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Europe: Council Of Europe Looks For New Relevance In A Changing Continent

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Council of Europe, the oldest pan-European political organization, is seeking to redefine itself as a relevant body in modern, post-Cold War Europe. The 46-member council opens a two-day summit in the Polish capital Warsaw today, and it will be seeking to stake out a role for itself separate from the ever-expanding European Union. Among other issues up for debate are human trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and minority rights.

Prague, 16 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe summit in Warsaw (16-17 May) brings together for the first time in history the leaders or top officials of 46 European states. Only authoritarian Belarus among the European countries is missing.

Formed 56 years ago, the Council of Europe is the forerunner of all other pan-continental bodies, such as the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The summit, only the third since the council was founded in 1949, is a celebration of achievements. But at the same time it is an urgent discussion on how to keep this venerable institution relevant to the Europe of the 21st century.

Council Deputy Secretary-General Maud De Boer-Buquicchio told RFE/RL that the Warsaw gathering must lay out the path ahead.

"It is very important at this point in time when the European Union is enlarging, and covering a geographical area which is part of the Council of Europe that we reaffirm that there is a [larger] pan-European area which is based on common values and standards," de Boer-Buquicchio said.
"It is very important at this point in time when the European Union is enlarging, and covering a geographical area which is part of the Council of Europe that we reaffirm that there is a [larger] pan-European area which is based on common values and standards."


Looking first at the celebratory side, Council Secretary-General Terry Davis said in Warsaw yesterday that in the space of a lifetime, Europe has "grown out of an almost permanent state of conflict" into a region where respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are imperatives.

But the transition has not been easy, and is not yet complete. Davis said that even in the last 15 years, Europe has seen terrible wars and atrocities -- in the Balkans, the South Caucasus, and the Russian Federation.

He said the original driving force of European Unity was to overcome the tragedy and devastation of World War II. Now, 60 years on, the motivation is different -- namely how to create a future inspired by the values Europe now considers its own.

But the Council of Europe is no longer alone as a promoter of human rights and democratic values in a European context.

The European Union a year ago made its biggest expansion ever, into Central and Eastern Europe, taking in many of the former communist states that took their first steps toward democracy as members of the Council of Europe. The Council's role there is now somewhat eclipsed -- and the EU is still expanding to take in more Council of Europe members.

The Vienna-based OSCE's activities also overlap those of the Council, in the promotion of human rights and democratization.

But Council deputy head De Boer-Buquicchio told RFE/RL that there is "absolutely" still a role for the Council of Europe. She says the summit is an occasion for defining the areas of competence of the various bodies dealing with democratization and rights in Europe.

"We have established very clear modalities of operation between the Council of Europe and the OSCE -- similarly we have already a very pragmatic way of working together with the European Union, in particular in southeast Europe, and in the southern Caucasus. But what is needed now is that this grass-roots cooperation, which works well, is also reflected in a political statement by the heads of state and government who are here, expressing the political dimension of this reality," De Boer-Buquicchio said.

With this aim in mind, the president of the Council's Parliamentary Assembly, Rene van der Linden, listed ahead of the summit what he sees as the ways the Council can develop its strong points.

He says the Council is the best-placed forum to intensify intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. It is also well placed to cooperate with and develop civil society. Further, he urges the EU not to seek to duplicate the Council's work, but instead use the experience, institutions, and instruments of the Council of Europe.

Van der Linden also said something must be done to ease the enormous and ever-growing backlog of cases before the European Court of Human Rights. At present, it takes some six years for a case to be heard by the court, which is a Council of Europe offshoot.

This is a serious issue, as the court has considerable influence in moving countries toward democratic norms. For instance, the court last week ruled that the 1999 trial of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey was not fair.

Taking its cue from the court, the EU's executive commission immediately called on Turkey to act on the nonbinding verdict. Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj.

"The European Commission expects that Turkey will respect this decision of the Court of Human Rights. And just a reminder that Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, so it is due to implement all the decisions of the court," Altafaj said.

Turkish officials indicated they will heed the court's call as Turkey seeks to improve its human rights record to advance its efforts to join the EU.
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