REMARKS BY MINISTER COWEN T.D., AT THE SPRING MEETINGS OF THE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY OF THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE
It is a great pleasure for me to welcome all our Parliamentary colleagues to Ireland, and to this luncheon, on the occasion of the Spring Meetings of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I would like to welcome especially the distinguished President of the Assembly, Lord Russell Johnson. I also welcome the Secretary-General of the Council, Walter Schwimmer. My predecessor, David Andrews, and I have worked closely, and I believe productively, with both of you in the course of our Presidency.
In November last year, when approaching our Presidency, we were determined to advance the agenda of the Council of Europe in as many areas as possible. For us, that meant both achieving substantive progress in the work of the Committee of Ministers but, as importantly, achieving this progress in partnership with the Assembly. So we felt that there was no more appropriate way of marking the end of our Chairmanship of the Committee than by inviting the Assembly to hold your Spring meetings in Dublin. You are all very welcome.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, and to the members of the Irish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, and in particular, the leader of that delegation, my colleague Mr Brendan Daly, for this initiative. Ireland's Chairmanship has been greatly assisted by the efforts and support of the Oireachtas, many members of which have participated in the work of the Parliamentary Assembly.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a truly unique institution. Your own distinguished President, in his inaugural address, referred to it as,
"A gathering of Parliamentarians from more than 40 countries, of all political persuasions, responsible, not to Governments, but to our own consensual concept of what it is right to do. There is no other like it. What has been achieved in Europe should be a model for other parts of the World. We have a global responsibility to make it work."
Together the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers also share that common responsibility to advance the core democratic and human rights values and principles for which the Council of Europe stands. This is not always an easy task, given the increasingly diverse challenges with which we are now faced in Europe. Developments in South East Europe and in Chechnya were of particular concern during our period in Office. The latter was, of course, the major political issue with which we had to deal. I look forward to reporting in detail to your Standing Committee tomorrow on the outcome of last week's Session of the Committee of Ministers.
The concerns of the Parliamentary Assembly, as contained in recommendations 1444 and 1456 on the situation in Chechnya are, self-evidently, those of European public opinion. By definition, they are therefore also those of the Committee of Ministers - and indeed were reflected in the strong statements made by many member States last Thursday.
The issue which faced the Committee of Ministers last week, and will continue to face us in the period leading up to the next plenary Session of the Assembly in June, is - in your own words - whether substantial and demonstrable progress is taking place in Chechnya. Let me be absolutely clear on one point. The steps that have and are being taken by Russia do not respond adequately to the legitimate concerns of the Assembly. The focus now is on addressing all outstanding issues and the implementation of those commitments by Russia which underlie the agreed communiqué adopted by Foreign Ministers last week. I believe, from my discussions with him, that the Russian Foreign Minister is fully committed to the urgent implementation of each of the measures referred to in the communiqué. These include the functioning of an independent and impartial commission of enquiry into alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Ministers will remain actively engaged on this issue in the period prior to your June part-Session, and we will, of course, shortly be reporting to you on all the aspects referred to in paragraph 24 of recommendation 1456. I am convinced that the consequences of the role played by the Assembly has been constructive and that we can together help Russia to bring about the progress which all of us demand of her as a member of our Organisation.
A specific issue of concern to me is the need to avoid a continuing political vacuum in Chechnya, in which only extremists can thrive. That is indeed the clear lesson from earlier experience in Northern Ireland. My clear conviction, and I conveyed this to Minister Ivanov in the course of our recent meetings, is that Russia must now use the period ahead of transitional administration in Chechnya to create the foundations for elections and a sustainable political solution.
The Council of Europe has an essential contribution to make to Russia at the present time. This contribution cannot however be at the cost of the credibility and validity of our common values and principles. That means that the Council can only continue to contribute on the basis of unequivocal evidence that Russia will fulfill her obligations and commitments, including those made to your Assembly upon accession.
Although it often seems that, on the world stage, problems are multiplying at an alarming rate, it is reassuring that sometimes even the most intractable difficulties can be overcome when the circumstances are right.
In our own case, this has been illustrated by the important and welcome agreement on Northern Ireland, which was achieved in Belfast a few days ago. On the basis of this development we now have the real prospect of being at last able to move forward together, by consensus and on a clear and forward-looking basis.
The Chairmanship of the Council has been an important opportunity for Ireland, as a smaller member State, to make a difference. I believe that in no small way we have been able to advance the work of the Council during our term in office. We take particular pride in the major conferences and seminars which took place in Ireland earlier this year, both of which involved substantive input from the Assembly. I refer to the European Conference on Social Development and, with the Venice Commission, the major Human Rights Conference which took place in March.
The vital role played by our Organisation in the field of human rights, and in particular the Court, were key areas of importance in our Presidency programme. At our initiative, and in response to the widespread concerns which have also been expressed by your Assembly, a special group will shortly begin work on the specific problems facing the Court of Human Rights and wider aspects of human rights protection in Europe. We must all ensure an adequate and urgent response to the self-evident burdens the Court faces, not least those stemming from the vast increase in its caseload.
Ireland's decision to join the Council of Europe in 1949 was the first major foreign policy decision taken by the newly declared Republic after the Second World War. It was a major step for a State in its formative years, and one which placed side by side the need to establish a sense of national and international identity.
It was through the Council that Irish politicians and civil servants gained their first experience of the process of European integration. Ireland's membership of the Council was instrumental in developing the state's European consciousness.
The profound effect of the Council on Ireland's journey towards European integration has, until now, been under-acknowledged. It is for this reason that I am pleased today to officially launch a new book on Ireland and the Council of Europe, which was commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs to mark our Chairmanship. Written by Dr. Michael Kennedy and Professor Eunan O'Halpin, two of the finest historians on Irish Foreign Policy, the book ‘Ireland and the Council of Europe: From isolation towards integration' was produced in partnership with the Council. From the perspective of today's recently enlarged Council of Europe the experience of Ireland 50 years ago holds parallels and lessons for many of the Council's newer member States.
The book is an important addition to our knowledge of the history of this State and of the continent as a whole. On behalf of the Government, I would like thank the two authors, Dr. Michael Kennedy and Professor Eunan O'Halpin, for their excellent work in documenting this hitherto unexplored period in Irish Foreign Policy.
I commend this book and congratulate its authors on the quality of their work. Many thanks to you all for joining me here at Belfield this afternoon and I wish you well in your deliberations in Dublin Castle over the coming days. Top