Council of Europe draws up balance sheet of human rights and democracy

20 April 2007

Council of Europe draws up balance sheet of human rights and democracy

In an extended series of debates the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has this week drawn up a balance sheet of human rights and democracy in Europe. Conclusion: it's time to replace words with deeds and improve matters on all fronts. If this is not done, then European countries will stand rightly accused of hypocrisy. A proposal from SP Senator Tiny Kox, that the debates be seen as a beginning and should now be pursued on the national level, won broad support.

From a number of well-documented reports it has become clear the extent to which, when it comes to the protection of the rights of the 800 million people living within the area covered by the Council of Europe, a great deal is left to be desired. Numerous abuses have been confirmed in countries such as Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and other countries in the eastern part of the continent. But the 'old' democracies have their own problems. The major step forward since the last report is the fact that all European countries have been investigated and assessed. Even the Netherlands has, moreover, been criticised on a number of points.

The debates have taken place in the presence of a large number of representatives of human rights organisations, as well as United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour and Thomas Hammarberg, the European Commissioner with responsibility for human rights. Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch participated in the debates.

A proposal from SP Senator Tiny Kox that the debate be seen as a beginning and should now be pursued on the national level won broad support. Both PACE president René Van der Linden and general rapporteur Andres Gross (Switzerland) endorsed the view that without a national follow-up the balance sheet would have no great consequence. If national parliaments took it seriously, however, the balance sheet of human rights and democracy, attaching consequences to it as far as their own countries went, a step forward could be taken towards a real improvement. This conclusion was broadly shared by those participating in the debate.

One of the matters which drew attention during the debate was the participation of European countries in the breaches of human rights which took place – and are probably still taking place – in the CIA's illegal prisons in Europe. In June, when a new report will be presented to the Assembly, PACE members will again discuss this question.

The Dutch delegation will shortly return to the question of how the debate on the state of human rights in the Netherlands can best be conducted with the involvement of the government. In addition they will examine how the deplorable financial situation of the Council of Europe and its institutions, including the Assembly and the European Court of Human Rights, can be improved. “Starvation to death will be the consequence," wrote French Senator Bernard Schreiner of the present situation, while PACE chair René Van der Linden, himself a member of the Dutch delegation, showed his anger over the ridiculous contrast between the flood of resources available to the European Union and the massive shortage of decent financial means suffered by the Assembly which he chairs. The Hungarian chair of the Assembly's Liberal group summed up the feeling with a certain cynical humour when he said that "After we in the Council of Europe ensured that the death penalty would disappear from Europe, we have been sentenced, in our role as the Council of Europe, to death. That's really all too tragic."

The SP has already sought to draw attention in the Netherlands to the present “EU imperialism” and the need to make more space for the important work done by the Council of Europe. Senator Tiny Kox told member states' ambassadors in Strasbourg that they must meanwhile do something to improve the present situation. "Otherwise from now on we'd be better talking about the Council of the European Union instead of the Council of Europe," he said.

In the near future a decision will be taken on the ways in which the European Union and Council of Europe could cooperate more effectively. Because the signs are not favourable, PACE reserves to itself the right to reject any agreement for lack of content. This is a matter which should also be discussed in national parliaments.

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