grateful, indeed, for the words I have heard about Sir Tony LLOYD, Mr David WILSHIRE, and also colleague Mr John HOWELL, who is extremely ill in hospital. I am very grateful everybody here for the best wishes they have given to the British delegation.

I will say that there are a lot of challenges that are facing this organisation. It is very easy for us, especially where the war in Ukraine is concerned, to be able to cast stones. This war has been fought by proxy. Unfortunately, the Americans, Germans, British and many other countries, France and others, have to make sure that we do not let the aggressor win. We started out with that when the war started; we have to keep going on that. There are colleagues, and I can understand why, that are getting a little fatigued, but we must not weaken. This is a matter of principle.

We stood back with Georgia. We stood back when the "-stans" came under threat. We stood back too many times and let the bear get its own way. We must keep going.

We have also got to be very careful what we do with this place. Seventy-five years next year – pretty good.

I have just challenged the credentials of Germany for reasons I feel are important, but we must be careful. I do take this on the chin as we would say in English. Challenging credentials is a way of getting what you want to get across, partly PR, partly as an important point to principle, I believe.

We have challenged Azerbaijan. I am one of the co-rapporteurs with Ms Lise CHRISTOFFERSEN, a great colleague. It is difficult to know what happens next. If we throw out Azerbaijan, what have we actually achieved? What have we done? It is great for our morale. It makes us look morally upright, but actually, we should be there trying to strengthen their parliament, strengthen them by going out there, strengthen them by holding their feet to the fire, as we say in English. Myself and Lise have tried to do that. We will continue to try to do that.

Yes, I agree they should let us go to their elections. I think that's fundamental. But I do think we must be careful what we wish for.

On the larger picture, if we made 75 years and we are getting that way, then we have got to define what we actually stand for. I think we have not got there yet. I strongly believe this place is trying to do too much, too little, too late and too badly.

We are still not getting reports that actually make sense in the wider world. I do a lot of reports with other hats I wear. I can say these are some of the longest, most difficult reports to read, and I'm English. Therefore, I would ask colleagues, and urge colleagues, from across the political divide and across our nations that we must work together to define what it means to be a democrat in the 21st century where wars are all around us, where sectarianism, where difficulties with people are there and democracy is under threat.

If we don't think now, others will do it for us, and then we will all fail.

Thank you very much indeed.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:52:24

Thank you, Mister Ian LIDDELL-GRAINGER.

Thank you so much.

Now, we proceed with the President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Mr Iulian BULAI.

Mr Iulian BULAI

Romania, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

15:52:35

Efcharistó (thank you in Greek), Mr. Chairman.

On behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, I would like to begin by paying tribute to Dick Marty, our former member and Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Monitoring, who passed away on 28 December.

Mr Dick Marty was a member of our Assembly and our group for many years. For some, he remained a close friend; others like me did not have the honour of knowing him personally, but for all of us, Mr Dick Marty will remain an example of exceptional political courage, with a keen sense of justice, an indispensable quality for defending human rights. He truly made our Parliamentary Assembly known throughout the world.

I would like to thank you, Mr Tiny KOX, for your statement on the death of Mr Dick Marty and for your kind words.

Mr Iulian BULAI

Romania, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

15:53:29

Dear Mr Tiny KOX,

On behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, I want to thank you for what you did for this Assembly. You went beyond expectations. Usually when in office, people are trusted less after fulfilling their mandate. Now our trust towards you has doubled. Thank you; you did really well.

I want to congratulate the new president Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS. You have a great heritage to continue and I wish you good luck with that on behalf of us.

Great congratulations go to both Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, as the European Council opened the EU accession negotiations in December. This is a historical moment that has to be celebrated.

Now I want to congratulate Ukraine for their great amendment on the bill on national minorities, that has been amended according to the recommendations of the Venice Commission.

That being said, until now we have all been working on having a register of damage, that is an institution to be founded in The Hague. We need to work now on the compensation mechanism. We should not stop fighting for what is to be the international tribunal judging the crimes of aggression of Russia in Ukraine.

I will not repeat what Mr Stefan SCHENNACH has told us about Serbia. The situation is very dangerous there.

In light of this challenge we have invited the representatives of the Serbian opposition for an exchange of views within our group, on Wednesday morning.

I really hope that, for instance, the Monitoring Committee will be inviting the whole united Serbian opposition for an exchange of views in the near future, because we also need to know their story at a very top European level.

We've had Covid; we've had war; but this organisation also deserves a reward, a great achievement.

For instance, having Kosovo on board and that decision to be taken this year, for the ministerial meeting is to take place in May. In order for that to happen I'm looking forward to Ms Dora BAKOYANNIS' report and a clear agenda on adopting that report in April.

Now, I want to thank Mr Aleksander POCIEJ for the great thing he's done for this Assembly.

I also want to congratulate Mr Davor Ivo STIER, the new chair of the Group of the European People's Party.

I want to mention the dire situation of the political prisoners in both Belarus and Russia. We should help them without any hesitation.

Last but not least, I would like to welcome the great, fantastic news last month issued by Pope Francis approving the blessing of same sex couples. This is fantastic news and we believe that is a great step towards equality of people.

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:56:25

Thank you so much, Mister Iulian BULAI.

Thank you for your kind words.

Efcharistó polý. ["Many thanks" said in Greek]

On the occasion I want to thank Mr Frank SCHWABE for his kind words and the wishes expressed earlier.

Now, on behalf of the United European Left, Ms Laura CASTEL.

Ms Laura CASTEL

Spain, UEL, Spokesperson for the group

15:56:42

Thank you Chair.

First of all we would like to warmly congratulate the incoming president, and of course to give thanks to the outgoing president Mr KOX for being really brave in making difficult decisions during this difficult term.

Thanks, dear Tiny, from the bottom of our heart.

Dear colleagues, in the dark times we are living, the Council of Europe has to deal with several violations of human rights, and these organisations should raise their voice against them. I speak on behalf of my group to remind some of those we do not have to forget.

The first one is the silence of some bodies of this Council of Europe on the Gaza situation.

In the Assembly we will have the opportunity to debate on this tomorrow, but as a human rights organisation, we need to focus not on the self-defence right, but on children's massive killings and how civilians are weaponised, destroying not only lives but also the international multilateral system, and by doing this, destroying trust in humanity.

With no ceasefire we have nothing.

The second issue we want to highlight is the outrageous situation of political prisoner Mr Julian Assange. On 20 and 21 February, British courts will decide whether Mr Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States. It is what is called a permissions hearing, but we should not deal with this as a legalistic process; instead we have to recognise that the British rule of law is on trial, and this is a human rights case, where the political prisoner has been in a maximum security prison for almost five years without a conviction.

It is happening on the soil of the Council of Europe. And we can do more.

The third issue, colleagues, is a recurring topic. And for this reason it is worrisome. It is the non-implementation of judgments.

Just a quick reminder. There is the case of Mr Osman Kavala, Mr Selahattin Demirtaş, Mr Abdullah Öcalan. But those examples are from just one member state. But there are more. So colleagues we need to solve how to deal with those violations of the obligations which, as a member state, they have to honour.

Without justice, we have no rights, and therefore nothing.

Of course we have not forgotten the victims of Ukraine: we don't. For two years now, our group firmly believed that there would be no solution but dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue as the mechanism to find a way out of this conflict.

Lastly, before coming to the Serbian elections, we think that the Council of Europe should say something on the Yemen situation. They are using Cyprus, that is to say Council of Europe soil, as the base for bombing civilians.

All of these examples show the dark days we are living in and how much work we already have to do.

People are dying, children are dying, hour after hour. And we are sitting here with the responsibility to point out and find solutions, parliamentary solutions.

So I have no time to comment on the Serbian elections, but of course Mr Stefan SCHENNACH has done a very good report. So I finish here.

Thank you, colleagues, and good luck for our president.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:00:12

Thank you, Ms Laura CASTEL.

Thank you, dear Laura, for your wishes.

Now, in the debate, I call next Ms Dunja SIMONOVIĆ BRATIĆ.

Three minutes.

Ms Dunja SIMONOVIĆ BRATIĆ

Serbia, SOC

16:00:26

Dear colleagues,

I must admit that I'm really moved and touched by such interest from MPs from the Assembly and from MPs from the European Parliament, who gave us such attention although they have in their own countries a very hot atmosphere, even if it's cold weather.

The elections in Serbia are over. We all know the results: nearly 6000 observers were hosted in the Republic of Serbia, but not in Kosovo and Metohija. That was not the problem, and no one seems to be occupied with that fact.

The regime in Pristina didn't allow us to organise elections. All Serbian people had to migrate to other cities to fulfil their right to take part in the elections.

The ODIHR of the OSCE, the European Parliament, and PACE, had a mandate to observe –not local– but Republic elections.

Those colleagues who urged this debate had no mandate for their claims now. And furthermore, they didn't complain in the observer's minutes from the polling stations which they signed. They gave their signature.

After a few hours, when they realised that there was no win-win situation for their friends from the opposition in Belgrade, they started to complain. This is the violation of the conducting code of the other observers.

So you were there, you signed it with no objection.

But while your concerns for my country is still high, I will ask you to pay attention to something that is going to happen tomorrow within these walls.

Tomorrow, you will host the so-called President of Assembly of the so-called Republic of Kosovo without any previous agenda on the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy.

I expect that you will ask him about elections, about violations of international law, the UN charter, UN Resolution 1244, even the Brussels Agreements.

When will they start to respect Serbians' rights?

This debate, unfortunately, is just an example of the attention diversion for the subject of armament of Kosovo with American missiles, abolition of payment transactions, appropriation of Orthodox churches, arresting people on false charges.

The very same people who talk about the irregularities of the elections in Serbia are strong supporters of Kosovo's independence, and furthermore, of giving them a membership in this organisation.

If there is a place in Europe where human rights die and are deeply buried, that is the territory of this false state Kosovo.

Now we are listening to irregularities in the Serbian election process even before you have seen the report from ODIHR.

Where is the report?

Well, it is not finished yet. The observers from this Assembly are just a small part of the international observers mission, but you can't wait.

Why?

Because you have deadlines for your agenda for the false state Kosovo. That's why you are in such a hurry.

The members of the Socialist Party of Serbia wish you all the best for your elections.

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:03:35

Thank you.

I call now Mr Zsolt NÉMETH.

Mr Zsolt NÉMETH

Hungary, EC/DA

16:03:44

Thank you.

Dear colleagues,

First of all about the Serbian elections.

I would like to agree with our rapporteur, who said that there have been irregularities in the elections, but these irregularities have been so-called "normal" irregularities.

I think it is important to all of us to mediate the message to our Serbian colleagues that we regard the elections as legitimate elections.

As far as the party political interpretations are concerned, I hope that we stop questioning elections just because the winners are from the opposite political side.

Secondly, we have just had a two-year political cycle. It is not just the president who is new, but the chairs of the committees; it is a good time for stocktaking.

I would like to express my gratitude to everybody who has co-operated inside the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, and with the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy in the past two years.

As the former chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, I would like to express my gratitude to all the other committee chairs.

I think that with the coordination of the president, Mr Tiny KOX, we had really good teamwork behind us.

I am quite proud of the past two years' results.

I would like to mention some positive elements.

One, obviousl,y is the Fourth Summit, as we have described it as the kind of soul of Europe. The role of the Council of Europe has been reinstated.

I would also underline the importance of the dialogue we had with the Russian and the Belarus opposition.

I would also like to underline the importance that we have been able to maintain some basic human and minority rights standards inside Ukraine, especially with the help of the Venice Commission.

Negatives:

Obviously the Russia-Ukraine war is a big burden on our shoulder, and the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel and the re-occurring anti-Semitism in Europe is reflecting that we have a lot to do.

These are ugly scars on the face of Europe.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS, I would like to welcome your election, your words that our weapons are not bullets, and that you are working for an agora in this organisation.

The 75th anniversary of the Council of Europe will hopefully give a new impetus to the European integration project, to make Europe really whole and free, for the sake of Europe and for our international partners as well.

Thank you very much, dear colleagues, for your attention.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:07:14

Mr Zsolt NÉMETH. Thank you so much for your kind words and wishes.

I now call Mr Rafael HUSEYNOV, for three minutes.

Mr Rafael HUSEYNOV

Azerbaijan, ALDE

16:07:24

Thank you, President.

Dear colleagues,

The New Year starts with special historical significance for the Council of Europe, and this year will mark the 75th anniversary of the great road.

At such a significant historical stage, it is necessary to look at both yesterday and tomorrow, be it in important presentations such as a Progress Report or in any decision taken on behalf of the Assembly.

In human life, 75 years is the age of wisdom. For an organisation, this age is a stage when every decision it makes is measured a hundred times and taken once.

At the end of the twentieth century this organisation took an extremely right step by deciding to expand the Council of Europe to the South Caucasus. However, today, under the direct influence of certain forces, the policy pursued here against Azerbaijan causes both surprise, concern, and serious protest.

Azerbaijan has solved the most complicated problem in its modern history and ended the occupation of 20% of its territory that lasted almost 30 years.

It is strange that France, considered one of the main judges in resolving this conflict as one of the members of the OSCE Minsk Group, is today making the most serious attempt to rekindle the conflict that has ended. It constantly attempts to prevent the conclusion of a peace agreement, does not hide its initiatives to arm Armenia, and declares these initiatives at the state level. And not only through words, but also through concrete steps.

Today, those who are inclined to accuse Azerbaijan of avoiding co-operation with the Council of Europe by using unfounded excuses are well aware that the real reason is not this, but something else. Behind this outward vision lies an inability to digest the Karabakh victory of Azerbaijan. It is France that most zealously follows this line.

Dear colleagues,

Those who are tempted to impose any restrictions on the delegation through violation of the procedures and established rules in this organisation, those who are essentially acting against Azerbaijan, should not forget an important historical truth. In January 1990, military units of the Soviet Army attacked Azerbaijan and committed massacres. The goal was to intimidate the people of Azerbaijan and put an end to their struggle for freedom and sovereignty once and for all. The result turned out to be the opposite, and the collapse of the USSR began with the Kremlin’s attack on Baku.

We would never want the Council of Europe, which we have been effectively co-operating with, to suffer the same bitter fate as a result of biased attacks launched against Azerbaijan at the instigation of certain forces.

While it is necessary to find new ways to make the Council of Europe stronger, it is not at all desirable to divide the organisation from within and pose threats to its future.

Dear colleagues,

All secret and open affairs are clearly visible from aside and we know very well which winds are blowing from where.

Thank you.

 

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:10:57

Thank you so much, Mr Rafael HUSEYNOV.

Now, I call Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC

16:11:04

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

First of all, congratulations on your appointment.

I had the opportunity to take part in the mission to observe the parliamentary elections in Serbia last December. And the first thing that struck me was that early parliamentary elections seem to have become something of a national sport, with dissolutions following one another in rapid succession.

Dissolving a parliament is a perfectly legal practice in itself, but dissolving it hampers parliamentary work, which, in addition to controlling the institutions, consists of improving legislation and putting into practice a country's necessary reforms. The legal duration of a legislature is supposed to give parliamentary committees and political parties the time they need to work serenely and in depth, in order to draw up complete and effective texts.

And above all, why call early parliamentary elections when the ruling coalition, from which the President hails, had a solid majority? All of which suggests, at best, a political calculation designed to ensure the survival of the current government, bearing in mind that the sudden decision to dissolve the government in itself offers an undeniable advantage to the ruling coalition, as the opposition does not have the time it needs to get organised.

Elections are a key moment in the political life of a democratic country, and the absolute rules of equality of opportunity, respect for freedom of expression, comparable, free and unpressurised access to the media, and absolute neutrality of state services are essential elements in the holding of free, competitive elections that respect the rule of law.

As soon as the results were announced, large numbers of Serbian citizens took to the streets, denouncing fraud and irregularities.

Various criticisms were levelled. Pressure on voters, particularly in the public sector, allegations of vote-buying, pressure on the media with intimidation, a great deal of passivity on the part of the media regulatory authority and, above all, serious allegations that voters from Bosnia had been transported by bus to Belgrade to vote.

During my observation, I personally did not observe anything spectacular, but I was astonished to note that not all voters seemed to be treated in the same way; in certain districts, the polling stations were crowded, with an interminable wait to finally arrive in a cramped polling room and without a polling booth worthy of the name, enough to discourage voters from carrying out their electoral duty; whereas in other districts, voting flowed in perfect conditions. And what can we say about the people in front of some polling stations who seemed, to say the least, to be trying to impress voters?

Last but not least: state resources were heavily involved in the campaign, as was the case with the country's President, who is normally President of all Serbs and who, on this occasion, although not a candidate, acted as the equivalent of a party leader, taking photos all over the country alongside the candidates of the outgoing majority.

Dear Colleagues, Serbian voters were faced with a real choice, but in the end, various details, some of them important, had to protect the country from a possible electoral upheaval.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:14:16

Thank you so much, Mister Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ.

Now the floor is for Ms Marie-Christine DALLOZ.

Ms Marie-Christine DALLOZ

France, EPP/CD

16:14:25

Thank you, Mister Chairman.

Congratulations, President ROUSOPOULOS, on your election. You will be President for the 75th anniversary of the Council. Your words this morning testify to your willingness to listen to everyone, and that's important.

Of course, I would also like to express my sincere thanks to President Tiny KOX, who has managed to deal with some difficult situations within our institution. His open-mindedness and determination have enabled the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to stay the course, to advance rights, all rights, and in particular those of all victims, including the victims of the war of aggression in Ukraine.

Following on from the Bureau's activity report, I would like to address a subject that is not often dealt with in our forum, but which I feel is important to demonstrate to all the member states that contribute to our institution: our ability to manage the public funds entrusted to us, since I would remind our colleagues that it is the member states that finance our institution. I believe that there are, and I'd like to say this quite solemnly today, two issues that concern me. I think I've already expressed this to the Bureau, but I'd prefer all colleagues to hear it.

Firstly, on Bureau meetings: until now, our institution has held four Bureau meetings, obviously in Strasbourg, and two decentralised meetings under the rotating presidency principle; that makes six. When you look back over the last two years, Mister Chairman, and in particular last year, we held a large number of Bureau meetings away from home. There were four Bureau meetings away from home, and I think there is a significant cost to the Bureau delegation in terms of staff travel. That's my first comment.

The second point, if we want to be careful about the management of public data, concerns election observation missions. They are necessary, fundamental, but I have known a time when we carried out an election observation mission. From now on, we systematically carry out a pre-election mission, as the OECD used to do. I think there are countries where we could spare ourselves pre-electoral missions, because it's on the budget. It's financed directly from the Council of Europe budget, not by the delegations of each country. I think this is a subject that we'll have to look into from now on, to ensure rigorous management that will also give us confidence in our ability to properly manage the funds entrusted to us.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:17:41

"Thank you Ms Marie-Christine DALLOZ. Thank you for your lovely words" [spoken in French].

Thank you so much, thank you.

Now we come to Ms Snježana NOVAKOVIĆ BURSAĆ.

Ms Snježana NOVAKOVIĆ BURSAĆ

Bosnia and Herzegovina, NR

16:18:03

Dear colleagues,

Before I say a word about this report on the observation of election in Serbia, I would like to remind you of two very important tasks that we have undertaken as parliamentarians.

First is to maintain accountability for the outcomes of our work; second is to preserve the relevance of the words that we are saying or writing.

Because the reputation, influence, and relevance of our parliaments, including this space, is and should be based on the true and the positive results of our work.

For the aforementioned reason I think that the official materials of this Assembly should not contain statements based on partial and incorrect allegations, but only on accurate and relevant data.

Precisely I'm referring to paragraph 101 of this report where it is stated:s "The PACE delegation were informed about credible allegations of old manipulation including voter migration, especially citizens from Republika Srpska of Bosnia Herzegovina, including Serbian citizenship and phantom voters which have triggered post electoral protests". The aforementioned allegations are not credible, simply because they are not true, and their inclusion in this report is needless and incorrect.

It is important to note that the participation of citizens living abroad in elections is a widely accepted practice in many European countries and in the Balkans. And it seems that practice is acceptable anywhere except Serbia.

Leaders of group of parties named Serbia Against Violence asserted that over 40 000 voters were illegally brought to Belgrade for voting from Bosnia Herzegovina, but the fact is that the number of eligible voters in the 2023 Belgrade elections increased for only 13 000 voters or 0.81% compared to the 2022 Belgrade elections.

The second very important fact is also that on election day, only 20 368 individuals in total entered from Bosnia Herzegovina into Serbia, many for travel and business purposes, many not even with citizenship of Serbia, many of them children, further refuting the claim of illegal voter transportation.

This data categorically refutes any allegations stated even in this report, raising questions about their intentions.

It is true that a group of opposition party started protests with the goal to annul the entire electoral process in Belgrade, but their or anyone's election results or anyone's preferences should not be the basis for the spreading of lies or even hatred towards citizens who have dual citizenship, and the right to vote in line with electoral legislation.

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:21:17

Thank you so much, Madam Snježana NOVAKOVIĆ BURSAĆ.

Now I call Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO.

Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO

Ukraine, EC/DA

16:21:24

Thank you very much.

First of all, I would like to start with something I would never believe in, two years ago, that I would say: thank you, President Tiny KOX for an excellent job done.

Thank you very much as well, as probably you would never have believed that you would be the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who finally kicked Russia out from this organisation.

I would also like to congratulate president Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS. I had the honour of working with you as the president of Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons as your Vice-President. I wish you the best as the President of the Parliamentary Assembly.

But I want to tell you what will be on your plate and that is a very hard piece. It is war. The main theme which you will deal with over the next two years and all of us should deal with.

The war is in Europe already. It's not at the gates. It's already at my home. If you will not react, if you will not act, it will come to your homes.

Yesterday I spoke with an ambassador to the Council of Europe from the member states. She told me,"I think my country would surrender if it were attacked". I was terrified to hear this.

Today my friend, our colleague from a western European country told me, "Yeah, Russia is very bad, but they are not a direct threat to my country." It's a huge mistake. Russia is a direct threat to all of us. How simply and easily we forgot that just 35 years ago, half of Germany was occupied by Russia. Half of Germany! Don't forget this please.

Today I have bad news for you. Today Russia is more dangerous than it was two years ago.

The Russian economy is on a war footing. The Russian army is battle-hardened. Russia doesn't care anymore about international obligations or anything else. They're not going to stop.

If they were to have any success in Ukraine, they would be attacking again and again and again.

And what is happening at this time in Europe?

Somebody is blocking our borders. Ah, the Hungarian or Slovakian prime minister is saying, "Let's give part of Ukraine to Mr Vladimir Putin, and he will be calm." Let's give a maniac one woman, and he will be calm. Do you believe in this?

Tyrants they are like geopolitical maniacs. They can't stop. They only can be stopped. When Russia is preparing itself for a bigger war, we are preparing ourselves for a bigger Eurovision. When Russia is preparing more munition, we are preparing for a green transition. That's all important, but we need to produce munition, artillery. We need to fight. We need to be strong enough. That's the only language which will save us, the only way to save us.

Today is the day of Ukrainian unity, a holiday in my country.

I want to tell you. You hear maybe from some media now that there are some political divisions in Ukraine.

I want to tell you the most important thing. We are absolutely united in Ukraine around one idea. We need to win if we want to live. It's as simple as that.

That should be the idea of the whole of Europe today. Through this, we will win.

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:24:48

Thank you so much, Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO.

Thank you for your kind words.

And yes, we are united.

Yes, we know that there is a war, and you are right in what you've already mentioned.

Again, thank you.

Now we're going to Mr Josip JURATOVIC.

Mr Josip JURATOVIC

Germany, SOC

16:25:04

Dear Mister President,

Dear colleagues,

 

"If only one vote was counted incorrectly, these elections must be repeated immediately." These, ladies and gentlemen, are not my words, these are the words of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in an election twelve years ago.

Elections have clear rules that promote competition for the best ideas and arguments and express the will of citizens freely and independently. These rules were brutally trampled on in Serbia by the president, who was not even standing for election. This is a head of state who has de facto abolished democracy in Serbia.

In panic-stricken fear of thousands of angry people in Serbia, who have been fighting for freedom and democracy for months at great sacrifice and reprisals from a regime whose brutality cannot be surpassed, he tried to save his skin with early elections. Although he was not standing for election, he staged and manipulated the election processes in a way that could not be surpassed in terms of impudence.

Ladies and gentlemen, today it is not only the future of Serbia's democracy that is at stake, but above all the credibility of democrats in Europe and our own credibility. Ignoring irregularities in elections, looking away from the fact that democrats in Serbia have been fighting for their democratic rights for months under state repression, damages our credibility. Our hard-won human rights and our security are not only defended in the EU, but above all in Serbia.

The massive shortcomings and violations of the basic democratic order in Serbia that have been identified at all levels are unacceptable at any time. It is therefore essential that we, firstly, respond immediately to the election observers' accusations and demand that Serbia immediately clarify the discrepancies; secondly, provide access to the voter lists, carry out a clean-up with the help of the international group of experts and initiate a repeat of the elections as soon as possible; and thirdly, until the elections are repeated under fair conditions, use all the sanctions at our disposal to persuade those politically responsible to act swiftly.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the least we owe to the democrats in Serbia who are fighting for their and our fundamental rights.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:28:03

Thank you so much.

Now Ms Biljana PANTIĆ PILJA.

Ms Biljana PANTIĆ PILJA

Serbia, EPP/CD

16:28:12

Your speech seems to have been written by the Serbian opposition and you obviously have a problem with almost three million people who support our president, Aleksandar Vučić, but that is not the topic today.

Ladies and gentlemen, elections are the only democratic form of trust or distrust in political parties. The dynamics of holding election in all countries depends solely on the dynamics of political circumstances in each individual level. That is why I could not agree with Mr Stefan SCHENNACH's assessment that early elections create an unlevel playing field and political instrumentalisation of the electoral process and that it undermines public trust in democratic institutions and electoral process.

I will remind you that the early parliamentary and local elections in Serbia were organised at the request of the opposition parties who specifically requested that the election be held by the end of 2023. What I can agree with is that terminating parliamentary mandates ahead of time also prevents parliaments from working properly, preparing thorough and inclusive legislation and holding the executive to account, which is key in a parliamentary democracy. But I really repeat once more: these elections were held at the request of the parliamentary opposition parties.

As stated in the international observation statement after the elections in Serbia, the election administration prepared for voting day efficiently and transparently, considering the challenges posed by the short timeline and the local and regional elections taking place on the same day. The elections in Serbia, including those for the Belgrade city assembly, have been among the most rigorously monitored in our national history.

A total of 5 587 observers monitored the parliamentary elections. The International Electoral Observers (IEO)  positively assessed the voting process in 93% of the 1 220 polling stations observed. Negative assessments were primarily attributed to overcrowding and in the correct measure to ensure the secret of the vote. This figure represents a small fraction of the total number of polling stations indicating that these serious irregularities were not widespread. I would like to point out that Mr Stefan SCHENNACH observed elections at two polling stations in Sremska Mitrovica and Vranje municipality. In the observer's minutes from both polling stations, which Mr Stefan SCHENNACH personally signed, no irregularities were remarked or documented, yet he made a media statement contradicting his signed observer's minutes, additionally contravening the code of conduct claiming to have witnessed an incident he did not document officially.

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:31:24

Thank you so much.

Our last speaker Ms Mireille CLAPOT has the floor.

Ms Mireille CLAPOT

France, ALDE

16:31:39

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Congratulations to you, Mr President ROUSOPOULOS, and tributes to Mr Tiny KOX, who has made our institution shine.

Above all, I'd like to pay tribute to the work of our Bureau and Standing Committee. I was lucky enough to be able to take part in this work, which is essential to the preparation and follow-up of our parliamentary missions, when I travelled to Vaduz on November 28. On this occasion, I presented the report of the election observation mission I carried out in Poland in October: I welcome its approval and am delighted to see that the competitive electoral process that took place was brought to a successful conclusion with the election of the new Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the appointment of his government. It is gratifying to see that the changeover decided by the Polish people has been carried out in compliance with the rules and institutions, whereas the incumbent government had abused public resources and benefited from the bias of the public media. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome our new Polish colleagues - and indeed all our new colleagues.

A word about the elections in Serbia, which took place against a tense backdrop: the PACE observation mission, conducted jointly with those of the European Parliament and the OSCE, noted that the elections were well organised, but expressed some doubts. On election day, observers noted intimidation and pressure against voters. This casts a shadow over the transparency of the elections in this country, which is essential for democracy and for Europe.

Mr Rapporteur, I would like to thank you for your presentation on the importance of these cases of irregularity and the role they could have played in the fairness of the final ballot. You also denounced the decisive involvement of the President, the systemic advantages of the ruling party, and the mistreatment of human rights activists and journalists. I also note your concern about the risk of manipulation of information, particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine triggered by Russia, which may have repercussions in Serbia.

Allow me to say a personal word: I noticed in Turkey, where I was an observer, and then in Poland, where I was head of mission, that pre-electoral missions enable us to make more detailed observations, and that the report that comes out of this first phase gives the electoral commissions and the administration time to put things right. So, no doubt we need to reform to take account of our obligations, particularly financial ones, but visiting the site twice, once before the election and once on election day, seems to me to be essential.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Armen GEVORGYAN

Armenia, EC/DA

17:39:34

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

Mr President,

During the last World Forum for Democracy, in this very hemicycle, a conclusion was made, that democracies tend to experience peace, but transitions to democracy do not guarantee peace. I don’t know if this was a justification for the ongoing wars and ethnic cleansing in Europe, but this logic put the post-Soviet democracies geographically at the center of the confrontation between the Western and Eastern paradigms. As a result, not democratic values and traditions, but power and resources became the main factors in resolving issues in Europe. This reconciled Europe, for instance, with the blockade of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and the following ethnic cleansing. Everything is heading towards the fact that Europe will also come to terms with the new realities in Ukraine.

Colleagues, many countries are faced with the fact that modern democracy is too flexible, since it has begun to serve specific geopolitical interests and priorities. The democratic experiments of the last 30 years have led our countries to a confrontational “either/or” choice in which only national elites have the key responsibility for not turning their countries into bargaining chips.

For Armenia, this is not only a choice between a democracy and its past, but also a challenge to preserve its civilizational identity and historical role in the region today. The Armenian people deserve democracy, which can prevent new tragedies in its history and relieve confrontational tensions in the region. Please think about what I am about to say. Turkiye, being integrated ideologically, politically and infrastructurally into NATO, and having global plans for Turkic expansion, is the main promoting force of Western strategy in South Caucaus. Then a question arises: what will Turkish dominance give the region in terms of developing democracy and establishing a lasting and just peace? Sometimes there is an impression that pan-Turkic ambitions are encouraged in order to distract Turkiye from Europe.

Mr President,

Some states today are aggressively challenging existing international norms and rules and their obligations, including within the Council of Europe. The bloody events of the last 6 months in Karabakh, Ukraine and the Middle East suggest that the democratic world is losing its ability to ideologically, politically and economically offer new perspectives to the rest of the world. If there are no guarantees for long-term peace and security, then the motivation to focus on the West disappears. Therefore, it should be fundamental for the democratic Europe that the people of Artsakh could return to their historical homeland and live there with dignity and in peace with effective international guarantees and real security conditions.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:34:34

Dear colleagues,

I must now interrupt the list of speakers.

The speeches of members on the speakers list who have been presented during the debate but have not been able to speak may be given to the table office for publication in the official report.

I remind colleagues that the text are to be submitted in typescript, electronically if possible, no later than 4 hours after the list of speakers is interrupted.

Now, Mr Tiny KOX, do you wish to reply?

You have 3 minutes.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, Rapporteur

16:35:08

Thank you very much, Mister President.

Thank you very much for the well meant compliments.

I vote from a new direction, as there is a new President, and so many nice words with regards to the outgoing President.

I think we we have shown that presidents come and go, the presidency stays. I welcome it very much that we tried to stick to the procedures that we have developed before my predecessor in the past two years and in the coming times.

We need a very solid presidency as we need our political groups and our committees, as was mentioned by, amongst them, Mr Zsolt NÉMETH.

If our political groups and our committees function, then the organisation as such, the Assembly first and foremost, does what it has to do.

One final remark. As Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO said, yes, we do have our differences in this Assembly, and we do have our differences in our national parliaments. There is nothing wrong about that. It would be weird if we had national parliaments which agree on everything. That doesn't make sense.

It's not a problem at all that also in this Assembly we differ on opinions, especially, that we do not focus too much on differences which should be mentioned. In the end we should look in the ideas, as it was also mentioned by our President. In the end we should consider this Assembly as an agora where you, while respecting the differences, we see whether we can come to a joint conclusion.

I think Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO mentioned that with regard to Ukraine.

We decided that there was no other fair option than to say we now have to end the membership of Russia in this organisation. A blatant violation of international law. A blatant violation of sovereignty and integrity of a member state. We cannot say then, "Sorry, sorry. Here it ends." So, I am proud, and I refer to what Oleksii also said. We did agree that we had to take this decision, and we did take it with unanimity. I think that was important.

I wish all the best to the President for new decisions to be taken. They will be there. Again, I put full trust in our new President. When it's really needed, we will take our decisions as anonymously as possible.

Thank you very much.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:38:27

Thank you so much, dear Tiny, for your kind words. And of course the deep appreciation you have had today from this Assembly makes my job much more difficult.

I'll try to fulfil the criteria that you have already implemented.

Thank you so much, once again.

 

Dear colleagues,

The Bureau has proposed references and transmissions to committees, and the modification of a reference, for ratification by the Assembly. They are set out in Doc. 15885 and Addendum 1.

Is there any objection to the proposed references to committees?

There is no objection, so the references are approved.

I now propose that the other decisions in the Progress Report (Doc. 15885) be ratified. Are there any objections?

No. There are no objections, the progress report is approved.

 

We will now hear the presentation of Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights on her Annual Activity Report 2023. After her address, Ms MIJATOVIĆ will take questions from the floor. I must inform the Assembly that this will be her final address under her mandate as Commissioner, and I express the thanks of all the Assembly for her dedicated work during her term of office.

 

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, as I told you, I have the pleasure of welcoming the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ.

Madam Commissioner, 2023 was again a very active year for you, notably with visits of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also Denmark, Germany, and Italy, for example. Your work, Madam Commissioner, is essential in awakening consciences on human rights abuses and sounding the alarm in whatever country that they happen.

I do not want to take too much time over your presentation and exchange of views, so I'll stop here.

I look forward to your intervention.

Madam Commissioner, please, you have the floor.

Adress: Annual activity report 2023 by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

16:40:46

Thank you, Mister President. 

Esteemed members of the Parliamentary Assembly,

First of all, I would like to sincerely congratulate you for the appointment, and I am also very honoured to have a previous President here in this Hall. 

Yes, the time has come, and I stand today before you to present my final annual report as Commissioner for Human Rights. 

I think it is important, even though I think it is known, that I feel a profound sense of honour, responsibility. This tenure, this mandate, has been – and it is still for a few more months – a privilege to serve at the helm of this unique institution, championing the cause of human rights in times of great change and challenge when democracy and human rights have been put under enormous stress and often undermined. 

When I started my mandate, some of those changes and challenges already existed but were of different nature and of course, called for a very different action. Six years ago, issues like misinformation and surveillance were already important, but the rapid advancement in technologies since then, including artificial intelligence, such as deep fakes, and more sophisticated social media algorithms, have amplified these enormous challenges.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on human rights and democratic governance. Emergency measures, in some cases, have compromised democratic freedoms and principles and human rights, and if the sanitary emergency is over, the disparities it exacerbated persist, disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations.

Moreover, the nature and focus of social and political movements have also evolved. Issues like climate change,  social justice and economic inequality have become more prominent and their intersection with human rights and democracy is different compared to six years ago, with greater emphasis placed on inclusive and participatory approaches.

This period, I would say, has not only tested the mandate of the Commissioner for Human Rights but also our ability to act rapidly and adapt to unforeseeable situations that has also underscored the vital importance of our collective commitment to upholding the dignity and rights of all individuals at any time and in any situation.

Arguably the most harrowing illustration of this has been Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For nearly two years, this conflict has caused violations of human rights and international humanitarian law on a staggering scale. The long-term impacts of this are profound. Extending beyond immediate physical and material needs to the psychological and social well-being of entire communities for years to come.

In my visits to Ukraine, I was struck by the magnitude of the human suffering but also by the resilience of the Ukrainian people. Despite the horrors they have faced, their spirit of resistance and determination are admirable and call for action by the international community.

After my last visit to Ukraine, I called for urgent action and international co-operation to ensure the return of Ukrainian children separated from their families and legal guardians. In this connection, I would first like to acknowledge the crucial role played by organisations and networks of human rights defenders and civil societies in Ukraine and in Russia in facilitating the return of Ukrainian children. Much of this work is fraught with difficulty and it is often done at considerable personal risk to those involved.

I will also wish to welcome the Ukrainian ombudsman's office role in providing support to the children but also their families. Without the determination and commitment of all those involved, it would be impossible to navigate the long and winding road to returning the children. As I said on many occasions, I will repeat here, the clock is ticking. However, many more children are missing and their return must continue to be a priority for the international community and at the same time for this organisation.

Another issue I focused on during my last visit to Ukraine was the situation of Crimean Tatars. In my report, I highlighted serious and overlooked human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests, detentions, enforced disappearances, harassment, misuse of anti-extremism laws, forced conscription and illegal transfers of detainees to Russia.

Unfortunately, Russia's war in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea were not the only conflicts that caused suffering in Europe. Human rights violations have also marked the latest, and hopefully, the last chapter of the long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in and around the Karabakh region in 2023.

Just a few days ago, I published observations following a visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan including the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. It was the first time in decades that a human rights mission of this kind was able to visit the Karabakh region. I stress that effective human rights protection of all persons affected by the conflict over the Karabakh region is key to the success of the peace process.

Beyond the human rights situation in war and conflict zones, there are still other remarkable challenges that need to be better addressed. The first, and probably most worrying, given its impact on human rights protection in general, is the erosion of the rule of law and here I would like to mention several issues that I find of extreme importance for the future of our democracies, for the future of this organisation. The rule of law is one of civilisation's greatest achievements and an essential antidote to discourage tyranny and oppression. The rule of law, together with democracy and human rights, is the bedrock of our organisation and our societies. Regrettably, this antidote is currently being diluted in an increasing number of our member states, where governments ignore court rulings, including from our Court, hamper the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, exert pressure on individual judges, reduce parliaments to mere formalities, hold national human rights structures captive and dominate media. At the heart of this crisis is a belief that exists, that elected officials have greater legitimacy than those charged with upholding the rule of law. This belief is false and dangerously misleading. On the contrary, it is the responsibility of political leaders to uphold, strengthen and respect the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of the judiciary. In few areas is this erosion of the rule of law more visible than in the approach to migration management. Pushbacks, inadequate responses to tragedies at sea, inhuman reception conditions and restrictive family reunification policies are, unfortunately, not new, but the check and balances and adherence to fundamental rules that used to provide a measure of protection against these phenomena, including respect for international and domestic court decisions, are less and less visible and effective. This should worry all of us. The resulting levels of tolerance to serious human rights violations against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants that are taking route across Europe are deeply alarming. The increasing focus on externalisation of asylum processes whereby some states shift their responsibility in this field across borders encourages others to do the same with the risk of creating a domino effect that could undermine the European and global system of international protection. This race to the bottom, driven by political instrumentalisation of migration for electoral gain and the dehumanisation of those seeking refugee status highlights a disconnect with the universality of human rights and states' obligations to apply human rights law.

This erosion goes far beyond the immediate suffering of these individuals. It undermines confidence in international agreements and co-operation, weakening our collective ability to address global challenges. It has been proven many times that adopting populist positions only benefits populists. Adaptation strategies do not reduce support for populists. Increasing hostility towards human rights is a related phenomenon. This growing sentiment driven by widespread frustration, uncertainty, and ingrained inequalities is creating a divide. It is distancing people from the very rights that are in place to safeguard them.

The consequences of this shift are far-reaching and concrete, affecting the lives of millions. I say this not as an abstract concern but based on what I have seen and heard during my visits and numerous talks with affected people. One of the groups of people most concerned by this situation are women. Violence and pervasive misogynistic rhetoric are symptoms of deeply rooted gender inequalities that persistently afflicts our societies. Across Europe, women face substantial barriers to the full exercise of their rights, including their sexual and reproductive health rights. On this issue, I will publish a document by the end of February following up on the issue paper published by my predecessor on sexual and reproductive health and rights in 2017. Further exacerbating these challenges are the deliberate actions of anti-gender movements. Using misleading narratives, these groups work to undermine women's rights and stall progress towards gender equality. Their efforts reinforce damaging stereotypes casting a detrimental influence over the societal roles of both women and men. 

Another alarming example of our current challenges is the intense and widespread intolerance faced by LGBTI individuals. They encounter numerous threats that undermine their dignity, safety, and fundamental freedoms. The difficulties in obtaining legal gender recognition, the restrictions placed on their freedoms of assembly and associations, and inadequate protection afforded to them at public events, are stark indicators of the failure to fulfil states' commitments and uphold legal obligations. The situation of transgender people is particularly worrying. For this reason, my Office has been working for the past two years on a report on this issue that I will publish before the end of March.

It is a lesson long overdue that we must remain vigilant against any form of othering and dehumanisation. Globally, nations have established institutions with the aim of combating hatred, racism, and extremism, yet the persistence of antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, antigypsyism and other manifestations of racism and intolerance across Europe serves as a poignant reminder that our efforts have been only partially successful.

In several member states a range of initiatives are being pursued to foster interreligious dialogue and cultivate mutual respect. A particularly inspiring example, which I am very happy to share with you today, is the upcoming launch of the Muslim–Jewish peace and remembrance initiative at the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potočari on 27 January. This event presents a potent symbol of hope and demonstrates the collective desire to build a society where individuals from diverse backgrounds and beliefs come together not in mere tolerance but in shared commitment to trust peace and respect.

Furthermore, I have focused my work on other deeply troubling issues. Of particular concern is the alarming deterioration in the safety and freedom of journalists and human rights defenders in several member states. They are increasingly subject to a range of serious reprisals including judicial harassment, unfair prosecution and physical harm. The prolonged attention of Osman Kavala, now in its sixth year, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights and the decisions by the Committee of Ministers and the Council of Europe, is a glaring example.

However, Kavala's case is not an isolated one. Numerous other human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society activists, such as Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, have been unjustly imprisoned for the legitimate and peaceful exercise of their human rights. This is compounded by the persistent problem of impunity for crimes against journalists. In several member states, lengthy investigations and frequent failure to bring the perpetrators to justice are common. As evidenced by the unsolved murders of Georgiy Gongadze, Slavko Ćuruvija, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak, Lyra McKee and Giorgos Karaivaz to name but just a few cases. And there are dozens and hundreds more.

I would like to express my deepest admiration, now standing before you, but I know that I am listened by the civil society, for the extraordinary courage and unwavering commitment of these journalists and human rights defenders. I once again urge the authorities of the member states to release all those imprisoned solely for their peaceful human rights activities and the exercise of their rights. It would be an act of courage and wisdom for the future. The practice of judicial harassment of these individuals must cease and governments must refrain from discrediting them, a tactic that further endangers their lives. It is also imperative to prioritise the end of impunity. Crimes against journalists and human rights defenders must be promptly and impartially investigated and the perpetrators and orchestrators brought to justice.

Finally, it is crucial to support and protect independent journalists and human rights defenders in Russia and Belarus, as well as those in exile. They are essential defenders of democratic values and human rights. They must be recognised and supported in their essential work.

The profound impact of the triple planetary crisis of environmental pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss of human rights stands out as another critical issue of our time. These are not mere environmental concerns. They pose existential threats that strike at the core of human rights but also dignity. Regrettably, the responses of member states to these challenges are often woefully inadequate, a fact that becomes particularly evident in their handling of peaceful environmental protests. The employment of heavy-handed police tactics and the criminalisation of peaceful activism, not only contravenes democratic principles but also violates fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Allow me now to briefly turn our attention to a regional issue, which though geographically confined carries profound implications for countless Europeans. It challenges our collective ability to transition from a history marred by serious crimes to a future of peaceful, multicultural societies rooted in human rights. Several countries from the region of the former Yugoslavia stand at a pivotal juncture. In my report published two months ago on transition justice in the region, I emphasised the urgent need to involve victims in addressing the past, the urgent need to listen to them when addressing the past and breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma, placing a particular emphasis on youth. These are critical steps on the path towards genuine healing and reconciliation.

The final issue I wish to address is the pressing necessity for the stringent regulation of digital technologies particularly AI. The unabated advancement of AI presents formidable risks to an array of human rights and the very essence of our democratic fabric. We are constantly confronted with scenarios where AI could profoundly erode privacy, equality, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, among other rights. Even considerably more than it is already capable of doing. The imperative for comprehensive regulations governing the development and application of AI cannot be emphasised enough. Member states of the Council of Europe are obligated to uphold human rights, a duty that includes crafting regulatory frameworks to protect individuals from rights violations perpetrated by either private entities or state actors. Despite the formidable challenges we face, it is essential to acknowledge the significant strides made in human rights implementation. Current challenges are daunting but they should not deter us, rather they should invigorate our resolve to recommit to the principles and standards our organisation upholds.

I hold a steadfast belief in the visibility of this endeavour, and in my view, it is not that human rights have failed.  Rather where gaps exist, it is largely due to our collective shortcomings in implementing these rights systematically and effectively across generations. State authorities and notably you, as parliamentarians, are entrusted with the primary role in this endeavour but leadership in this area demands more than just rhetoric. It requires politicians to set an example through both their words but also their actions. In this vein, bolstering multilateralism is critical for sustaining international co-operation, preserving global stability and upholding democratic values. This is especially pertinent in the current year, a time when numerous elections will scrutinise the strength, resilience, and integrity of democratic processes amid challenges of digital misinformation and geopolitical tensions.

Mister President, esteemed members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, even in the darkest moments of recent European history, such as Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine, the resilience of multilateralism and commitment to human rights has been evident. The collective response to this war including humanitarian assistance, economic support and legal efforts to hold the Russian authorities to account, has been an expression of our member states' continued commitment to co-operation and principle actions. The collective and united response to this war demonstrates the resilience of an international system, that despite its imperfections, remains our best defence against tyranny, and the best defence of our rights.

The recent Council of Europe summit held in Reykjavík where the heads of states and government pledged to reaffirm their commitment to the norms and principles of this organisation is encouraging. Member states have agreed on a clear roadmap for strengthening human rights protection and to reinforce the Council of Europe and its institutions including the Office of the Commissioner.

Moreover, the dedication of NGOs, journalists, human rights defenders and activists, including young, environmental human rights defenders, often facing great personal risks, reminds us that the principles and vision of our organisation continue to inspire across generations, and are as relevant today, I would say, as they were when the Council of Europe was created 75 years ago.

Now our mission is to leverage these positive trends to further the cause of human rights and also to narrow the divide between norms and reality.

Last but not least, if you would allow me, because I want to address my team sitting there. I would like to express my deepest gratitude – I was not expecting this – to each and every member of my team, including the ones that moved to new professional challenges, for their commitment, dedication to human rights, and for their hard work. They have consistently demonstrated – first of all, which I think is important for this job, being Commissioner or not – their passion, their drive, showing up with their best selves and also pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible. Their resilience and adaptability to the possibility to turn and to change have been nothing short of remarkable, and it has been a real honour and a privilege to lead and also work along such remarkable individuals. I thank you for the opportunity. The memories we have created, also the achievements and visits and talks with many people, people who suffer and everything we accomplished together will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Let us remember that the advancement of human rights is not a linear process but a collective struggle that requires continuous effort from all of us. By promoting human rights awareness, advocating for justice, and working towards an inclusive society, we can build a future where human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled for all.

Thank you very much.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:07:21

They say that politicians do not have emotions. In the rare times that politicians do show their emotions, in my opinion, they simultaneously show how deeply they are involved in what they say, serving the people. So, thank you so much.

Thank you so much, Madam Dunja MIJATOVIĆ, for your most interesting address.

Members of the Parliamentary Assembly have questions to put to you. I remind you that questions must be limited to 30 seconds and no more. Colleagues should be asking questions and not making speeches.

The first question is from Ms Petra BAYR on behalf of the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group.

Ms Petra BAYR

Austria, SOC, Spokesperson for the group

17:08:06

Thank you very much, Mr President.

Distinguished Ms Commissioner for Human Rights, dear Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ.

On behalf of my political group I would really want to thank you for the work you have done for human rights during the last years.

You always have been –and you will be– a loud voice for human rights.

You often acted outside the comfort zone, and I think that's an appropriate place for a Human Rights Commissioner.

Your term will end by March, and we will decide about your successor in the course of this week.

And of course, you mentioned a couple of challenges.

What do you think is the main challenge for your successor, and what qualifications should she or he bring to face and overcome these challenges?

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:08:54

Yes, please.

 

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

17:08:55

Thank you, dear Petra.

Now, when you know that I also have a soft spot, I think I can also use this opportunity to be more frank on certain issues related to the question that you just posed.

Thank you, for all the co-operation, all the work we did in the past years, also in relation to the preparation of the visit to your country, Austria, but also holding the torch when it comes to women's rights and gender equality so high and making on so many occasions my work easier.

When it comes to challenges for my successor, I think the road and the direction is quite clear.

I mentioned several things that will not go away from the agenda, which is related to the human rights of the Ukrainian people, the issue related to the peace process with the  human rights roadmap for Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Western Balkans in general, if you ask me about the regions, also many other members states.

It's the job that actually cannot be predicted. You never know what is around the corner.

If somebody had told me I would have to deal with a pandemic and that, after that, on the way out of pandemic, we would be faced with the consequences of the war...

You need to be ready to act, react quickly, and this is what I mentioned in relation to my team. You need to be able to switch and to turn and to be able to address certain issues.

The mandate is clear, it is broad, it is unique. You created something which I find extraordinarily important in the international fora when it comes to other human rights institutions and mandates. When it comes to your question in relation to particular skills for my successor, I think the ball is in your court, and you have to decide.

You have three highly skilled individuals, but this is your job. What I think when it comes to a mandate, it is very clear what needs to be addressed and how certain individuals will do this. It's really up to persons.

If you look at my predecessors, we are all different personalities but we all hold human rights and the mandate and importance of this job very high. Even though there are different priorities and different times, as I said six years ago, the situation was different. We do not know what is awaiting us, but we need to be ready.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:12:09

Ms Yelyzaveta YASKO, from the Group of the European People's Party.

Ms Yelyzaveta YASKO

Ukraine, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group

17:12:16

On behalf of the Group of the European People's Party, my question is as such.

What would you recommend your successor on the question of developing the mechanism of personal sanctions against those who commit crimes against human rights?

I'm talking of those who commit crimes, like the Russian Federation, in Ukraine, but also in other countries.

Thank you.

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

17:12:52

I don't think that's a question for me.

I am not a decision maker when it comes to sanctions or what certain mandates will look like.

For me, as a commissioner for human rights, a matter of accountability, justice being served for war crimes or any crimes is absolutely essential.

How certain sanctions will be applied to certain member states is for the governments and parliaments to decide.

The commissioner's role is very clear. It is of a democratic nature. The commissioner cannot sanction.

The most powerful tool I have in my toolbox is my voice. That is how you make changes on one side.

On the other side, there are other tools to do this. When it comes to proposals on particular sanctions here, on the Russian Federation, I think this organisation already sent a very clear message on what needs to be done.

The ICC, the organisations that have to take care of this, they make very clear decisions and send very clear messages in relation to this.

When it comes to the role and the mandate of the commissioner, unfortunately, that is not an issue that is covered in any way in the mandate of the commissioner.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:14:30

Now it is Mr Kamal JAFAROV's turn, from the European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance.

Mr Kamal JAFAROV

Azerbaijan, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group

17:14:38

Madam Commissioner,

First of all, thank you very much for your presentation, and thank you very much for visiting our region, and also meeting with the members of the Western Azerbaijan community.

Even though there was a specific reference to one ethnic group in your report, but information regarding our meeting, and as a cause, seemingly, was deliberately left out.

My question is, as a Commissioner, could you outline how you ensured an impartial approach to all ethnic groups to maintain integrity towards the human rights framework?

Thank you.

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

17:15:17

Thank you, Mister JAFAROV.

I did receive the letter. I'm sorry that you felt left from this I would say extremely moderate and balanced report, trying to see a way forward in the peace process.

I do not mention particular meetings with NGOs or, most of the time, I mentioned that I met with the NGOs and activists without naming them.

What I think is important here more than the mention of your organisation or any other is the fact that I ask for the same rights for all.

In my report, as the Government of Azerbaijan clearly stated, also disagreeing with certain issues that I said, which is nothing new. As Mr KOX said, it would be impossible to see that we agree on everything.

It was clearly stated that certain issues that were never raised in relation to Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict were raised in this report.

I can assure you that there is no special plan or any reason for me including or not including certain issues. It is simply my decision as a Commissioner to tackle issues of different nature, which I tackled in this report, from missing persons, demining, hate speech, and enormous suffering by all.

Many asked me what I saw when I went to Karabakh. My first answer to this would be really, apart from some people who are returning, the IDPs, I saw no Armenians, no Azerbaijanis, beautiful nature, and an urgent need for peace and reconciliation.

I will urge this House also to work in this direction to stop the process of accusations and work on human rights for all people, regardless of their origin or ethnicity.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:17:55

Ms Sabina ĆUDIĆ on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Ms Sabina ĆUDIĆ

Bosnia and Herzegovina, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

17:18:05

Dear Madam Dunja MIJATOVIĆ, 

On behalf of the liberals are also in my personal capacity, I want to thank you for your incredible commitment, dedication, work and grace that you brought to this position.

We live in interesting times of course as a curse, you as a Commissioner served in very interesting times, challenging times.

I want to give you an opportunity, I wish to give you an opportunity to reflect for a second.

Perhaps, if you had a chance to choose one thing that you would wish to be a part of your legacy, and the disposition would be remembered for a new mandate, to tell us what would be one piece of advice that you would give to the upcoming commissioner in challenging times, that continue to be more complex and more difficult with time.

Thank you.

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

17:18:55

Thank you.

Thank you, Madam Sabina ĆUDIĆ.

It's great to get a question from a person from your country. It makes... It's extremely honourable and important.

There are many things that I would like to be my legacy. But being a very honest and realistic person, whatever I touch I know that my predecessors also worked on it.

The new things are, of course, artificial intelligence and human rights as a sort of new portfolio. That portfolio was somehow also pushed away because the priorities were constantly arriving and coming and popping out of the box. You needed to sort of really drop everything and do certain things. For me, when I say do certain things, I mean to see where people suffer the most. For us it was really to be able to go to Ukraine immediately, to try to tackle issues that we can.

Already in May, the beginning of May 2022, we were in Bucha, Borodianka, Irpin, talking to the victims and trying to tackle issues. The issue related to children. Suggestions we made.

Something that I'm very proud of is the work my team and myself did on reporting on human rights violations of Crimean Tatars, which I hope will continue to be a very important issue.

Transitional justice, or dealing with the past of our region, which I think is something that I tackled prominently. Here I cannot not mention Srebrenica and mothers that came here in 2019 for the first time ever, where their voices were heard.

Something I tried to work on but did not succeed, and I hope this will be a possibility for the future, not just for the Commissioner but also for this Hall: the work with the UN and to finally recognise 11 July as a commemoration day for the whole world to remember. This is for the future generations and for peace and reconciliation and nothing else. It would be partial justice, I would say, apart from judgments and everything that we already have.

When it comes to my successor, I have many messages. I think the main is: do not give in, do not give up, do not let any side, left, right, up, down or anywhere, get you into anything but what you really truly believe is just. Work with a team. That's the most important issue. Listen to the voices of human rights defenders and people who are actually still looking at this office as a place where they can raise their issues and potentially have some kind of solutions.

It wasn't, and it is not, an easy ride. It is an extremely responsible mandate, and it is the opportunity of a lifetime. You do it right or not. It really depends.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:22:50

And now on behalf of the United European Left, I call the co-president Mr Andrej HUNKO.

Mr Andrej HUNKO

Germany, UEL, Spokesperson for the group

17:23:02

Thank you very much, Commissioner,

I would like to return to the situation of Julian Assange. You referred to the journalists. This Assembly has twice called for his immediate release. In your capacity as Commissioner, you did send a letter to Priti Patel some time ago, and thank you for that.

Now the final hearing in the UK may be on the agenda on 20-21 February. For the last six years, Julian Assange has been in solitary confinement in a 6-square-metre cell in Belmarsh prison, in London.

So what can we do during to protect Julian Assange, since extradition is becoming a very real threat.

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

17:24:10

Thank you, Mister Andrej HUNKO.

As you know we had numerous discussions, not just the two of us, but several other colleagues in relation to this case.

I was very clear, as you rightly stated in relation to this, that Mr Julian Assange should not be extradited.

I was public on this also with my letter to the UK authorities, [dated] May 22, to the Home Secretary.

You already mentioned, and then also the public statement, also during my visit to the United Kingdom.

I'm very much aware of the current situation. My team and myself are following closely. We know about hearing that is set for 20, 21 February.

In relation to this, I think it would be prejudging to say anything apart from what I already stated in relation to this case, and the fact that he should not be extradited.

You know as long as I'm in the office, I will continue following the case.

When it comes to the work and your question on what can be done, I think the Parliamentary Assembly and several colleagues are already doing quite a lot.

We are also in touch with many NGOs that are closely following the trials. Also, some of them are visiting Mr Julian Assange in prison.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:25:50

So, thank you.

Since we're running out of time I will give now the floor to four colleagues.

They will ask their questions and I would ask Madam Commissioner to answer as briefly as you can.

So Mr Rafael HUSEYNOV is the first.

Mr Rafael HUSEYNOV

Azerbaijan, ALDE

17:26:07

Thank you,

Dear Ms Commissioner,

The Khojali tragedy is among the most terrible pages of the occupation policy pursued by Armenia against Azerbaijan for almost 30 years.

The genocide committed in Khojali in February 1992 is considered one of the most terrible crimes against humanity.

During a trip to the region to prepare a report, you met with survivors of the Khojali genocide as well as with Azerbaijanis deported from the historical lands in Armenia in the late 1980s.

Why was your opinion about this meeting not included in the text of your report?

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:26:48

 Mr Armen GEVORGYAN.

Mr Armen GEVORGYAN

Armenia, EC/DA

17:26:58

Madam Commissioner, during your mandate, ethnic cleansing of Armenians took place in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has turned into a dynastic monarchy, violating its obligation towards the Council of Europe. Türkiye and some other member states are ignoring the decisions of the Strasbourg Court.

Do you see the problem of dysfunction of international institutions, including yours, given that the quality of democracy in member states has been declining in recent years and violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms are increasing?

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:27:37

Ms Tamara VONTA.

Ms Tamara VONTA

Slovenia, ALDE

17:27:45

Dear Commissioner,

In the shadow of armed conflict, intolerance towards certain groups is once again threatening.

Discrimination of those groups is the subject of annual reports and progress is slow, as the Roma situation indicates.

Our society is losing generations of Roma children who have no opportunities for education, no opportunities for integration into the labour market, no opportunities for advancement of the social ladder, no opportunities to avoid the fact that being Roma already marks and determines them at birth.

Dear Commissioner,

Is it possible to do even more within the framework of our activities and responsibilities?

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:28:28

Thank you.

And the last from the list is Mr Alain MILON.

Mr Alain MILON

France, EPP/CD

17:28:34

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Madam Commissioner, I'm here, right in front of you. 

I've listened to your speech, which I found very humanist, and to the questions put by our colleagues, and I have a question I'd like you to answer: is there still a country in Europe that fully respects human rights?

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:29:00

So, thank you, dear colleagues.

Madam Dunja MIJATOVIĆ, you have the floor to reply.

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

17:29:10

The first question was from the distinguished delegate from Azerbaijan, on Khojali.

I mean, it's a very similar answer to what I said to Mr Kamal JAFAROV. There are no, you know, as Commissioner I cannot mention each and every meeting I have. Of course I'm aware of Khojali. Of course I met with them, but I also met with many people who suffered and went through torture, who lost their loved ones, in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The fact that I didn't mention one particular issue in one or the other country is not really something that I want to politicise with. I urge you to read the report and to see my messages in relation to all victims.

But here I'm also asking you, not personally, but delegates from both countries, to stop these endless accusations, because they are not bringing anything to anyone. Justice has to be served when it comes to violations and crimes from both sides, and you know that there were crimes on both sides. I spoke to people who lost their loved ones long ago and recently. Because of them we should take another step and look into the future, respecting all the victims including the stories and testimonies I heard from people from Khojali, but also many other places that I visited not only related to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

You know the country I come from, and you know that I'm from Sarajevo, from Bosnia and Herzegovina. So, I do understand what it means when you see that justice is not served in the right place, but the only way forward is a truth reconciliation and justice that needs to be served. In my report, my clear message to both governments is to start working together on a human rights roadmap for peace. Otherwise, we will never get anywhere.

From the distinguished Armenian colleague, the question is related to the importance or the effect of the Office or the international institutions when countries do not abide by the rules or judgments.

I'll be very direct here. I mean, it is up to you. It is your responsibility, the responsibility of the states, member states, that voluntary agreed to abide by the rules when you became members of this organisation. You created a Commissioner to remind you to address these issues, but the reason you are not doing it is because there is a lack of political will.

There is a clear dismantling of the international order if the Court's decisions, national court decisions, international courts decisions, and the rule of law are pushed away.

We and the offices and many colleagues working in other international organisations are eager to continue working and helping and assisting the states to comply with the rules that they voluntary agreed upon, but we can only do as much as you wish to work with us.

This is, as I already stated, a very bumpy road. It's a very difficult task. You need determination, but also you need to be very honest. I tried really, during six years, not to be sugarcoating any decisions or statements I made in order to really push the way the real problem when it comes to grave human rights violations.

The problem is really in your court, by "your" I mean "member states". There are states that do wish to work with the Office of the Commissioner and other great monitoring bodies of the Council of Europe and possibilities for technical assistance, and that is visible when it comes to the rule of law, freedom of the media and many other issues like in Armenia, for example, the action plan.

I would also like to see an action plan where this organisation could work on the Karabakh region and a human rights roadmap leading to the peace process. It can only do so if there is an agreement from both sides. If we fail, then I see it as a failure of two states, more than anything else. At least that's how I see it.

Roma: of course I would like to see more done when it comes to this community. Recently I had a country visit to Germany where I had an opportunity to attend an amazing event together with my team where art and culture were used in order to show how important it is to open our eyes, our borders, our horizons, and reach out to diversity and everything that makes our societies better.

Unfortunately, the problem is from segregation in schools in many countries that are raised in many of my country reports, antigypsyism that I already stated. The issue is also related to transitional justice. At the beginning of my mandate I was in Birkenau, where the Roma genocide was commemorated. There we also tried to see this angle that is often neglected in discussions. Roma rights are something that was always very high on the agenda of Commissioner's Office, and I know that this will for sure stay there.

When it comes to the organisation, of course, it depends on many other decisions that have to be made. What I would also like to see is more attention paid to people with disabilities. Somehow I see that that group is particularly neglected.

Ms Tatjana PAŠIĆ

Serbia, SOC

17:39:05

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Colleagues,

I have to say that we in Serbia did not have elections on December 17th. Instead, we witnessed the conclusion of the electoral fraud process, repeating for numerous times since 2012 when Vučić and his coalition partner, the convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj, took power in Serbia.

The truth of this can be seen in the Report of the Council's Observatory Mission and Mr. Schennach, which is of course expressed in more appropriate words. Thank you, Mr. Schennach, for your professionalism and objectivity in your mission and your Report.

The fraud in Serbian elections occurs on four fields:

First of all, regarding media, President Vučić was a guest on national television 300 times in 365 days before the campaign began. The opposition, in the same format, not once. To better understand, I'll give you an example from two days ago.

From 6 pm to 8 pm, Vučić was present on ALL television stations with national coverage, presenting his so-called plan for Serbia by 2027. The campaign on Saturday was simultaneously broadcasted on 48 channels in the network of the state cable operator Telekom. 48 channels!

In reality, it's all part of a campaign that never stops in Serbia.

The second field is thievery and pressure on voters with numerous examples, but I only tell you that in Serbia is possible that children are expelled from kindergartens if their parents support the opposition.

Another field concerns vote-buying. This time, at least 30,000 people were engaged to buy over 300,000 votes all over Serbia.

Finally, the fourth field of thievery is enrollment of people from Republic of Srpska in Serbian Register of the Voters especially in Belgrade. According to colleagues from the Democratic Party, about 100,000 people voted in Serbia, even though they did not have the right to vote.

We have clearly documented all of these irregularities, and reports from the Council mission, EP, ODIHR, as well as domestic organizations led by CRTA, confirm all of this.

Therefore, I urge you to support the request of the pro-European opposition to send a Special International Mission to Serbia that will assess all of these irregularities and provide recommendations that both the government and the opposition must accept regarding the conditions under which elections in Serbia at all levels will be repeated.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Lulzim BASHA

Albania, EPP/CD

17:39:11

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

Mr. President,

Members of the Assembly,

Massive violations and irregularities in the elections in Serbia, as indicated by the preliminary OSCE report, were dominated by the decisive involvement of the president, who, along with the systematic advantages of the ruling party, created unfair conditions. Serious irregularities such as unfair competition, media prejudice, and vote-buying, occurred during these elections as stated by the elections observer mission.

Citizens from other states, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, were bussed in to vote in Belgrade, while Albanians were removed from the voting lists. Serbia continues ethnic discrimination and quiet cleansing by preventing around 8 thousand Albanians in Presheva, Medvegja, and Bujanovc from obtaining documents, thus depriving them of the right to vote and access to public services.

These irregularities, made public by observers from the PACE, the European Parliament and OSCE ODIHR, were followed by a campaign of attacks by politicians from the ruling party and media controlled by them.

Brutal violence against opposition party leader, Nikola Sandulovic, simply because he bowed in front of the grave of a 7-year-old girl murdered alongside the Jashari family in Prekaz, should sound everywhere the alarm as a shocking testimony of a state orchestrated intimidation and harrasment campaign in a country seeking EU membership.

In the Western Balkans, autocrats have often been tolerated in the manipulation of elections, in the vague and false hope of seeking to maintain stability at the cost of democracy and the rule of law. Now we face the consequences of this doomed approach: the first victims are democracy and rule of law. Ultimately stability is threatened by populist autocrats seeking shelter from their failures in ultra nationalist adventures.

The terrorist attack in Banjska is still without an author, while Serbia refuses to execute Interpol's order for Milan Radoicic, who has taken responsibility for the attack. If Serbia has nothing to hide, why protect him?

Serbia's continues to undermine and threaten security and stability in Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Montenegro, in a strategy supported by Moscow which seeks to stimulate conflict in the Western Balkans to divert attention from its illegal war of invasion against Ukraine.

A comprehensive international investigation into the Serb election irregularities as well as standing up for elections standards, also in other countries in the Western Balkans facing election issues and a rule of law deficit, are imperative.

Without democratic elections and rule of law, there can be no security, no stability, no prosperity, no European dream for the people of the Western Balkans.

Mr François BONNEAU

France, ALDE

17:39:17

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in French

Ms Maja VUKIĆEVIĆ

Montenegro, NR

17:39:26

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

Dear President,

Dear colleagues,

First of all, I would like to congratulate colleagues from Serbia on the fair and democratic parliamentary elections held in December last year.

As Serbian from Montenegro, and a representative of the political party whose voters predominantly identify themselves as Serbs, I was very much interested in this election process. Serbia has a pivotal role in the Western Balkans region, and its stability and further development are important for all of us.

In this context, I strongly support the responsible approach of the Serbian authorities, expressed through their decision to hold early parliamentary elections, as requested by opposition political parties.

Moreover, the invitation from Serbian authorities to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, has shown their commitment to hold free and fair elections, focusing on transparency and wellbeing of their citizens. That has also been confirmed by the Observation mission statement that the electoral day passed without any major incidents.

On the other hand, the elections were followed by some reactions that, in my opinion, do not contribute to democracy, and should not be seen in any democratic country. The opposition, of course, has the right to be dissatisfied with the election results. However, peaceful ways of expressing dissatisfaction should be found. Breaking the door of the Republican Election Commission, and creating chaos do not bring good to anyone, especially not to the opposition which wants to present itself as pro-European and democratic. Through their actions after the elections, the quite opposite has been demonstrated.

I am convinced that all the Balkan states, especially those aspiring the EU membership, should cooperate with international institutions and Western countries, but that relationship must have an equal ground.

Unfortunately, what has been happening repeatedly, is that the authorities and citizens in the Western Balkans countries are only expected to execute orders from their international partners. Apparently, even now, some addresses want to impose their will and to enforce some of their front-runners, despite the election results and the victory of the Serbian Progressive Party list.

This is not a novelty for Serbia, we had it before, and not just in Serbia, but also in Montenegro, witnessing, over the years, how numerous presumed great fighters for democracy supported the regime of Milo Djukanovic, even when he trampled all democratic principles. Today, those same addresses, would like to, somehow, shake the legitimate government in Serbia through various initiatives and to impose some of their favorites.

That is why I strongly underline the basic principle of democracy: The Government of Serbia can be elected only by the citizens of Serbia, and the citizens clearly expressed their position in December elections.

Likewise, I expect the responsible approach from the international community. The opposition should be invited to act proactively and within the institutional framework. Parliament has to be a place for dialogue and exchange of views. According to that, there is no justified reason for causing disturbances in Serbia, and I am sure that the Serbian people will know how to respond to anyone who tries to forcefully change the will expressed in the elections. Serbia is an independent country to make its own decisions, and I expect this not to be changed in the future.

Thank you.

Ms Elvira KOVÁCS

Serbia, EPP/CD

17:39:41

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

Promotion and consolidation of pluralist democracy is one of the main objectives of the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly and in that sense Obeservation of the early parlimentary elections in Serbia, following the main CE documents, indicates flows and failures in the process of the electoral integrity.

With due respect, considering that many important things are presented, I'd like to stress that this Report missed two, cardinal perspectives:

One is, that only together political majority and opposition create inclusive, prosperous and sustainable society, that only together political majority and opposition work on securing that Serbian democracy mechanisms meet integrity and political trust as an important indicator of political legitimacy.

Therefore, key words are: accountability, dialogue and shared responsibility for pursuing and achieving common good.

And the second one, to a large extent, the achievements of the inter-party dialogue that was conducted between 2019 and 2021 as well as implementation of the ODIHR recommendations, were omitted.

Just brief remind, as a results of the two parallel inter-party dialogues conducted under the auspices of the National Assembly, two documents which designed the measures of improving conditions for holding elections were adopted, signed by seven opposition parties and representatives of the Serbian Progressive Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia.

Actually, broad public dialogue was lounched, in which civil organizations and the professional public were involved, and this process ended with the adoption of the changes to electoral laws, February 2022 - it is important to stress, that the key solutions in the new electoral laws also came from the recommendations from the Final Report of the Special Mission of the ODIHR for the evaluation of the elections of June 21, 2020.

We'll agree that Serbia is politicaly profoundly polarized over multiple lines such as pro and against the regime, traditionalism versus modernism, and West or Russia; the fact is that Serbia holds elections at every two years, the fact is that my political option VMSZ pladged for establishing four-year electoral term, it is a strange that my 16-year long parlaimentary experience covers the eight mandates; consequently, people have a high level of mistrust in political institutions, so in such a social environment the role of Council of Europe is of crucial importance.

Only dialogue led by the CE mission, seminars implemented, could bridge these higly polarized sides, ensuring that the common good takes precedence over the parties’ short-term interests and political differences.

Modern democracy is a political system in which political majority and the opposition share a joint responsibility in consolidating the citizens´ trust in the political system and democratic institutions, ensuring their good functioning and offering the public an informed choice.

Ms Tamara VONTA

Slovenia, ALDE

17:39:41

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

I would like to thank Mr Schennach for the report on the elections.

I, too, was a member of the pre-election and the election observation mission to Serbia.

We are all aware of the vital role mass media plays in a democratic society, especially at a time when the world of media, as we know it, is undergoing tremendous, almost revolutionary, changes. The power of individual platforms is becoming more prominent and the social media is taking over the traditional media. Therefore, in this information maze, the role of professional media reporting is more important than ever, with public media and professional journalism being especially relevant. Without them, democracy - to put it mildly - is just a lofty goal.

In journalistic and communication theory, there is a specific term called 'media capture.' But what is media capture? It involves political authorities attempting to steer and control the media by using state telecoms and funding private media connected to the ruling party. They do this either by overpaying for services or through advertising and sponsorships. In addition, they harass critical media, exclude them from programme schedules, and restrict their access to national and other frequencies. It involves systematic funding of the so-called ‘friendly media’ that promote a desired agenda. As a result, they are systematically financially supported.

Why am I talking about this? Because I have been a journalist for most of my professional life and am particularly sensitive to such events in society. And also, because I observed the beginnings of media capture in my home country two years ago. The recipe is the same everywhere. And those who persist, are those that succeed. I am afraid that something like this is now happening in Serbia.

Ms Dubravka FILIPOVSKI

Serbia, EPP/CD

17:39:48

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

Early parliamentary elections and local elections in Serbia were held last year at the request of the opposition. The elections were attended by 5,587 observers, signifying that the election process has been subject to intense scrutiny.

Since 2019 institutional collaboration between the Serbian government and ODIHR led to substantial progress in electoral reforms in Serbia.

In its first report the International election observation mission stated that the elections in Serbia were well-organized, that the legal framework provided an adequate basis for the conduct of democratic elections.

Furthermore, positively assessed the voting process at 93% of the 1220 polling stations it monitored.

Representatives of all electoral lists were present as observers at all polling stations. Their joint signed records from the polling stations are available on the website of the Republic Electoral Commission.

Out of all electrolar lists that participated in the election, only one oposition list submited objestions. The Republic Electoral Commission rejected the objestions an unfounded.

Voters in the Serbian elections demonstrated a clear advantage by the concrete plans and results of the ruling coalition led by the Serbian Progressive Party.

Everything negative that could be heard and seen after the elections in Serbia, including this report for the most part is aimed at political destabilization of Serbia and causing a post-election crisis.

Unfotunately, the election in Serbia served as an instrument to divert attention from the illegal reception of the so-called of Kosovo to the Council of Europe, with the fact that the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija suffer terror and persecution from their territory every day, as well as that so- called Kosovo announces the abolition of payment transactions with Central Serbia, thereby endangering the lives of 87000 Serbs and their families in Kosovo and Metohija.

Ms Liliana TANGUY

France, ALDE

17:39:54

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in French

Mr Branislav BORENOVIĆ

Bosnia and Herzegovina, EPP/CD

17:40:01

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

I am surprised that, in a time of very complex geopolitical challenges worldwide, global tensions, wars, and conflicts, on the first day of our session, we are discussing a report on the elections held in Serbia which is full with tendentious, subjective and irrelevant statements.

As a parliamentarian from Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, I am deeply concerned about a part of information in this report that is entirely malicious and concerns the influence of voters from BiH, specifically the Republika Srpska, on the elections in Serbia. You know, voters with dual citizenships legitimately use their voting rights in the countries of which they are citizens in accordance with the law. In this specific case, only 11800 citizens from BiH with Serbian citizenship voted at 18 polling stations in BiH. This is 0.3% of the total 3.8 million citizens who voted in the Serbian elections and only a few thousand voted at polling stations in Serbia, which is an even smaller number. This has a symbolic and almost negligible impact on the final election result. Talking about voters migration and their influence is unbelievable exaggeration. Proportionally, many more citizens from BiH vote in elections in Croatia and directly elect their three representatives in the Croatian Parliament. This has never been, nor should it be, a topic of discussion in this body.

What also was not a topic, and should have been, are the elections in BiH. In the recent elections in BiH, we had nearly half a million invalid votes, 11% of the total for just one level of elections! You, in international institutions, were blind to this. You remained silent on serious election fraud in BiH, and today you create an unnecessary narrative where it is not needed for the elections whic were in accordance with the practices in many European democracies. To be clear: elections in Serbia are a celebration of democracy compared to the elections in BiH that you chose to ignore. What hypocrisy!

However, I am confident that incorrect attempts and misguided assessments of the elections will not stop Serbia from remaining the most significant factor for stability and progress in the entire region. In the Republika Srpska and BiH, we remember that Serbia assisted all citizens of BiH, Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats with free vaccinations, supports projects in health, education, culture, and sports with billions of euros, as well as a clear political stance in support of the Dayton Constitutional Order in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, instead of unnecessary discussions, let us turn to cooperation, mutual understanding, and a strong commitment to EU integration for the countries of the Western Balkans. Thank you!

Mr Christian BUCHMANN

Austria, EPP/CD

17:40:12

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in German

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:36:57

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ,

At this point, on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly, I want to thank you for answering questions.

Once again, I want to thank you for serving as our commissioner for this Parliamentary Assembly.

Thank you once again.

All the best to you.

Ms Dunja MIJATOVIĆ

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

17:37:16

Thank you, Mr President.

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

17:37:27

Dear colleagues,

The Parliamentary Assembly will hold its next public seating tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 p.m. with the agenda which was approved earlier today.

I invite you to be in the hemicycle at your seats in good time for the address of his excellency Mr Nikos Christodoulides, president of the Republic of Cyprus, at 2:30 p.m.

The sitting is adjourned.

The sitting is closed at 5:40 p.m.