Thank you, Mr. President,
Dear/Madam Secretary General,
Secretary General of the Assembly,
C'est un honneur de m'adresser à vous aujourd'hui au nom de la Présidence islandaise du Conseil de l'Europe et à l'approche du quatrième Sommet des chefs d'État et de Gouvernement qui se tiendra à Reykjavik en mai.
J'ai eu le plaisir de rencontrer certains d'entre vous en novembre dernier, lorsque l'Alþingi-le Parlement islandais
-a accueilli le comité permanent en Islande.
Avant de devenir Première ministre, j'ai été membre de cette Assemblée, pendant une brève période, et j'ai eu l'occasion de participer à votre important travail, et d'apprendre de première main le rôle clé de l'Assemblée parlementaire comme forum pour la discussion démocratique en Europe, et en tant que catalyseur d'idées et d'actions nouvelles.
The Assembly has shown much vigor and resilience when responding to major crises in the past few years. It was able to adapt its procedures to continuing its work through the pandemic, stressing the need to balance social restrictions with human rights and highlighting, among other things, the detrimental impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable groups. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Assembly demonstrated its unity around the values upon which the Council of Europe was founded by condemning Russia’s aggression and by recommending its expulsion from the Council of Europe.
Iceland was the twelfth state to join the Council of Europe in 1950—only six years after it became a republic. Our membership has played an important part in the advancement of human rights and the rule of law in Iceland. Judgements by the European Court of Human Rights are fundamental to the organisation's core role to advance and protect fundamental rights. Full and unequivocal respect for and execution of the Court's judgements are therefore a shared responsibility of all Member States. The Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and its system of legal conventions constantly remind us of our obligations and have made valuable suggestions for improvements in guaranteeing citizens’ rights.
As a forum for dialogue and cooperation, the Council of Europe has been instrumental in safeguarding, implementing, and promoting fundamental values and principles. This is no simple task, for democracy can be complicated, cumbersome and even messy, with demanding and lengthy debates. Yet, it is precisely the need for time and patience that makes democratic governance effective. Therein lies our strength: to express different opinions, to debate openly and freely, and to look for common solutions based on our core values and the interests of our citizens. The democratic concept which lies at the core of the European Convention on Human Rights is an inclusive one, it requires that the interests of all are taken into account, including rights and interests of the weak and the vulnerable. This is what we must all continue fighting for.
Iceland takes over the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe at a critical time. Eleven months have passed since the launch of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine. Tragedy and violence are not only confined to the battleground. Russia’s systematic attacks on civilian infrastructure has caused much human suffering and hardship—and millions of innocent civilians have fled their homes. Horrendous reports of atrocities, sexual and gender-based violence, and other grave human rights violations have fueled a sense of urgency—we all feel—of ending this war and bringing our continent back to peace. This was after all the founding ideal of the Council of Europe after the end of the Second World War. The furtherance of peace lies at the genesis of our common European project.
The Council of Europe has, as noted, taken a firm stance against Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which is a clear violation of international law as embedded in the United Nations Charter as well as that of the Statute of Council of Europe. Victims of the war and displaced persons are also suffering violations of their rights and freedoms under the European Convention on Human Rights as well as international humanitarian law. Most member states, including Iceland, are part of the sanctions regime against Russia and have provided material support for Ukraine.
The ultimate goal is a just peace that respects international law and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Justice also requires a comprehensive system of accountability for human rights violations and international crimes, to avoid impunity and to prevent further violations. Iceland supports efforts to document crimes—committed by Russia in Ukraine—and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Given the make-up of the UN Security Council, major political hurdles stand in the way of establishing international tribunals—such as those created after the wars in the former Yugoslavia or the genocide in Rwanda—or involve the International Criminal Court without a Russian membership.
However, the rights of victims must be recognised and violations remedied as far as possible. I recall the landmark Opinion of the Parliamentary Assembly from the 15th of March, on the 'consequences of the Russian Federation's aggression against Ukraine', where the Assembly made clear that it constituted 'a crime against peace', an aggression under international law and moreover a serious breach of the Statute of the Council of Europe. In order for us to be able to honor the rights and the fundamental human dignity of victims, some forms of retributive and restorative justice are needed to deal with wartime atrocities in Ukraine. And as experience shows, such mechanisms of accountability can have transformative effects.
This was, for example, the case when sexual violence and rape, in armed conflict, were defined as a war crime and a crime against humanity following the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia and with the actions of various truth commissions set up in post-conflict states on the model of the South African example. In my view, the Council of Europe should address the question of justice and accountability in its Summit declaration.
War does not only undermine the principles of cooperation in the international system; it also threatens democracy, violates human rights, and dismantles the rule of law. We also see evidence of other types of threats to democratic values in Europe and around the world. In the United States—and more recently Brazil—we have seen attacks against the very institutions that have been put in place to safeguard democracy. The independence of the judiciary has been challenged in some European countries, and we have witnessed a worrying backlash against gender equality and LGBTI rights. These are not isolated events, but a manifestation of a broader trend where democratic principles are questioned or rejected.
There is a tendency to think that democracies perish as a result of violent action, such as military coups or aggression. But in our time, they can also be undermined by other overt means or wither away in enforced silence. We have witnessed elected leaders coming to power through parliamentary means, who, then, engage in an authoritarian power grab aimed at eliminating democratic checks and balances.
We have also seen non-democratic states, with no interest in the promotion of equality or human rights, emerging as major players on the international scene. We can debate whether it matters more that democratic states are becoming fewer or less democratic. Yet, as I said, democratic rights can be suppressed or they can slip away—and for this reason, they have to be fought for, nurtured, and protected. We need the multilateral system to weather the storms we currently face. If there is one lesson to be learned from the failure of the international response to fascism in the 1930s, it is that democracies must stay together to protect hard-won political rights and freedoms.
The priorities of the Icelandic Presidency of the Council of Europe reflect this commitment to fundamental values and to multilateral cooperation. We will also use this platform to champion the rights of women and girls, the environment, and children and youth.
The Presidency will focus on four main themes:
First, Iceland will have a strong focus on the Council’s core principles of human rights, democracy, and rule of law. We must return to our fundamental principles and the framework that has kept us together. In a time of democratic decline and rising authoritarianism, the Council of Europe serves a critical function as a guardian of democracy.
Second, the Icelandic Presidency will engage with critical issues regarding human rights, automation, and the environment. The impact of new technologies needs to be addressed to ensure that they serve the people and strengthen democratic processes and human rights instead of undermining basic values. We have to search for common answers to pressing questions about the use of AI: how the protection of human rights can be safeguarded, while realizing the contribution of neural networks to social prosperity and well-being.
We must deal with the detrimental effects of the climate crisis on human rights across the world.
The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment has been recognized by the United Nations General Assembly. Last October, this Assembly recommended that the right to a healthy environment be established through an additional protocol to the European convention on human rights. The Committee of Ministers now has the task of figuring out how this right can be formalized in the Council of Europe convention system.
Even though this will take some time, perhaps even years, we do not want to lose the momentum that this issue has gained in the past two years. In May the Icelandic Presidency will organize an event on the margins of the meeting of the drafting committee on human rights and the environment of the Committee of Ministers, focusing on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable development.
We will examine how states have incorporated the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment into their legislation and promote green public administration and other ecologically sound solutions. Responding to the climate crisis is our most urgent generational challenge, with the Council of Europe having an important role to play.
Third, we will put much emphasis on the rights of children and young people. Every child has the right to grow into adulthood in health, peace, and dignity—and it is imperative for all states to ensure these rights. Iceland will and has already been promoting child-centered policy-making through integrating services and protection systems for children. An early model of this approach is the Icelandic Barnahús—or Children’s house—a child-friendly, interdisciplinary, and multi-agency response center for child sexual abuse. Its unique approach brings together all relevant services under one roof—to avoid re-victimization of children during the investigation and court proceedings—where the rights of the child are paramount.
Another priority will be the inclusion of young people in decision-making. We will organize consultative meetings with young people during our Presidency and ensure that their voices are heard in the lead-up to the Reykjavik Summit.
Fourth, Iceland is steadfast in its commitment to equality and the protection of the hard-earned rights of women and girls around the world. While important gains have been made in the fight against gender-based violence over decades of activism, new forms of violence have emerged. During Iceland’s Presidency, we will continue to focus specifically on action against digital violence and on the role of men and boys in gender equality policies. As technology evolves—and our use of it changes—we see new representations of gender-based violence, primarily harming women and girls. We need to be alert to these forms of violence and how they impact victims in a way that can discourage civic participation, activism, and involvement in politics, ultimately harming our democracies.
I would like to underline, specifically, the important role of the Istanbul Convention in preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The Convention, which has been ratified by 37 Council of Europe member states, is the most comprehensive and far-reaching instrument of its kind—and its implementation has had a significant effect. I sincerely hope that more member states, and non-member states, will sign and ratify the Convention in the coming years.
Let me also stress that Iceland is firmly committed to promoting and protecting the rights of LGBTI individuals and to creating a safe, inclusive, and enabling environment for the advancement of human rights and equality for all. We must continue to educate and listen. And we must always speak up when we witness hate, prejudice, and discrimination. We are all part of this effort—we cannot leave the fight for equality to the LGBTI community alone. An inclusive and equal society—where every member is treated with respect and dignity—is a goal that we must all subscribe to.
I see the upcoming Reykjavik Summit as an important opportunity for Heads of State and Government of the 46 member states to convene and “unite around our values” and to work towards strengthening the organization to meet current and future challenges. The aim of the Icelandic Presidency is to consult with all relevant stakeholders, including the Council of Europe bodies, international organizations, youth representatives, and civil society.
Iceland will do its utmost over the next few months, together with the member states, to ensure that the fourth Summit will be productive and fulfill the demands made of the Council.
The input of the Parliamentary Assembly, and its more than 300 parliamentarians, is crucial to the success of the Summit. As mentioned in our timeline “Road to Reykjavík,” the Icelandic Presidency prioritized consultations with the Assembly in preparing for the meeting. The most important input of the Assembly is the Recommendation to the Committee of Ministers, on the Reykjavík Summit, adopted on Tuesday. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the rapporteur, Ms. Fiona O’Loughlin, for her excellent work.
Our aim is to deliver a substantive Summit declaration, focusing on the most pressing issues.
My wish is that the Reykjavik declaration reflects the following:
- a resolute re-commitment to our fundamental values and principles,
- clear support for Ukraine where the issue of accountability is addressed.
- and meaningful decisions that guide our work in meeting urgent challenges, such as the climate crisis and rapid technological changes, which are having major effects on human rights.
Later this afternoon, we will have the opportunity to discuss the Summit in the Joint Committee of the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. We will keep the Assembly informed of the progress in the coming months, notably in the Standing Committee in March and the April Plenary session.
To conclude: The Council of Europe was born out of the tragedy of the Second World War, with the aim of uniting Europe and ensuring that its violent past would not become its future.
This mission has never been more important. We look forward to working closely with all member states and statutory bodies of the organization to promote the vision of a strong and effective Council of Europe firmly committed to its core values of human rights, rule of law, and democracy in Europe.
I thank you and look forward to your questions.