Committee of Ministers

Address by Minister for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne

30 June 2022


Once, at the height of the Cold War, following a debate between the two blocs at the UN, reporters surrounded Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld [Dawg Hammer-shuld], pressing him for a comment.  

The Swedish diplomat was evasive - as diplomats, even ambassadors, can sometimes be.

And the reporters at length grew exasperated.

“Could you, at least, tell us” one of them demanded, “whether the compass points left or right? East or West?”

Hammarskjöld paused before replying.

“It points forward”, he said.

In his assault on Ukraine, President Putin has sought not only to force the compass east.

But to turn the clocks back.

Nostalgic, as autocrats so often are, for a golden age that never truly was.

A year ago, we read, with alarm, his essay on Russia and its ties to Ukraine.

It was an extraordinary blend of myths, half-truths and outright lies.

Yet for all its inaccuracy, its central claim was clear.

That Ukraine, a free independent sovereign state, was a fiction.

A chimera created by the West.

Designed to destabilise Russia.

Putin’s was an Orwellian vision: an attempt to claim warmakers as peacekeepers, ignorance as strength.

But it provided him – to his own mind – with a pretext for invasion.

And has served to remind all of us how terrible a weapon history can be.


In Kyiv, Kenon, and Kharkiv these past months, and earlier this week in Kremenchuk, the world has witnessed war crimes.

The unconscionable targeting of civilians.

The indiscriminate use of cluster munitions.

And thinly veiled threats of nuclear action. 

Across our screens, we’ve watched terrified children huddle in makeshift bunkers.

City centres crumble under sustained shelling.

We’ve seen the drawn, disbelieving faces of pensioners forced from their homes.

And the stoic dignity of the sons and daughters who’ve stayed behind to defend them.

We’ve marvelled at the measured calm - and immeasurable courage - of President Zelensky.

A leader who inspires people, where his Russian counterpart only inspires fear.

And watching this, it’s been clear that, while bombs are raining down on Ukraine, in an important sense, we’re all under attack.

At such times, I believe, we should hold our compass close.

And orient ourselves by first principles.

The first lines of the UN Charter stress the determination of the peoples of the UN ‘‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’’

The first lines of this Council’s statute - which Ireland helped draft – affirm our convictionthat ‘‘the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilisation.’’

These are the first principles of our international order.

The moral compass by which we must orientate ourselves.  

They are not liberal values.

They are not western values.

They are human values.

Borne of enlightened diplomacy.

Shaped by the tragedy of war.

And the determination that others should not suffer it.

Ukraine’s plight, then, is ours too.

Europe’s response has recognised that reality.

Jean Monnet famously said that “Europe was forged in crisis”.

In response to this crisis, the European Union and the Council of Europe have acted with an urgency few thought possible.

Immediately following the invasion, in lock step with the US and UK, the EU unleashed unprecedented sanctions against the Kremlin’s kleptocrats.

Impounded the assets of innumerable oligarchs.

Shut our skies to Russian and Belarussian planes.

And opened our homes to millions of displaced Ukrainians.

Last week, in Brussels, we went one step further. Opening our Union itself to Ukrainian membership.

Here in Strasbourg, under an exemplary Italian Presidency, this Committee responded resolutely to the violation of the Council’s founding freedoms.

Regrettable as it was, your decision to expel the Russian Federation was absolutely right.

In Ireland, as you’ve heard, we’ve always considered this body ‘‘the conscience of Europe.’’

In March, you acted as such.

We need now to show the same conviction, the same conscience, the same urgency in supporting Ukraine.

The revised Action Plan the Secretary General unveiled last month was an essential step.

It recognises that the Council is neither a security nor a humanitarian organisation.

And focusses on your core expertise – promoting democratic security. 

Ireland will back this Plan to the hilt and help fund its delivery.

Next week, in Dublin, we’ll also press to fasttrack Ukraine’s admission to the Council’s Development Bank.

Building on the billions the Bank has provided in loans these past months to aid refugees and displaced Ukrainians across the continent.

And opening up billions more to invest in rebuilding Ukraine’s social and judicial infrastructure. 

I urge you all to support that effort.  

But we should be clear – more, much more, is needed.

And more is possible. 

The Council of Europe was founded in the wake of war on our continent.

Now, in the wake of war, it’s time for our Heads of State and Government to reconvene.

To reaffirm our conviction in the rule of law.

To recommit to the human rights enshrined in our Convention.

To answer autocracy by doubling down on democracy. 

In our lifetimes, in the lifetime of this Council, never has our continent needed its conscience more.

At PACE last week, you heard President Kox.

You heard Secretary General Buric.

You heard my colleague, Ireland’s Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, chair of this Committee.

All urged you to rise to meet this moment.

I know some harbour doubts still.

Wonder whether the time is right for a summit.

Worry that leaders may not attend.

Whether, given everything, we might not be better served to wait. 


Wait for what?

If determining this Council’s unique role in rebuilding Ukraine and reshaping this continent’s future within its mandate is not substance for a summit, then what is? 

If you worry that leaders won’t convene to recommit to this Council’s founding freedoms, how confident can we be that they will fight for them? That they believe in them still?

If we believe in this Council, in the work that we do here, we must answer truthfully: “if not now, when?”

When Russia was expelled from this organisation on the 16th of March, it confidently predicted the Council of Europe’s demise and slide into irrelevance over the years to come.

The convening of a fourth summit, and the agreement of substantial, concrete commitments that stand in opposition to Russia’s shameful aggression in Ukraine, would constitute a fitting response and a clear rebuke to those bitter words.

This world, this continent are changing.


This institution must change with it.

I commend Secretary General Buric for recognising this.

And for acting with the urgency needed.

As Ministers tasked her in Turin, she has convened a High-Level Group to reflect on the Council’s future.

The group gathered for the first time yesterday.

Meeting over the coming months, it will report in early autumn.

Setting a substantive agenda for a summit.  

It benefits from the wisdom of many brilliant minds.

Amongst them our former President Mary Robinson, a global champion of human rights, gender equality, and climate justice, who was here for the group’s first meeting.

Addressing PACE on foot of the Council’s first summit, three decades ago, she described Strasbourg by invoking Ireland’s now mythical ‘‘fifth province” or ‘‘cúige’’.

Strasbourg, she said, is Europe’s fifth province, ‘‘the meeting point between East and West, the centre of humanist values.’’

If we’re to hold a fourth summit in November, as the Secretary General has suggested, Europe’s fifth province, Strasbourg, would be a fitting location.

And Thursday the 10th of November, in the week that Strasbourg holds the 10th World Forum for Democracy, one of the largest assemblies of civil society in Europe, is a fitting time.

Moreover, it would mark an appropriate handover of our Presidency to Iceland’s.

I am here to advocate for urgency. But I am also here to listen to the views of fellow member states on this important issue.

History did not end with the fall of the Berlin wall.

But a new era did begin.

Likewise, for the Council of Europe, this summit should not be seen as the end of a long process.

But as a new beginning.  

Building on the reflection group’s recommendations, our leaders would chart a path for the Council’s long-term future.

What might that path be?

Let me offer some thoughts.

Firstly, a Summit would be an essential opportunity for leaders to recommit to the Council’s first principles, above all the effective functioning of the European Court of Human Rights and execution of its judgements.

Alongside assertions, we should consider new inititives to give our words weight - that might include sustainable structures for implementation at a national level, the appointment of a Special Representative on Implementation or, prospectively, further sanctions.

Secondly, this organisation has the capacity to play a unique role in helping to support Ukraine in securing accountability.

Third, the remaining 46 members of the Council of Europe must not forget or leave behind civil society and human rights defenders in Belarus and Russia.

I am delighted that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ([Sveet-lah-nah Tee-kon-ov-sky-ah]), will address this Committee next week.

At PACE last week, she asked that the Council establish a steering committee on relations with Belarus. 

A group comprising representatives of this institution and of the democratic forces and civil society of Belarus, it would identify priorities for cooperation, devise new projects and oversee their implementation.

Such an approach may be unconventional for this Council.

But these are not conventional times.

We should grant her request.

A commitment at a summit of Heads of State or Government to further develop engagement with civil society and human rights defenders in Belarus and Russia sends a powerful message that member states will continue to hold each country’s leaders accountable for their crimes.

Fourthly, the Council of Europe should drive closer alignment between it and the EU, particularly in the context of supporting candidate countries such as Ukraine.

At last week’s European Council, we granted candidate status to Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova.

And affirmed our openness to offering Georgia the same.

We discussed also the proposal President Macron presented here in Strasbourg last month for an emerging European political community.

I am very clear on two things: A new era of EU enlargement is upon us. And the Council of Europe must be at its heart.

The Council of Europe predates the EU. And serves a vital function independent of it.

But it’s true also that membership of the Council – and adherence to the Convention – are essential for any state aspiring to membership of the EU.

This was the case for Ireland half a century ago.

It’s the case for Ukraine, Moldova and others today.

Their path to EU membership will be steered by the Council’s compass.

Acknowledging this, our leaders should decide at a Council of Europe summit how we can better align the institutions’ work.

In aiding those, like Ukraine, on their path to EU membership.

In deepening ties to states which will never join the EU, but which will always share its values.   

And in engaging EU member states which, in one way or other, are failing to protect those values.

Fifth, after a decade of delay, a fourth summit should spur EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, in line with the Lisbon Treaty.

And should see our leaders recommit to tackling, together, the most egregious violations of human rights across our continent.

In September, Ireland will host a meeting of Justice Ministers devoted to countering domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. As Germany has suggested, a summit could build on that, reinforcing the pillars of the Istanbul Convention.

A summit could also codify the right to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” within the Protocols to the Convention.

And decide on new mechanisms to safeguard the security of our continent’s democracies, from outside and internal forces.

Each of these concrete outcomes are unique to the work of this organisation.

If this is not substance, tell me: what is?

To review:

Our summit should recommit to the Council’s first principles – above all the effective functioning of the ECtHR and execution of its judgments.

Ensure accountability for Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine.

Formalise engagement with and support for civil society and human rights defenders in Belarus and Russia.

Refocus our relations with the EU, including through its accession to the Convention.

And renew our collective determination to tackle human rights abuses and protect democratic norms across this continent.

Delivering such an ambitious agenda will require resources. 

We’re determined that the Council of Europe should have them.

And not suffer for having had the courage to expel a significant contributor.

As a member state, we’re playing our part to ‘‘fill the gap’’ this year.

And as Chair of the Committee of Ministers, we’ll lead negotiations to do the same for 2023.

But to deliver for the long term, we need to plan for it.

So, at any summit, our leaders should commit to resourcing the Council of Europe to deliver its critical mandate.


From Freedom of Assembly to Freedom of Association, the scourge of Anti-semitism to the risks of Artificial Intelligence, a Summit might consider many other important subjects.

But one, to me, seems particularly essential:

How should we support civil society and human rights defenders in Belarus and Russia, states of this continent, but outside this Council?

As the Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Sol-shuh-nit-sn), observed ‘‘A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.’’

Moscow and Minsk launched this war, in part, to distract from their domestic despotism.

They are using it now to reinforce it.

Arresting activists, threatening capital punishment, closing the already narrow space for civil society and free expression.   

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ([Sveet-lah-nah Tee-kon-ov-sky-ah]), will address this Committee next week.

At PACE last week, she asked that the Council establish a steering committee on relations with Belarus. 

A group comprising representatives of this institution and of the democratic forces and civil society of Belarus, it would identify priorities for cooperation, devise new projects and oversee their implementation.

Such an approach may be unconventional for this Council.

But these are not conventional times.

We should grant her request.


We must seriously consider how we ensure long-term sustainability and significance for this organisation, under its historic mandate.

Other institutions will discuss their own response.

Like all of you, I am aware of the initial discussions in Brussels about a first informal meeting of the European Political Community. Well and good.

But there is a unique role for the Council of Europe, as the continent’s largest and leading focal point for action on democratic values, the rule of law and human rights, in guiding the way forward.

We cannot underestimate the challenges facing this continent.

Or the Council of Europe.

But, together, we can address them.

This is the time to act.

Let us resolve to do so.

Inspired by the courageous decisions you have already taken.   

Determined that, our compass – and Europe’s conscience - shall point not left or right.

East or west.

But forward.