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Opening address for the April 2015 Part-session

Opening address for the April 2015 Part-session
Strasbourg, Monday 20 April 2015

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Strasbourg for a new part-session.

At the opening of this part session, I would like to pay tribute to the memory of refugees trying to reach Europe's southern shores in the Mediterranean Sea. This situation is dramatic. People are dying by hundreds trying to escape hunger, persecution, and hardship. We have to shoulder our responsibilities, there needs to be more solidarity and responsibility sharing among European states. I would like to ask for a minute of silence to pay tribute to the victims of this dramatic situation.

Let me start my opening remarks by what I consider to be our Organisation's two main challenges: the situation in Ukraine and Migration.

The situation in Ukraine first.

Since 15 February 2015 a fragile cease fire has been in place in Eastern Ukraine. I emphasise the word "fragile" because it is very difficult to enforce and violations happen on a daily basis. However, fragile as it is, I believe that it is our chance to move from violence to dialogue.

Now, all of us have to shoulder our responsibilities and seize this new opportunity for building peace. Europe, and the international community for that matter, have to do everything possible to help solve the conflict.

As an Organisation upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the Council of Europe should play a leading role in building an environment for sustainable peace in Ukraine.

Ukraine needs solid democratic institutions, a sound constitutional and legal framework, an independent, impartial and effective judiciary, a modern and efficient system of devolution of power, and – above all – an inclusive political process to carry out all these reforms.

In all these areas, we have developed extensive expertise and I salute the efforts of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in launching a new Action Plan for the period 2015 – 2017.

I would also like to recognise the efforts of the Belgian Chairmanship and, in particular, the personal commitment of Didier Reynders, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, to maintaining dialogue.

Our Assembly should also make its political contribution to this process. This week, the competent Committees in the Assembly are going to hold a joint hearing on the situation in Ukraine and the humanitarian challenges.

Moreover, the Bureau proposed this morning to hold a current affairs debate on the Political and Security Situation in Ukraine and its Implications. I hope that the Assembly will support this proposal.

For indeed, a number of issues have yet to be addressed in Ukraine, as shown, in particular by the International Advisory Panel's report on Maidan investigations. This report calls for more efforts to conduct the investigations and bring to justice those responsible. In this context, I hope that a prompt and impartial investigation will soon be conducted into the recent murders of the journalist Oles Buzina and of the former MP Oleg Kalashnikov. Impunity is unacceptable in any Council of Europe member state.

The constitutional reform is also going to be a challenging task and we have recently discussed this matter with the Venice Commission during our regular joint meeting.

But we should not give up and I am confident that together with our Ukrainian colleagues we will be able to make progress on the reform agenda.

As regards our relations with the Russian delegation, I would like to reiterate my position: we have to engage in serious and meaningful talks in order to look – together – for a solution to the conflict. The annexation of Crimea and the continuing violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity are unacceptable. In our system of values, borders cannot be changed unilaterally or by force.

Our colleague, Nadiia Savchenko, member of the Ukrainian delegation currently in detention in Russia, should also be given the possibility to participate in the Assembly's work and I regret that, once again, she is prevented from coming to Strasbourg because of her detention. Her health condition is a matter of very serious concern, and I call upon the Russian authorities to release her, including on humanitarian grounds and in line with the so called Minsk 2 agreement.

Colleagues, you are aware, following the January 2015 part session, the Russian delegation decided to suspend its contacts with the Assembly. I sincerely regret this decision.

In this context, and taking into account the fact that there has been no progress on the side of the Russian authorities in addressing the issues raised in our January Resolution, the Bureau of the Assembly supported this morning the proposal of the Monitoring Committee to take the issue of the reconsideration of sanctions against the Russian delegation off the agenda.

I will come back to this matter in a moment when examining the draft agenda of the part-session.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

The second enormous challenge our Organisation has to face is migration and its human rights aspects.

While I was in Italy and in Turkey recently, I held talks not only in the capitals, but also visited a refugee camp and reception centres for migrants. These visits helped me understand the situation better and reinforced my conviction that frontline states cannot stand alone in their efforts to deal with wave after wave of boat people and the influx of refugees from the Middle East. I reiterate what I said on numerous occasions: greater responsibility-sharing and solidarity is needed with other European countries.

Meeting the refugees was an extremely moving experience. I admire their courage and their efforts to come to terms with their desperate situation and I feel ashamed to hear discussions in some member states where some people seem to oppose relocation of refugees. It is our humanitarian duty to help these people because human rights are universal. Refugees must be able to live in dignity and in decent conditions!

Responsibility-sharing does not only require pooling additional resources, although this is of course important. I would like to empahsise the efforts Turkey, Italy and some other European countries are deploying to provide for the refugees. But clearly, more support is required from all European states and Organisations. 

What is even more important is a change of policy, and an understanding that the paradigm has changed.

Migration is not only a domestic problem of the member states that are affected. It concerns Europe as a whole. The current EU regulations – the so called Dublin system – is not only antiquated and unable to deal with today's challenges but it is also unfair for first entry countries, as well as for the asylum seekers.

As a guardian of human rights and fundamental freedoms, our Assembly is duty bound to ring the alarm bell and launch a discussion about the way in which we can better address the migration issue from a human rights perspective. I believe that the urgent debate on the human tragedy in the Mediterranean which the Bureau proposes to hold during this part-session will be an opportunity to launch such a discussion.

I also welcome and support the activities of our Migration Committee in addressing various aspects of migration from a human rights perspective.

At the same time, we should raise the awareness of individual parliamentarians about the human rights challenges of migration, so that they can take action at national level, especially with respect to the situation of those who are most vulnerable.

The launch of the Parliamentary Campaign to end immigration detention of children is one of such initiatives and I encourage all of you to join me today, at 1 pm, in front of the Chamber for the official ceremony. Take an active part in this Campaign and ensure appropriate follow-up in your capitals!

Moreover, I am working with the Migration Committee on the launching of an initiative to organise simultaneous visits by national delegations to immigration detention centres in all of our 47 member states on the International Migrants Day. I hope that on 18 December 2015, many of you will conduct national visits to detention centres together with your colleagues from national parliaments.

* * *

Dear colleagues,

Despite the gravity of the situation in Ukraine and of the huge challenge that migration represents for Europe, we should not overlook other issues which require urgent action by our Organisation.

Conflict prevention and reconciliation is one of these.

Bringing justice to the past and finding – together – common solutions to common problems has been the driving force of our Organisation from the very start. It is our Organisation's raison d'être.

Born out of the ashes of the Second World War, the Council of Europe was given the political mission to build sustainable peace and prevent conflicts. As we are going to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in a couple of weeks, let me once again pay tribute to the memory of the victims of this most terrible conflict in Europe's history but also to the efforts of all those who have contributed to building sustainable peace on our Continent, including at the expense of their lives.

Dialogue, respect and co-operation are the tools which helped us overcome post-war difficulties and promote reconciliation. The values of human rights, democracy and rule of law form solid foundations for building a peaceful, prosperous and united Europe. These values can never be taken for granted. We have to defend them with vigour and determination.

For indeed, despite years of progress and co-operation, we have not been able to "immunise" Europe against conflicts.

The conflicts of the ‘90s in Balkans were shocking in their brutality. Forty-six years after the Second World War Europe suddenly re-discovered the horrors of the war as well as its consequences: thousands of people killed; waves of refugees and IDPs; ethnic cleansing, grave human rights violations and war crimes, missing persons.

During my recent visits to Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina I could see that important progress has been made in fostering a spirit of reconciliation and addressing post-conflict problems, in particular, thanks to the responsible attitude of politicians and their commitment to European values. However, there are still a number of issues which remain open and I believe that the Council of Europe should continue to play an active role in supporting the member states of the region in addressing these.

Moreover, my visit to Turkey and Armenia was a reminder of the wounds going back 100 years. On 24 April, Armenia is commemorating the massacre committed a century ago and I pay tribute to the victims and their descendants.

But these are not the only conflicts that continue to divide Europe. Violence can never bring a solution. We have to talk to each other, listen to each other and try to understand each other, in order to find solutions together.

The 47 member states of the Council of Europe share a common history and are bound to build a common future. Because, despite our differences and disagreements, we belong to the same family.

What unites us are the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

We must learn the lessons of Europe's history and uphold these values. It is our duty to work on preventing conflicts, combating manifestations of hate and intolerance, and promoting living together.

This is our political mission given to our Organisation and, as President of the Assembly, I shall do my utmost to help this Assembly carry it out effectively, in particular, by supporting the "No Hate Parliamentary Alliance", which must become a Pan-European platform for combating hate and intolerance.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen.

Allow me to end by mentioning two major events during this part-session.

Firstly, tomorrow we will have the honour of welcoming His Majesty the King of the Belgians and Her Majesty Queen Mathilde. The royal couple's visit to the Council of Europe during the Belgian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers has great symbolic value for our Organisation and is a ringing endorsement of the values we hold dear.

Secondly, we will this week examine the Draft Additional Protocol to the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, which has been submitted to our Assembly by the Committee of Ministers for opinion. In order to deal with the threat of terrorism and extremism, we need appropriate legal instruments compatible with the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights. I am therefore counting on your support and trust that you will give a favourable opinion on this Additional Protocol.

We will also be holding an exchange of views with the Ministers' Deputies on Council of Europe action to address the terrorist threat within the framework of the Joint Committee. I look forward to this opportunity, because when faced with a threat as serious as this one, the Council of Europe bodies must act together.

I thank you for your attention.