The European Conference on Democracy and Human Rights

‘‘Session I: Protecting the European order:  How can we expect rules to be respected when judgements of breaches of these rules are not properly implemented?’’

5 May 2022

Takk Cristos!

Kjære (sha-ra) venner.

The bridges - and imagined bridges - of Kristiansand have drawn world acclaim.

But a quarter century ago, in Oslo, a Derry man spoke of another bridge.

Accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace from King Harald, John Hume recalled his frequent walks, as a member of the European Parliament, across the bridge spanning Strasbourg and Kehl.

A symbol, he marvelled, ‘‘so simple yet so profound and so applicable to conflict resolution anywhere in the world.’’

In that same address, Hume observed that, in essence, ‘‘all conflict is about difference’’.

But while some see difference as a threat, he - like the visionaries who bridged the Rhine - recognised that, in fact, ‘‘difference is the essence of humanity’’.

And that ‘‘the answer to difference is to respect it.’’

That, to me, is the essence of the Council of Europe. And the European Court of Human Rights which has always been its - and our - guiding compass.  

Today, amidst war in Ukraine, and following Russia‘s expulsion, the Council - the European continent itself - stands at a crossroads.

At such times, we should hold our compass close.

And orient ourselves by first principles.

This Europe Day, Ireland celebrates our fiftieth year as a member of the EU.

But long before we acceded to the Union, we lived – and shaped – its values.

In 1949, alongside Norway, Ireland was amongst the original signatories to the Statute that created the Council of Europe and the European Convention and Court of Human Rights.

Ever since, alongside Norway, we’ve worked to buttress those vital institutions. And the fundamental freedoms they enshrine.

It was at Ireland’s initiative that a commitment to ‘‘the pursuit of peace’’ was added to the preamble to the Statute. 

And it’s ‘‘the pursuit of peace’’, and accountability for its violation, which occupies our minds most today.

But long before Russia’s latest unconscionable assault, we must recognise that the values the Council espouses have been under sustained attack.

For far too long, far too many governments across our continent have copied the Kremlin in contriving to narrow the space for civil society. Silence journalists. And repress dissenting voices.

Our European House”, as Thorbjørn Jagland once memorably termed it, has been under sustained siege.

Ireland helped lay the foundations for that House.

And, as a founding member, working with and through our friends in Strasbourg, we hope to use our Presidency of the Committee of Ministers to reinforce them.  

Above all, we will work to renew our focus on the protection of vulnerable civilians across Europe through the effective functioning of the Court.  

No country is perfect. Although Norway, perhaps, comes pretty close.

In Ireland, we’ve had our share of judgments.

Some were historic.

Several, in their time, were contentious.

But, by protecting individuals’ rights - by ‘‘respecting difference’’, as Hume had it - those judgments spurred our state to reform. And our society to evolve.

Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have written of a ‘‘narrow corridor’’ through which nations develop – with an effective, responsive state on one side, held accountable by an engaged civil society and independent judiciary on the other.

Ireland’s social, cultural, and economic progress these past decades has been down that corridor.

And, in our journey from isolation to integration, we’ve been steered by the standards set by the Council. And the judgements issued by the Court. By what our President,Michael D Higgins, once hailed as the ‘‘Conscience of Europe’’. 

Our path along the narrow corridor has not always been smooth.

And it’s demanded changes of our state – in institutions and in mind set.

But as George Bernard Shaw, another Irish laureate, observed, “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

At a point of profound change and challenge on the European continent, Ireland will bring that experience to bear later this month as we take the helm of the Committee of Ministers for a seventh time.

The Committee has many vital duties. But none is more vital than to ensure the effective implementation of the Court’s judgments.  

For a ruling refuted is, in effect, a rejection of the rule of law.

A violation of human rights.

A dismissal of the fundamental freedoms to which all signatories to the Statute have committed.

And for which the people of Ukraine are today fighting.

Why are these freedoms so precious? Why are the Court’s judgments so essential?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya knows why.

She and I have spoken many times now. And last year we had the privilege of welcoming her back to Roscrea, in Tipperary. Where, as a young woman, like many compatriots, she spent many happy summers.

Now, as you may know, ‘‘it’s a long, long way to Tipperary’’ , at least from Belarus.

But I promise you - there’s no distance at all between Sviatlana’s fierce commitment to freedom and our own.

For while Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, the democratic opposition she leads, and which so many brave Belarussians back, live the institution’s best principles.

For that reason, and others, alongside the expulsion of the Russian Federation, I welcomed the Council’s decision to suspend relations with the Lukashenko regime.

Looking forward, even as I do, to the day when the great doors of the Palais de l'Europe open once more to a free and democratic Belarus.

Mine venner, It was a privilege a little earlier to listen again to Sviatlana, Bjørn and President Yushchenko.

And it’s an honour now for me to share a stage with as expert a panel as you could possibly hope to assemble.

Cristos - and how well named you are, Cristos, for this city! - will introduce each of our panellists in turn.

But let me say a word, before I close, about the work of two of them - Thibaut Bruttin, of Reporters Sans Frontières, and William Horsley, of the Association of European Journalists.

In Kyiv, Kenon, and Kharkiv these past months, we’ve all witnessed war crimes.

Indiscriminate, unconscionable targeting of civilians. Probable use of cluster munitions. Barely veiled threats of nuclear action. 

Across our screens, in real time, we’ve watched terrified children huddle in makeshift bunkers. Bus shelters and market squares crumble under sustained shelling.

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

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 men and women, where his Russian counterpart inspires only fear.

And watching this, it’s been clear that, while the bombs rain down on Ukraine, in important ways, we’re all under attack.

That we could witness this outrage – and start, in some small way, to make sense of it – we owe, in large measure, to Europe’s journalists.

There can be no freedom without a free press.

But too often, for the bravest of us, that freedom comes at a steep price.

To record Ukraine’s resistance and document Russia’s tyranny, our journalists have risked their lives.  Many have lost them.

Amongst their number was photographer Pierre Zakrzewski (“Zak-shef-ski”).

Born in Paris, raised in Dublin, Pierre died in the village of Horenka, a little outside Kyiv, on 14 March, after Russian artillery rained down upon his press vehicle.

A fellow journalist, twenty-four year old Sasha Kuvshynova, died in the same brutal assault.

Pierre has been laid to rest in Ireland.

But his legacy – and that of Sasha, and all those William and Thibaut represent – is that knowledge of the crimes perpetrated in Ukraine will forever be with us.

We owe it to him – to all of them – not to let that knowledge fester into anger. Rather to turn it, as Pierre did in life, to purposeful action. 

Mine venner, I began by quoting one brilliant Derry man. Let me end reciting another.

In two celebrated verses from The Cure at Troy, the Irish Nobel laureate and poet Seamus Heaney, often cited by President Biden, wrote:

‘‘Human beings suffer

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured.

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave…

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhym

Now, like many here today, I’m a lawyer by training.

I know too well that law and politics are more prose than poetry.

That the pursuit of rights jars more than it rhymes.

That justice is less the work of one great wave, than of a thousand tributary streams.

But, as a human being, I know too that it is no less real, no less necessary, no less longed-for, for all that.   

And that for many suffering across this continent, the Court of Human Rights represents a last, best hope.

The Council, the Convention and the Court defend their rights.

So, it’s only right that we, as proud Europeans, should defend them.

That is the conviction I know my fellow panellists share.

And the conviction with which Ireland will assume this Presidency term.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

A thousand thanks.

Tusen takk!