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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Meeting of Ministers' Deputies - Council of Europe

Address by the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Iceland

19 May 1999, Meeting of Ministers Deputies,


Mr Secretary General
Ambassadors
Ladies and Gentlemen

First of all I would like to thank the two host countries of the recent well organised commemorative events in London and Budapest, both of which, I am informed, were highly successful. In addition, I would like to express my appreciation for the efficient and productive chairmanship of Hungary. It is our intention to build on this good work. Indeed, we will seek to maximise continuity between chairmanships and will keep the chair countries which will take over from us informed on a regular basis.

My task today is to inform you of the programme of the Icelandic chair over the next 6 months. I am very much aware that this is a common programme where our role is to emphasise and highlight certain issues which have to be addressed. Indeed, I feel humble in the face of the vast amount of work done in this forum, with the assistance of the working groups and Secretariat.

The Budapest Declaration

The underpinnings of our programme are already established. They have been put in place at the Vienna Summit of 1993, at the Strasbourg Summit of 1997 and most recently through the Budapest Declaration for a Greater Europe without Dividing lines. I would also like to make reference to two important results of our last summit - that is the Report on the implementation of the action plan and the follow-up declaration of the 1997 summit, and the Report by the Wise Persons (and the very useful report on follow-up action). It is clear that these must be our navigational charts.

Indeed, I see the role of Chairman as the pilot of a ship, taken on board to steer a course that we have all agreed on - a course that was set before our chairmanship and will continue throughout all subsequent chairmanships. The destination is clearly marked on the ticket - that is in the Statute, in the Convention on Human Rights and in the other conventions and agreements which we have signed up to.

South East Europe

On the situation in Kosovo it is difficult to say anything at this time with certainty. What is clear, however, is that stability needs to be re-established in Kosovo. We will, therefore, give our full support to the efforts related to the stability pact for Southeast Europe. The Council of Europe will play an important role in the restoration of democratic systems in the region, in cooperation with the EU, the OSCE and the UN agencies. Funding of such work will need to be found.

We will take seriously the statement in the stability programme that additional efforts are needed with a view to the accession of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Indeed, the Icelandic Permanent Representative here in Strasbourg informed the Representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina at a meeting yesterday, that I would be ready to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina early in the term of my Chairmanship, if the conditions are right. In meeting the joint presidency and visiting their country I would seek along with the Secretary General first-hand evidence to assist us in making our decision on their laudable ambition to join the Council of Europe. I hope also that a visit by the Chair and Secretary General of the Council of Europe would give them encouragement to further exert themselves towards achieving the standards required to join.

Democratic stability

The importance of democratic stability is illustrated most clearly by recent events in southeast Europe. These events should serve as a warning that we cannot take democracy for granted. We should ensure that support is given where it is needed, both within our member states and outside where appropriate. Activities such as ADACS (Activities for the Development and Consolidation of Democratic Stability) should be properly funded. Zero growth in this area could seriously undermine these very important activities.

Enlargement

An important ambition of the Council of Europe is enlargement to include all those countries which belong in the greater Europe without dividing lines. There has already been direct contact between Iceland and Armenia at ministerial level. There was a useful exchange of views and we are now better informed on the situation in Armenia. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan clearly have a future in the Council of Europe, and I look forward to rapid progress as regards their applications. We will continue to work in a positive spirit on the application from Monaco.

Maintaining Council of Europe Standards in the field of human rights - Budgetary Support for the Court of Human Rights

Our Declaration in Budapest states that we shall honour our commitments to each other and to our citizens, and that we shall participate actively in the machineries established to ensure compliance with these commitments. We also reaffirm that we shall effectively guarantee the fundamental rights secured to individuals in our member states by the Convention of Human Rights, under the supervision of the Court of Human Rights.

To me, this means two things: Firstly, we must ensure that the institutions we have set up are equipped to do what we expect them to do. As one of my more forthright colleagues said in Budapest, to create a policy without providing the means to carry it out is hypocrisy. I know that none of us are hypocrites. The Icelandic chair will be looking for ways, together with its colleagues, to ensure necessary funding to the Court. We will be as stringent and demanding as anyone in wishing for efficiency, flexibility and, where necessary, radical changes in procedures. I stressed this at my meeting with the President of the Court this morning. Coming from a small country, we are used to doing the maximum with the minimum. At the same time, we hope very much that those who have, up to now, insisted on zero growth, will also show some flexibility. I am optimistic that we will be able to hold constructive discussions to find a solution to the problems of the Court}s increased work-load. I am optimistic because I know that we have the same basic objective - that is to have a Court which can carry out the role it has been given.

Secondly, and not less importantly, we must abide by the judgements and decisions of our institutions. If we do not, they will be discredited. It will be the aim of Iceland in the chair to do its utmost to find ways to assist states to abide by decisions, even in the most difficult of circumstances. We expect to receive the necessary cooperation from the states concerned, since all member states have made the same basic commitments and none of us would want to compromise these or set at risk the unique establishment of the human rights machinery.

Of course compliance is not only a matter for the Court. We will also do our best to ensure the good functioning of the Council}s monitoring system, which will, in the immediate future, be concentrating on the particular areas of concern, capital punishment, law enforcement and private security. We will also explore whether it is possible to improve the effectiveness of the meetings of the Deputies on human rights. I believe this would be very much in line with the work of the wise persons and of the follow-up working group.

I cannot leave the subject of human rights without expressing my satisfaction at the decision made in Budapest to establish a Commissioner for Human Rights. The Icelandic chair will do all in its power to ensure settlement of outstanding budgetary issues and a smooth selection process and we will look forward to working with the new Commissioner.

New conventions

I have emphasised so far the importance of adhering to present commitments. But I recognise that one of the best aspects of the Council of Europe is its dynamism. The Council of Europe is constantly adjusting and adapting to development, both technological and social. I would like, therefore, to express support for the work under way on new instruments, in particular for a convention on cybercrime. Hopefully we will see this draft convention completed by the end of this year. The draft civil law convention and the new protocol on transplantation of human organs are also important. I at the same time welcome the establishment of the group of states against corruption (GRECO).

Cooperation with other International Organisations

A further commitment in the Budapest Declaration is to develop existing partnerships with other organisations. Iceland hopes to put to good use the fact that two other Nordic countries are chairing close partner organisations of the Council of Europe. Norway is in the chair of the OSCE and will continue for the whole of 1999 and Finland will hold the presidency of the EU from July. Iceland is in the chair of Nordic cooperation in 1999 and we invited the Secretary General as a special guest to a Nordic ministerial meeting in February in Reykjavik where the matter of increased cooperation between the major European organisations was discussed. We will be working hard to continue the efforts already made towards more effective cooperation. There will be a seminar in Bergen beginning tomorrow organised jointly by the Norwegian Chair of the OSCE and the Icelandic Chair of the Council of Europe on Culture and Conflict Prevention. My Norwegian colleague and I plan to hold a 2 plus 2 meeting this autumn together with the respective secretary generals.

As for closer contacts with the EU, a declaration on cooperation between the two organisations has been drafted by the Secretariat. It is my hope that you, the Deputies will be able to complete this work in the near future. I will meet my Finnish colleague in the so-called quadripartite forum in October. I will stress to my Finnish colleague and to the European Commission the importance we attach to the Commission appointing a permanent representative in Strasbourg.

I will meet Ministers Vollebaek and Halonen in August in Reykjavik and will use this occasion to discuss further possibilities for cooperation between the three bodies - the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the EU.

Iceland will also support initiatives to improve cooperation between the Council of Europe and regional organisations in Europe with the same aims and values.

Observership is a useful tool for ensuring that important potential and actual partner countries and organisations have a good understanding of the work of the Council of Europe. Iceland will give support to awarding permanent observer status to countries, provided they fulfil the criteria decided by this Committee. I have especially in mind the application by Mexico for observer status.

SOCIAL COHESION

I wish to congratulate the Committee of Ministers on its work in the field of social cohesion, which was initiated by the Second summit. I hope that the Committee will finalise at this meeting the decision on establishment of the unit on Social Cohesion.

As I mentioned earlier, Iceland is used to doing the maximum with the minimum. I think it is worthwhile considering to what extent the Icelandic model can be useful for the Council of Europe's programmes in assisting those member states which are building their social security systems and other legal frameworks in the social fields with limited financial resources.

I want also to use this opportunity to thank the Social Development Fund for its contribution to the social cohesion activities of the Council of Europe.

Meetings of Committee of Ministers

The wise persons report together with its follow-up provide much scope for seeking improvements to the work of the Council of Europe. We intend to explore further with the help of the Secretariat, the implementation of the new rapporteur group system. We will of course give support to the present and future Secretary General in working out structural reforms.

On a practical matter, I know that many of us have, for some time, been seeking ways to improve the organisation of the meetings of ministers. Indeed it was a recommendation made by the wise persons. I look very much forward to hearing more of the innovative proposals discussed by the wise persons} follow-up working group. I would be particularly grateful if they and you could put your minds to finding a new format in time for the ministerial meeting in November.

Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

In our important relations with the Parliamentary Assembly, we will, in line with the GT-SAGES report, attempt to improve further lines of communication. We must ensure that the Assembly is as well informed as possible on policy in the Committee of Ministers and that we work together in pursuit of our common aims. We will also do our best to further improve contacts with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in the same spirit.

Visibility

Much has been said about visibility recently - or the lack of it. Visibility is important as long as it has a purpose - it is not an end in itself. Visibility of the Council of Europe as an institution is useful in convincing potential partners of the value of co-operating with this organisation. But what we should be working most hard at is the visibility of the values espoused by the Council. As the Icelandic Minister of Justice said in Budapest, we should seek to make the values of the Council of Europe visible across Europe - visible in action and ourselves visibly complying with these values.

Finally, although my address to you has been principally on future plans, I would like to use this opportunity to express our great thanks and appreciation to Secretary General Daniel Tarschys for his outstanding work over the last five years. He has headed the Secretariat during a very turbulent but productive period. I look forward to working with him through to the end of his mandate.

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