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Speech by Foreign Minister Jürgen Ligi, Chair of the Committee of Ministers of Council of Europe, before the Parliamentary Assembly

11. October 2016 - 19:03

Strasbourg, 11 October 2016


Distinguished President,
Distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Ladies and gentlemen,


I am honoured to address this Assembly in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee of Ministers. The written activity report on the progress achieved under the Estonian Chairmanship over the last few months has already been distributed. However, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some important recent developments which have affected our work.

These include, of course, the attempted coup d'état in Turkey. We were all deeply saddened by the dramatic events which took place during the night of 14 to 15 July.

Like you, Mr President, my predecessor Ms Marina Kaljurand immediately condemned the attempted coup and, like the Secretary General, she visited Ankara in August to express her solidarity with the Turkish people and subsequently remained in close contact with the Turkish authorities.

On 7 September, the Ministers’ Deputies held an exchange of views with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Cavusoglu. A number of Ministers and other high officials from member States participated in this exchange.

As was highlighted during the exchange, the Turkish authorities are legitimate in their action to bring to justice those who have organised and taken part in the coup attempt. At the same time, extreme care must be taken to respect the rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular the right to a fair trial. One should also avoid any indiscriminate action that would target people who were not involved in the coup. Respect for freedom of expression and of the media is another core principle.  Your Assembly will have the opportunity to learn more about the events that took place in Turkey during its exchange of views with Minister Cavusoglu tomorrow.

In these challenging times, it is important that the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, the two main statutory bodies of our Organisation, work closely to support the Turkish authorities and the people of Turkey.

The Council of Europe should continue to stand by Turkey and provide its valuable assistance, in particular in the areas of the judiciary and the media. The recent visits of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and of the Commissioner for Human Rights to Turkey are welcomed steps.

I should also like to mention the two recent meetings between experts from the Turkish Ministry of Justice and representatives of the Secretariat on steps to take to ensure that the measures adopted under the state of emergency comply with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. This matter is of particular importance and I trust that the Turkish authorities will draw on the advice given in this context.

Terrorism is another topic which continues to retain our attention. Since your previous session last June, terrorists have continued to employ indiscriminate violence in Europe and elsewhere.
The horrific attacks in Nice on 14 July and in the South of Turkey, including last Sunday, as well as the recent shootings in the United States, all remind us that the fight against terrorism is far from being won and that more needs to be done. It is up to us all to ensure that our countries tirelessly continue their counter-terrorism efforts.

As regards the Council of Europe’s instruments, our governments must be encouraged to sign and ratify the Additional Protocol to the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism. The main aim of the Protocol is to prevent and combat the phenomenon of “foreign terrorist fighters”, in particular by establishing “travelling abroad for the purpose of terrorism” as a criminal offence. I would stress the fact that the Protocol is the only existing international instrument in the world which offers legal tools and practical measures to address this problem. Estonia is in the process of ratifying the protocol. I hope that many countries will rapidly ratify it so that it can come into force as soon as possible.

We are all aware that one of the terrorists’ main objectives is to spread hatred and to create dividing lines in our culturally diverse societies.  It is precisely to prevent them from achieving this goal that the Committee of Ministers is continuing to forcefully counter hate speech and racism. I know that our Committee can rely on the support of your Assembly in so doing as you have already taken several initiatives in this area, in particular the “No Hate / No Fear” initiative.

The refugee crisis, with which virtually all of our member States are confronted, has also fuelled racism and populism. Over the last few weeks, new tragedies have struck the shores of the Mediterranean and tensions within and around the refugee camps are steadily growing.  States must work together to find a solution to the current crisis. It also requires a response that is in keeping with our human rights commitments. Refugees and migrants, like all other persons within the jurisdiction of one of our member States, are entitled to the protection afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights. The migration crisis is an issue to which the Committee is continuing to pay particular attention. The Ministers’ Deputies hold regular exchanges of views with Ambassador Tomáš Boček, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees.

One of the priorities of the Estonian chairmanship has been keeping children’s rights in the limelight and particularly in relation to the refugee crisis. It is our responsibility to ensure that the children in the refugee centres and camps receive the care and attention on a level which we consider right for any child and young person.  Education is the key in the post-crisis world – today’s children will be rebuilding their broken societies tomorrow.  It is vital that refugee children continue to receive education throughout these difficult times and challenging circumstances. This message was delivered by the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves three  weeks ago at the UNICEF-Council of Europe joint event Carry light for children in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly. Estonia will continue to address the subject of children in the refugee crisis at a high level conference on childrens’ rights to be held in Tallinn, on the 4th of November.

Mr. President,
Distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly,

In September, the Committee held its third “Human Rights” meeting of 2016, during which it examined the implementation by several member States of the judgments handed down by the European Court of Human Rights. On this occasion, it once again discussed the Mammadov v. Azerbaijan case, which is henceforth included on the agenda of every meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies. At the end of the “Human Rights” meeting, the Committee of Ministers once again regretted the fact that Ilgar Mammadov was still being held in detention in violation of the Convention. The Committee of Ministers has on several occasions called for Mr Mammadov’s immediate release and I trust that the Azerbaijani authorities will respond rapidly.

Still in Azerbaijan, a referendum was held last month on amendments to the Constitution. In a preliminary opinion, the Venice Commission concluded that the draft modifications submitted to the referendum were “at odds with European constitutional heritage”. It is important that the Azerbaijani authorities take this opinion into serious account before implementing the reforms envisaged.

Elections were also held recently or will be held shortly in a number of other member States. The credibility of our democratic systems depends to a large extent on the conditions in which elections are held. The holding of free and fair elections is an absolute prerequisite for good democratic governance but also a right that is safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Committee of Ministers regularly adopts several assistance programmes to help our member States organise elections that are in keeping with democratic principles.  This is, for example, the case in Georgia for the parliamentary elections held last week-end as well as in the Republic of Moldova which will shortly hold elections that will be decisive for its future development.

Mentioning elections, I cannot but recall the position of the Committee of Ministers on the non-recognition of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. Therefore, the parliamentary elections which were organised by the Russian Federation are contrary to international law and invalid.

For its part, your Assembly plays a key role in ensuring the promotion and application of European electoral standards. The international observation of elections in Europe in an institutionalised form originates from the Assembly and a delegation from your Assembly recently took part in observing the parliamentary elections in Belarus. The observation mission found that a number of systemic shortcomings in the preparation of and the run up to the elections remain to be addressed, including with respect to political rights and media coverage.

The Committee of Ministers continues to pay particular attention to the situation in Belarus and, more particularly, to the questions that I just mentioned. In the coming weeks, the Ministers’ Deputies are likely to adopt a new Action Plan for Belarus that includes projects in the field of human rights, justice, the rule of law and democratic governance. Our strategic goal remains the integration of Belarus into the Organisation. However, for this to happen, further democratic progress in Belarus is needed.

Yesterday, we celebrated the European Day against the death penalty. A significant step towards integration would be for Belarus to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards its abolition. Unfortunately, the situation does not seem to be improving in this area. No later than last week, the Ministers’ Deputies adopted a declaration deploring the confirmation of another death sentence by the Supreme Court of Belarus.

Talking about the tools at our disposal for supporting countries in their democratic reforms, I would briefly mention the most ambitious action plan ever adopted by the Committee of Ministers. The Council of Europe Action Plan for Ukraine 2015-2017 with a budget of 45 million euros shows the importance which our Organisation attaches to supporting the ambitious reform agenda of the Ukrainian authorities. My country, Estonia, is among the many member States which have contributed to its financing. On a high level stocktaking conference here in Strasbourg last week, we were given an in-depth overview of the state of reforms in Ukraine, from  human rights protection and  the independence of the judiciary  to the fight against corruption -  a key to sustainable success in any country.

When calling on Ukraine to make further efforts in the implementation of reforms, we should not forget that the country is currently experiencing a difficult time. The Committee of Ministers attaches particular importance to the ongoing conflict, the violation of territorial integrity, and the resulting deterioration of human rights and overall security. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea in the beginning of 2014, the Committee has addressed the issue a number of times and will continue to do so until peace, security and the territorial integrity of Ukraine are restored.

Before concluding, I should briefly like to go over the priorities of the Estonian chairmanship.  Back in June, my predecessor introduced to you our plans, and now it’s my turn to give an overview on what has been done. I have already mentioned childrens’ rights in the context of migration crisis, highlighted prominently at the UNICEF – Council of Europe joint conference on the eve ofthe United Nations General Assembly. The forthcoming childrens’ rights conference in Tallinn I mentioned above will address another up and coming theme – children in digital environment.

A constantly evolving digital world creates a huge potential for everyone from governments to individuals and in particular, children. Experts are predicting that within ten years almost 90% of the entire population will be connected to the internet and the digital and physical worlds will be merged. Will  there still be a clear distinction between virtual and real life? Along with opportunities come challenges. Therefore it is necessary to find means and strategies to cope with the risks that widespread digitalisation may have on children’s wellbeing, as well as spot the opportunities which the digital world offers to education and personal development. By the end of next month we hope to have enriched our compilation  of shared practices from all of our countries.

What the rapidly developing digital environment means for the future of our societies in general, is one of the most pertinent questions today. Human rights and the rule of law on the Internet is evidently among Estonia’s priorities. Our success in building up an innovative internet based digital society has been based on the precondition that internet is free and accessible to everyone.

I would like to commend the high ambitions and the extensive work done by the Council of Europe with regard to  Internet related issues. The Council of Europe has taken an active role in the Internet Governance Forum and the European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG) process.In this context, I am pleased to announce that Estonia will host the next EuroDIG event in Tallinn in June 2017.

I would invite the Council of Europe to continue with its ‘ahead-of-the-curve’ standard-setting and monitoring arrangements which address and follow the evolution of the Internet and new technology generally. In the age of data-driven economies, the private sector has a growing responsibility for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online, including the protection of personal data. Governments and international organisations need to increasingly engage with them. European governments need dynamic and innovation oriented European institutions in order to make us all fit for purpose in the digital age.

The last but perhaps the most polemic issue on our list of priorities is gender equality or the lack of it. Achieving gender equality is central to the protection of human rights, the functioning of democracy, economic growth and sustainability. More equal societies work better for everyone and for this reason in Estonia we work hard to achieve gender equality in every field of life.

The stock taking conference of the Council of Europe Gender Equality Strategy 2014-2017 in Tallinn on 30th of June and 1st of July explored, among others, the same theme – the impact of the internet era on gender equality, challenges and opportunities. It concluded that the Istanbul convention which Estonia is about to ratify soon, offers  important tools for tackling online sexist hate speech and gender based cyber bullying. It also made the point that until men fully throw their weight behind the fight against inequality and gender discrimination, progress is bound to be slow. However, surmounting limitative gender stereotypes is a task for  both genders  – for men as well as for women. In my country we are struggling with the gender pay gap issue. The Estonian government is going to amend the Gender Equality Law by tasking the Labour Inspectorate to check employers’  salary practices. It is a common problem in all countries but some are more advanced with regard to researching the hidden causes and offering viable solutions. We need to share our best practices and perhaps the Parliamentary Assembly could lead the way.

In conclusion, I would like to say what an honour it has been for us to chair the Committee of Ministers. Next month our chairmanship will come to an end and I would like to express the full support of my delegation to Cyprus which is to succeed to us. I would like also to take this opportunity to thank your Assembly and Secretary General Jagland for the excellent co-operation maintained throughout our chairmanship. I thank you for your attention and will be glad to answer your questions.

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