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Speaking points - Meetings with students, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

Speaking points - Meetings with students, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
Friday, 14 September 2007

During my short visit to your country, I asked to see the highest authorities…and you. For me, young people are a highest authority. We, politicians, are doing best, at present, in the name of a better future. But we cannot make the future, it is in your hands. And the best future is the one which combines the energy, new ideas and aspirations of the new generation with the values and dreams of their predecessors.

1/ The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe is a pan-European organisation of 46 countries whose primary aim is to ensure respect of the fundamental values – democracy, human rights and the rule of law – across the continent.

The Council of Europe does not have military forces or even the leverage that comes through trade and economic policies.

But through the credibility and moral authority that come with our mandatory focus on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, we have a soft power that can prove just as effective.

Our soft power manifests itself in subtle ways – through dialogue and parliamentary diplomacy, for instance, whereby Assembly members, sharing a pan-European forum in the home of democracy, can take a flexible approach to international questions, free of the restraints of government policy and instructions.

Similarly, the ongoing reporting processes of the Council's various monitoring mechanisms are in themselves important occasions for dialogue.

In this way, we can build bridges - sometimes small ones, but always meaningful.

Indeed, we are seeing more and more how this soft power can and must play a leading role in conflict prevention and resolution, alongside – and sometimes before – military force.

Examples to underline the importance of the Council of Europe as a pan-European organisation with a strong and independent parliamentary dimension:

a/ Second report on secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers of Mr Marty, PACE member and Swiss Senator.

Mr Marty's report shows the Assembly in its best light. It has exposed the misdeeds of European governments in unprecedented detail. This has been made possible also thanks to our members' double mandate, combining national and European levels.

A key role in this process was played by civil society, including NGOs and journalists, as well as individuals such as the "plane-spotters".

b/ In April 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly held its inaugural Annual Debate on the state of human rights and democracy in Europe, with numerous distinguished guest speakers, leading to adoption of an Annual Report

This is the first-ever exercise in the kind: The report brings together our unrivalled experience and expertise in human rights and the rule of law with the strong moral authority of the Assembly as a pan-European democratic body. In this sense, it is the reference on this subject.

We have invited all our national parliaments to hold their own debates on the report, to ensure that governments take these issues much more seriously, at home and abroad.

c/ The Council of Europe has achieved de facto abolition of the death penalty throughout its member States – thanks, in particular, to this Assembly.

2/ No new dividing lines in Europe - the challenge of 21st century

When the nightmare of the Second World War was over, people in Europe vowed "Never again". They shared the vision of a Europe based on peace, stability and prosperity. The Council of Europe was born in 1949 out of this vision.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Council of Europe led the way in forging a new Europe without dividing lines.

In a way, the Council of Europe is the school of the art of living together. Overcoming animosity, healing wounds, respecting diversity while abiding by common values and principles; aspiring together for a better future. Living together is a fine art; it is not always easy. Hence this is a school in which all of us are both teachers and students.

Europe is a value community. Every European country and every nation has its place in it. Every individual should be entitled to equal human rights. This is what would mark our difference from the recent past.

Our historic mission today is to bring Russia and the other former communist countries – the sole, and regrettable exception being Belarus – into a close, cooperative strategic partnership with the rest of Europe; a partnership of equality based on shared acceptance of our common values – democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

From Iceland to Vladivostok, form Norway to Turkey, we are leading the struggle on contemporary issues such as terrorism, trafficking in human beings, domestic violence, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, respect for the rights of national and other minorities and respect for the rights of refugees and migrants.

In dealing with Russia, the Council of Europe has something that European Union does not enjoy in its dealings with European non-member States – it is equality, Russia being a full member of the Council of Europe.

I fear that the EU's approach to Russia risks creating new dividing lines in Europe, at a time when Europe must become more united.

Within the Council of Europe, we can more easily deal with Russia as an equal partner for strategic cooperation on issues of common interest.

And when it comes to domestic issues, we can and must call Russia to account on the basis of obligations and commitments that were freely entered into as an equal member of our organisation.

There is nothing to be gained by pointless or misguided confrontations between Russia and the rest of Europe, and I am glad that this Assembly has helped to maintain good relations through parliamentary diplomacy.

The European Union should make much better use of Council of Europe instruments and mechanisms when dealing with those non-member States that are members of the Council of Europe.

c/ The Assembly has also taken a lead amongst international organisations in promoting inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.

Inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogue represents one of the most important issues of our times. It must be given priority in the political agendas in our countries. This, unfortunately, is still not the case.

If the European construction is to continue to grow, it must be built on solid foundations; if we are to understand and meet the new challenges of a globalising world, we must first know and understand ourselves.

Modern technology has made time and distance shrink and has transformed the notion of communication. Yet we are far too often ignorant of, even indifferent towards other peoples and cultures.

We need to recognise and respect our common humanity, for it is the basis of the natural right to respect for human dignity. Only then can we can build mutual trust and avoid prejudice and misunderstanding.

With 318 elected representatives from the national parliaments of our 47 member States, we encompass all of the cultures and religions of Europe, making us a privileged, natural forum for inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.

We receive addresses by world religious leaders, such as Patriarch Bartholomew and, in October, Patriarch Alexis – and I should also mention our invitation to Pope Benedict XVI – as well as statesmen such as Mr Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, who spoke about the Alliance of Civilisations.

The newly-elected President of Turkey, Mr Gul, will address our next part-session in Strasbourg in the first week of October

As President, I have addressed many high-level international conferences, and brought together national religious leaders during my official visits to conflict-torn places such as the Balkans, Cyprus, the south Caucasus and the Holy Land.

Inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue is a crucial element of our endeavour to overcome ignorance, combat extremism and reinforce mutual understanding.

We need more cooperation with the churches and other religious organisations, whose moral and ethical commitment makes them active components of civil society and valid partners for our democratic societies.

Therefore it is extremely important to grant to Churches official status within international institutions.

Europe is a continent not just of progress and development; it is just as importantly a continent of heritage and tradition.

3/ Conclusions

It is essential that Europe now take the lead in promoting our common values around the world.

The Council of Europe must continue to set Europe's human rights standards.

Our Organisation has a lot to offer to Europe:

- above all, our statutory foundation as a value community;

- our years of experience and unrivalled expertise in promoting and protecting these common values;

- our character as a pan-European organisation that will soon, I hope, unite every European country around these values;

- and our proud credentials as a democratic organisation with a pioneering, inspirational parliamentary dimension.