Strasbourg, 9 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Leaders of the 40 member states of the Council of Europe and four other nations closely associated with it will tomorrow begin a two-day meeting in Strasbourg that the organization hopes will set its agenda in the run-up to the new millennium.
The heads of state and government are due to adopt a political declaration as well as an action plan in four broad areas -- human rights, social cohesion, citizen security, and education in democratic values and cultural diversity.
Council officials say the summit will commit the organization to a stronger response to the major challenges facing European society at the end of the 20th century. They expect the meeting to lead to, among other things, the setting up next year of a streamlined, permanent European Court of Human Rights for 800 million people, a ban on cloning human beings, increased Council of Europe activity in the social field, and the launching of a campaign advertising Europe's common cultural heritage.
Council Secretary General Daniel Tarschys noted recently that the summit will bring together leaders of all European democracies. Tarschys said that "to avoid new divisions in our continent, we must strengthen our common action in favor of democratic stability." The Council of Europe was founded a half-century ago (1949) to promote democracy and human rights on the continent.
President Jacques Chirac, who is hosting the meeting during France's current presidency of the Council's Committee of Ministers, last week spoke of it as "a summit of greater Europe." Chirac said the Council was entering a new phase that would lead it to enlarge its field of action.
The only previous Council summit took place four years ago in Vienna, but the organization has since admitted eight new members, seven of them from the East (plus Andorra). The Vienna meeting formally established the Council's role as a pan-European organization promoting what its members called "democratic security" -- that is, the legal, political and cultural foundations of security.
This week's summit comes at a critical moment in the process of European unification, following summits by the European Union (June) and NATO (July). The Atlantic Alliance of 16 nations, including the U.S. and Canada, has begun membership talks with three Central European nations -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The 15-member EU is expected to open accession talks early next year with several of 10 candidate nations from Central and Eastern Europe, but it has so far failed to agree on basic internal reforms necessary for its enlargement to the East.
Only two European nations, judged to be insufficiently democratic, will not be attending the Strasbourg summit. They are rump Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro), whose application for membership was frozen after the outbreak of civil war in ex-Yugoslavia, and Belarus, whose Special Guest Status at the Council was suspended nine months ago by the organization's Parliamentary Assembly. The Assembly acted after severely criticizing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's November referendum and appointment of a new parliament as highly undemocratic.
Special Guest Status is still enjoyed by four other Eastern countries that have applied for membership in the Council -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzogovina and Georgia. The status allows all four to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly's debates and committee work without voting. It also makes it possible for the leaders of the four countries to participate in the Strasbourg summit, where they will join their counterparts from 16 Central and East European nations that have become members of the organization since 1990. (The 16 are: Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Ukraine.)
Late last month, the U.S. Government asked Council of Europe states to consider suspending Croatia's membership -- the last to be granted by the organization, in November 1996 -- because of its human-rights abuses and its failure to implement the Dayton peace accords on Bosnia.
But Council officials and diplomats believe that no such action on Croatia is likely to be formally considered until the organization completes its own review of Croatia's record some time next year. The officials point out that neither Croatia's nor Belarus' undemocratic behavior is on the summit's agenda. But they acknowledge that any of the 44 countries represented at the Strasbourg meeting could raise questions about either or both countries that could lead not only to strong rhetoric but to formal criticism in the political declaration due to be issued Saturday.