For democracy and human rights, Europe is still "a long way off the mark"

27 June 2008

For democracy and human rights, Europe is still "a long way off the mark"

Major concerns this week marked the meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg. Europe remains a long way off the mark when it comes to democracy, human rights or the rule of law. Yet governments seem to be more bothered about economic growth and their own power, said SP Senator Tiny Kox, Chair of the United European Left group (GUE) in Europe's oldest organisation for international cooperation.

Tiny KoxMembers of Parliament from the Council of Europe's forty-seven member states discussed a number of vital issues during this week's session, including Turkey's threat to ban the country's biggest party; political prisoners in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Bylorusse; the drastic lengthening of the permissible period for imprisonment without charge in the UK; the neglect of immigrants throughout Europe; new, tough immigration laws in Italy, and the intention in that country to force all Roma, alone amongst ethnic groups, to register their fingerprints.

"Turkey demands special attention," said Senator Kox, "as this summer the High Court there is threatening to ban the governing AK Party, the party of President Gül and Prime Minister Erdogan, and on the most dubious grounds, with the Turkish army lurking in the background." These events were described in the Assembly as a "judicial coup", comparable to Turkey's military coups of the relatively recent past. PACE made it clear that it will not accept such a move, which would force it to examine Turkey's status as a member of the Council of Europe. The same was said in relation to Armenia, whose presidential elections were marked by gross violence against the opposition and the imprisonment of a large number of politicians. By September at the latest PACE is insisting that all political prisoners be freed or granted a fair trial. In Azerbaijan as well, PACE is demanding the speedy release of political prisoners. "The Chair of the Assembly will travel to the Caucasus within a few days in order to present our demands to Armenia and Azerbaijan," Kox continued. "In addition, the European Commissioner for Human Rights will be going there, at the Assembly's behest, to discuss the speedy release of political prisoners."

PACE did not only find fault with eastern European member states, however. In Italy, the actions of the new prime minister, Berlusconi, seem out of control. "Migrants and minorities appear to have become the scapegoat," Kox said. "And in Britain the Labour government appears to have blown a fuse with its legislation on terrorism. The latest law will mean that people can be held for seven weeks without any real legal protection." The Assembly will take the measure of this legislation in its next meeting, despite sharp protests from a section of the British delegation. "We'll also be discussing the 'Italian situation', which recalls events before the war, as the British Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, has also noted."

Europe's biggest neighbour, China, is also causing the Council of Europe concern. All of Europe is keen to do business with China, but the member states of the Council of Europe should not, because of this, close their eyes to human rights abuses. SP Senator Tuur Elzinga reminded the Assembly that China, just as was the case for the Council of Europe's forty-seven member states, had signed the UN Charter and was thus like them duty-bound to hold to it. The same went when it came to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

"According to a recent ILO report," Elzinga said, "China has, because of unequalled economic growth during the last twenty-five years, pulled more people out of poverty than has any other country. Great, but the dark side of this achievement is that this growth was achieved on the backs of millions of workers, who are often employed in unsafe, unhealthy conditions and work extremely long hours for absurdly low wages. Unpaid overtime, sometimes a complete additional working week, underpayment or sometimes no payment at all, this is what happens all too often. Workers protest ever more frequently, which is sometimes tolerated, but workers who try to organise are treated to extremes of oppression. Many labour movement activists are behind bars. The right to organise and to collective bargaining are fundamental values within the ILO, as is the ban on forced labour, but China has not ratified these ILO Conventions. These fundamental workers' rights and trade union rights are also, however, human rights which must be respected world-wide, and thus also in China."

Elzinga’s proposal that the perilous position of labour movement activists be given special mention in an extended report on human rights in China won almost unanimous support, with PACE further resolving to look into the possibilities of setting a dialogue with China in motion on common obligations and common interests.

If the Council of Europe wants to make its concerns hit home, the financing of the poverty-stricken organisation must be improved, Senator Kox told the Swedish President of the Committee of Ministers, Carl Bildt. Bildt, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the current Swedish government and previously the country's Prime Minister, recognised the fact that at least some of the work undertaken by the Council of Europe was in need of more funds. In this he was expressing agreement with previous declarations by, amongst others, the Dutch, Hungarian, Slovakian and German governments. "The words sound fine," said Kox, "now it's time to add deeds to these words. After the summer (Dutch Foreign Minister) Verhagen will be putting his proposals on this point to both houses of parliament. We'll see whether there's any money involved! As things stand our tax moneys go for the most part to the European Union and not to the Council of Europe. Millions for economic cooperation, small change for human rights and the democratic development of Europe. This is not the best way, certainly not in these worrying times."

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