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Council of Europe Ministerial Session held in Strasbourg

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The theme of the session was Democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Europe: strengthening the impact of the Council of Europe’s activities.

The 123rd session of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe took place in Strasbourg on Thursday, 16 May.

The theme of the ministerial session was “Democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Europe: strengthening the impact of the Council of Europe’s activities.”

Emma Bonino, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Italy, Frans Timmermans, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and Espen Barth Eide, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway are among participants in the session.

UK Permanent Representative Matthew Johnson delivered the following intervention during the session (the text is his statement in full):

Minister, Ministers, Secretary-General and colleagues

In the increasingly congested space occupied by the potentially overlapping mandates of international organisations, it is important that this meeting reaffirms the Council of Europe as the reference point in matters of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe.

This is not because we should unthinkingly shout the Council’s name from the rooftops. This is because there continues to be a need for an organisation built around a system of values common across its membership which defend and promote democratic security, an organisation capable of driving change at national levels so that governments can confront the challenges which threaten the fabric of our societies.

It is easy to point to the economic crisis that has unfolded since 2008 as a new threat. But it is more useful here to recognise it as a crisis that has exposed inherent weaknesses in executive, legislative and judicial systems, flaws in constitutions or electoral practices, and the inability of civil society or the media to function.

It has exposed repeated failure to anchor democratic practice in and for the people. It has exposed a lack of accountability, corruption and a reduced confidence that governments can respond convincingly to citizens’ doubts about Europe’s ability to overcome today’s challenges. This made Andorra’s Chairmanship priority of “education for democratic citizenship” particularly well-chosen.

The Council of Europe, through its unique statutory role, is the organisation within which European countries have chosen to come together to join a consensus around a set of commitments and obligations, and to build an effective system for implementing and monitoring these commitments.

This consensual approach has weaknesses that governments can exploit if they wish, but it also has considerable strengths – and this organisation should be seeking to harness these strengths for the benefits of Europe’s citizens.

In this way, governments can build confidence in their ability to guarantee the enjoyment of human rights for everyone in wider Europe, to uphold the rule of law in the face of the threats posed by corruption or organised crime, and ensure effective democratic control through independent and efficient justice systems and free and responsible media.

These issues are at the heart of the Secretary General’s vision for this organisation. “Fostering democratic societies”, one of the priorities of the Armenia’s Chairmanship, helpfully picks up this thread. These issues should act as a reference point for decisions about the organisation’s future, including its funding and priorities. And these issues should be at the heart of the Council of Europe’s brand as we promote its role and standing across Europe. It is one of the ways in which we can re-establish the trust and dialogue between governments and citizens.

And this brings me to my final point – the importance of trust.

Trust is in part derived from how we act domestically; how we try to live up to the commitments that we have undertaken – which are central to our membership of this organisation; and how open we are to a constructive dialogue where our own and others’ performance is below the expected or required standard – and no member State has a perfect record.

This requires us to see commitments undertaken as tools to advance our own prosperity and security, prompting us to be more responsible to the needs of our citizens, and to ensure that we are accountable to them.

The extremely welcome suggestions for how the organisation can do this, presented in the Secretary General’s report, including the opportunity presented to and responsibilities assumed by a member State taking the Chair of this Committee, and the ideas that he will subsequently bring forward, are only the start of that process, and only the minimum of ambition that we should set.

I conclude by offering sincere congratulations to Andorra for its guidance of this Committee’s work over the last 6 months, and look forward to the positive chairmanship being continued by Armenia, to whom we offer the best of luck.