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Opening speech by the President of the Assembly at the 4th part of the 2009 Assembly’s Session

Opening speech by the President of the Assembly at the 4th part of the 2009 Assembly's Session
Monday, 28 September 2009

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

This part-session will mark the culmination of the Council of Europe's 60th anniversary celebrations, with a whole series events in which we will be participating this week. But once the celebrations are over, we will leave this chamber asking ourselves the same questions that we ask after every anniversary: what next? what is the best course of action? what is our place in the European architecture? what are our concrete goals? do we have the necessary means to achieve them?

The world we live in today is at a crossroads, and so too is our organisation. The world has become aware of the fragility of our planet, but has not yet taken a unanimous and firm resolution to repair the damage and avert ecological disaster. The world is in the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis, but even after the last G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, the planet's most powerful leaders have once again been more courageous in distributing and regulating the taxpayers' hard-earned money than the money earned in reckless and obscure transactions on the financial markets. The world has seen what nuclear weapons and terrorism can do, but it still cannot put an end to the murderous folly of certain fanatical national leaders or heads of terrorist movements. On our own continent, awareness of the need for a strong and united Europe in a global world comes up against a barrier of incomprehension or narrow political interests which could seriously damage that unity.

Dear colleagues,

This part-session will address all of the major current European and global issues. This shows once again our consistency and the necessity of this forum for dialogue which we represent. We all have a great responsibility for ensuring that this dialogue is never broken off, because that would deprive us of our raison d'être. We are not the guardians of dogmas set in stone; we are fellow travellers on the same journey and must join together in seeking solutions to problems that concern us all.

I make this remark in the context of the debate we will be having this week on the challenge to the Russian delegation's credentials.

Indeed, there are incontrovertible facts with which the Assembly cannot agree – the situation one year after the war between Russia and Georgia; the situation of human rights defenders in the northern Caucasus, a situation which I personally condemned this summer; or the situation currently facing the European Court of Human Rights because of Russia's failure to ratify Protocol 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights – even if, in this last case, the Russian Duma recently gave us a glimmer of hope.

The Assembly will vote, therefore, in accordance with its conscience. But before that, I invite everyone to consider a number of questions: have we done everything possible before resorting to sanctions; and if there were to be sanctions, will we choose those which will enable us to move forward and achieve better results – or will they be sanctions which serve only to slam the door, leaving no way out? And if we apply sanctions in this case, will we be consistent in reacting in the same way with all countries and in all situations where the Council of Europe has difficulty in ensuring that its standards and values are applied? I leave the question to the conscience of each of us.

The series of debates we will be having on climate change marks another high point for our Assembly. It places human rights at the heart of an issue which, until a few years ago, was considered purely technical. I am particularly proud of the fact that one of the top priorities of my term as President has a chance of being realised this week – namely a proposal by the Assembly to draft a protocol to the European Convention recognising the right to "live in a healthy environment". I think that the UN Conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December will show us that the environment and human rights will henceforth be two indissociable subjects – in any event, this is a major cause which should be matched by commensurate efforts.

Another debate, that on the activities of OECD, which is regarded as a routine debate, takes on a completely different dimension this year against the background of economic and financial crisis. I think that one of the reasons for this crisis is precisely the fact of having totally dissociated the questions of human rights and democracy, on the one hand, and economic questions, on the other. What could be closer to our concerns that what we are seeing happen at the moment – millions of people with no job, no home and no hope at the very time when optimism is returning to the financial markets and senior executives of banks are starting to award themselves staggering bonuses again. And that is not the only madness in this world of ours; think of the millions who are dying of hunger because the land is dry and nothing will grow, while on the other side of the globe the land is drowning in milk which farmers are no longer able to sell at a decent price.

Dear friends,

As you well know, the past few months have seen a serious disagreement between the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly over the procedure for electing the organisation's new Secretary General. I am not going to repeat everything that has been said over and over again on this subject; I will merely emphasise once again our firm belief – and I think I am expressing the opinion of the Assembly as a whole – that we cannot ask our member states to observe our common standards and values if we ourselves, as a democratic institution, are not beyond reproach from that point of view. There was nothing personal about the dispute between the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, which led us not to hold the election of the new Secretary General in June. We ourselves are elected representatives and it was therefore our responsibility to ensure that the person who heads this organisation is elected in a manner worthy of our own standards and values.

Dialogue with the Committee of Ministers continued throughout the summer. The Presidential Committee and the Bureau of the Committee of Ministers met five times to discuss the election of the Secretary General and, more generally, the need to improve dialogue and co-operation between the Committee of Ministers and the Assembly: in Brussels on 18 June, in Strasbourg on 22 June, in Paris on 13 July, in Bled (Slovenia) on 31 August and, most recently, in Brussels on 14 September.

Unfortunately we have been unable to bring about a change in the Committee of Ministers' position on the election of the new Secretary General, and we regret that. But the dialogue has born fruit in that we have reached agreement on a set of measures to step up dialogue and co-operation between these two statutory organs of the Council of Europe. This includes a series of measures to improve dialogue and co-operation in general, including consideration of procedures for future elections, and also some immediate measures. [The Bureau approved the agreement this morning.]

It is regrettable of course that the election of the new Secretary General encountered obstacles from the Committee of Ministers which we will continue to deplore – in particular the lack of consultation with the Assembly, the exclusion of candidates who are members of the Assembly and the lack of a real political choice. But I am convinced that the time we spent settling our differences was not time wasted. That time was necessary to set the record straight; it enabled us to clarify a large number of outstanding issues; and, above all, we managed to secure a clear commitment from the Committee of Ministers to work on a number of proposals by the Assembly for strengthening its role within the organisation. These are proposals which, to be perfectly frank, the Committee of Ministers had hitherto ignored.

Dear friends,

The numerous contacts I have had in the last few weeks with many of you, with national delegations and with political groups have led me to believe that a great majority of Assembly members are in favour of holding the election of the new Secretary General. That was also the wish of the Bureau of the Assembly, which, on 7 September, voted by a majority in favour of putting the election of the Secretary General on the agenda of this part-session. This morning, the Bureau upheld the item of the agenda that will be proposed to you.

I think that the arguments both of those who want to vote and of those who do not are perfectly legitimate. We have done our duty: we have responded to irregularities, we have upheld our principles and our democratic values, and we have spared no effort to engage in dialogue, explain our position and seek the best possible solutions.

The greatness of this Assembly lies in its ability to take responsibility for repairing errors committed by others. I am convinced, therefore, that we can emerge from this test with our heads held high, having proved to ourselves, as well as to all the other components of this organisation, that we are a real democratic force which will always defend this organisation's values, whatever the circumstances.

I have stressed on several occasions how important it is not only to have a vote, but also to ensure that it is a strong vote, showing significant political support for the future Secretary General. I therefore believe that, after the events of the last few months, the person elected to the head of this organisation, whoever he or she may be, will not have the slightest doubt that the confidence shown by the Assembly will have to be earned – and that we will be vigilant and demanding.

I hope, too, that our governments have now realised that the Ministers for Foreign Affairs must become personally involved in the Council of Europe's political management, well beyond the work done by their Permanent Representatives in Strasbourg. I am certain that without the personal involvement first of the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos, and, above all, of the current Chair of the Committee of Ministers, the Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar, we would not be where we are today. I would therefore like to convey my heartfelt thanks to them and pay tribute to them. They have set an example which, I hope, all future Chairs of the Committee of Ministers will henceforth be required to follow.

Dear friends,

On the subject of examples, I would like to end with two very good pieces of recent news. I am referring to the agreement between two of our member states – Armenia and Turkey – on a normalisation of their relations, and to the agreement between another two member states – Croatia and Slovenia – to resolve the territorial conflict that had been latent between them since the break-up of Yugoslavia. Normally we are the ones who give our member states the good examples to follow. This time it is for us to follow these two excellent examples. Only in this way will we be equal to the confidence which our member countries and our citizens have placed in us.