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Opening address for the June 2015 Part-session

Opening address for the June 2015 Part-session
Strasbourg, Monday 22 June 2015

Before I begin, let me suggest observing a minute of silence for M. Charles Kennedy who passed away on 1st June. He will be remembered as a gifted politician, for his eloquence, his sense of what is right and wrong and for being a true European. Thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

More than 50 million people were displaced by war and violence in 2014.

Two weeks ago I was told by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres that in 2015 the numbers will climb to above 60 million, the population of a large European country.

Europe is in the forefront of this refugee drama and mixed migratory flow. The Mediterranean Sea has become a "mass grave" for thousands of people who try to cross to Europe. To this one needs to add the tragedy of refugees from Syria and Iraq, crossing the border into Turkey, not in their thousands, not in their hundreds of thousands, but in their millions.

More solidarity and responsibility-sharing is needed. It is an international responsibility to protect refugees, and it is sometimes forgotten that when one State takes in a refugee, the international responsibility of other States does not stop. It is a global issue which has to be solved globally. Europe must assume its responsibility.

Respect for human dignity is a universal fundamental value. Solidarity is also our responsibility as human beings vis-à-vis those who are most vulnerable and flee war, conflict, poverty and economic hardship, but it is also a political necessity to address the migration challenge in a comprehensive way.

Last week, I travelled to Turkey with a delegation of 25 members of the Assembly to visit refugee camps and local integration projects on the Syrian border. It was my second visit to this region and I would like once again to praise the extreme generosity of Turkey and the Turkish people and the outstanding efforts of the Turkish authorities to provide for this massive flow of refugees.

Our visit was extremely moving. We were a few hundred metres from the border with Syria. War was not in a far-off country, the suffering of individuals was not on a screen or on a piece of paper, it was close enough to touch, to hear and see. While we heard stories of the conflict raging across the border and accounts of great suffering, we also witnessed dignity and hope and generosity and solidarity. I admire the courage of refugees and all those whom we saw in the camps.

I hope that our colleagues who visited the three camps of Elbeyli, Nizip 1 and Nizip 2 as well as the cities of Kilis and Gaziantep are able to translate what they understood and experienced into a message back in their own countries to raise awareness of the situation of refugees in Turkey and the implications for Europe and its response.

We need to understand that what Europe is facing is not so much a challenge but a phenomenon. The distinction is important because a challenge is something one seeks to overcome and bring to an end. What we face today is a phenomenon and while it may get easier or more difficult, it will not go away. Indeed the situation on Europe's Eastern and southern borders will not improve in the near future, as conflicts drag on and the economic difficulties continue.

We have to change our asylum policies and regulations to make sure that all those requiring international protection can access it in the best possible conditions. We must share – in a fair manner – the responsibility for providing for the refugees, so that they can enjoy dignity and have hope for the future and that these people do not become disillusioned, marginalised, angry and frustrated. Education for young refugees is essential in order to prevent their radicalisation. At the same time, we have to help the countries of origin of these human flows to stabilise their governments and institutions and promote economic development.

Politicians must break the negative stereotypes and destroy the myths about refugees and migrants. Instead, we have to value the benefits and opportunities these people can offer to our societies and recognise our own responsibilities towards them, particularly at a time when populist and xenophobic rhetoric is on the rise. It is important that all democratic political forces speak out against hate and intolerance together with civil society, religious communities and the sporting world. This is why I would reiterate my proposal to enlarge our parliamentary alliance against hatred.

Dear colleagues,

I would like to ask you to go back home to your national Parliaments and stimulate further debate on migration, as I asked in a letter to the Speakers of Parliaments of those who visited Turkey last week.

The proposed current affairs debate on the need for a common European response to the migration challenges will be an opportunity to discuss all these issues and come up with concrete proposals. I count on your support on this when we come to the adoption of the draft agenda of this part-session.

Let us talk about migration but also let us act.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

Colleagues,

As many of you know, I follow closely sporting competitions. I admire the commitment of athletes and their constant desire to progress and excel. I am a strong supporter of the values enshrined in the Olympic Charter, which places sport 'at the service of humanity's harmonious development, in order to promote a peaceful society and preserve respect for human life'.

This is what the Council of Europe is supporting too.

A week ago, as I was following the opening of the first European Games in Baku, I wished for great achievements and success for the many athletes who went to Azerbaijan from all over Europe to take part in this competition. At the same time, I could not help but think about the fate of the many human rights defenders, political activists and journalists and their lawyers currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan.

Most of the Council of Europe's interlocutors and partners are either in prison or in pre-trial detention, convicted or charged with offences such as fraud, tax evasion, organising mass disorder or charges as strange as provoking partners to commit suicide.

Respected journalists from papers such as the Guardian in the United Kingdom and human rights defenders from key organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are currently not allowed to enter the country. The office of the OSCE is being closed down.

Critical voices are being silenced and political activists  put in jail for the purpose of "silencing or punishing", as the European Court of Human Rights pointed out in its judgment in the Ilgar Mammadov case. This judgment has so far been ignored by the Azeri authorities.

Is this situation compatible with the ideals of the Olympic Charter as well as with the values and standards that the Council of Europe defends? In order to stress our views I wrote to the President of the European Olympic Committee Mr Patrick Hickey to draw his attention to the human rights situation.

Therefore, we have to be outspoken about these problems because our mission is to defend the values that underpin the foundations of our Organisation.  Our role is to act as "critical friends" – and I emphasise the word FRIENDS. This means openly addressing issues, suggesting improvements and providing support.

This is the aim of the debate on the functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan that we are going to hold tomorrow. Together with our Azerbaijani colleagues, we must come up with a concrete plan to improve the situation, especially ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary elections this autumn.

I hope that this debate will contribute to improving the situation.

* * *

Colleagues,

I must mention one more serious challenge we have been facing for months – the conflict in Ukraine.

Despite the cease-fire agreement, hostilities are expanding in the East of Ukraine, the death toll rising, and the number of IDPs increasing.

We must therefore keep the situation in Ukraine at the focus of our attention, so as to provide the authorities with the most appropriate support. Indeed, there are a number of issues that have to be addressed. 

The human rights situation is alarming: in areas affected by the conflict, serious human rights abuses are reported; impunity for human rights violations persists; the safety of journalists has yet to be achieved; violations of international humanitarian law continue on all sides.

The situation in Crimea after its annexation is extremely worrying: arrests, cases of ill-treatment, torture and intimidation against political opponents continue to be reported.

The impact of the conflict on the economic and social rights of civilians continues to be dramatic.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge progress too: reforms move forward, although at a slower pace than one might want.

Therefore, we should not give up, and continue to provide support to Ukraine. Not only on the reform front – where the Council of Europe has been very active – but also in addressing the humanitarian consequences of the conflict.

There are a number of issues where we can and should make further progress. Identifying missing persons and providing support and assistance to families is one of these areas. Thus the debate on this issue we will hold later this week is very important.

Of course, we understand the complexity of the challenge. We know all too well that Russia's role in this crisis is crucial for stopping the war and finding a sustainable solution. Therefore, as a follow-up to our January decision, we are going to examine the issue of the credentials of the Russian delegation to the Assembly on Wednesday. When I was informed that two of our members, Mr Bob Walter and Mr Karl-Georg Wellmann, as well as some of our former members were on the Russian black list, I immediately met with the Russian Ambassador to obtain  further information as to why our colleagues were banned from entering  Russian territory and the consequences of this for the Assembly's work. We will certainly return to this in the debate.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

In conclusion, a few words about our guests this week.

I am proud that our Assembly continues to play an important role as a Pan-European platform for dialogue and co-operation.

This week, we are receiving two Heads of State – Her Excellency Madam Louise Coleiro Preca, President of Malta, and His Excellency Mr Mladen Ivanić, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Prime Minister of Greece Mr Tsipras.

We also have the very great privilege of receiving the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Ban Ki-moon, who will address our Assembly tomorrow.

I am confident that these distinguished personalities will inspire a rich exchange with the Assembly.

Thank you very much for your attention.