Lighting the Shade: Effective Application of ECHR in Areas of Conflict in Europe

Pre-Recorded Address by Minister for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne TD

University of Galway

1 September 2022

A Chairde, Friends,

Allow me to extend to you a virtual céad míle fáilte – one hundred thousand welcomes – to Galway.

I wish I could be there in person with you.

As I know does Minister Coveney.

But while other Government demands preclude our presence, I’m pleased to join my friend, Deputy Secretary General Bjørn Berge (Be-yorn Ber-yeh), in opening today’s discussions.

And to thank all who are contributing to them.      

It’s fitting that a conference on the Council of Europe should convene in Galway.

For this, in many respects, is the most European of Irish cities.

A European Capital of Culture, it was Ireland’s medieval gateway to maritime Europe.

And, along Europe’s western edge, no forum is better placed to host such a conference than the Irish Centre for Human Rights.

For almost a quarter century, it has been amongst the preeminent academic houses for human rights research on this continent.

And, under the stewardship of Professor Siobhan Mullally, its work has never been more vital.

Like Galway, the European Convention on Human Rights holds a special place in Ireland’s European story.

In 1949, Ireland was a founding member of the Council of Europe.

And, a year later, one of the original signatories to the Convention.

The very first decision made by the European Court of Human Rights concerned an application against Ireland.

We were the first state to accept the Court’s jurisdiction as binding.

And in the decades since, we’ve seen its rulings serve as a catalyst for positive social change within our country.

Today, as Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, Ireland is a proud custodian of all the Court and Convention stand for.

Supporting their effective functioning across Europe is one of the priorities of our six-month term – and one of the reasons we so welcome this conference.

Our President, Michael D. Higgins, an Adjunct Professor of this Centre, has described the Council as the conscience of Europe.

It’s in times of conflict, perhaps, that our conscience can be most sorely tested - and badly needed.

Ireland’s experience attests to this.

Through the Troubles, our island has known what it is to suffer protracted conflict.

And, in the Good Friday Agreement, adopted not long before this Centre was founded, we’ve known also the privilege of a hard-won peace.

The European Convention on Human Rights was no small part of this.

Its full incorporation into Northern Ireland law was - and remains - integral to the Good Friday Agreement.

It has helped to build and maintain confidence in Northern Ireland’s political, policing, and judicial structures.

Protecting the human rights of all communities.

The Agreement, of course, was the result of long negotiation and difficult compromise.

As Senator George Mitchell recalled, Good Friday was one day of success following seven hundred days of failure.

Alongside remarkable patience, the Agreement demanded profound political courage from parties to the negotiations.

Two men, lately lost to us, epitomised those qualities.

I’ve spoken often of the great John Hume, who frequented Strasbourg as a Member of the European Parliament. And who championed the role of the Convention in the Agreement.

But it’s his fellow Nobel Laureate, David Trimble, who passed just over a month ago, that I wish to recall today.

Delivering his Nobel lecture alongside Hume, Trimble observed that:

“The dark shadow we seem to see in the distance is not really a mountain ahead, but the shadow of the mountain behind – a shadow from the past thrown forward into our future.”

The goal of today’s conference, as Dr Andrew Forde has framed it, is to reflect on how we might “light the shade”.

How we can ensure the full protections the Convention affords are shared across this continent, above all in areas of conflict.

In this task, we could do well to recall Trimble’s words.

Recognising that we must engage honestly with our history.

But that we cannot allow our futures to be prisoners of our pasts.  

A chairde,

It was on Ireland’s initiative in 1949 that the Council of Europe committed itself to ‘‘the pursuit of peace’’.

And it’s that ‘‘pursuit of peace’’ - and accountability for its violation - that occupies our minds most today.

The Russian Federation’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine six months ago has underscored just how vital the Council’s standards are.

And just how much protection they need.  

The violations of human rights and international humanitarian law perpetrated by Russian forces are, as Commissioner Mijatović [Mee-yat-o-vich] noted, ‘‘staggering’’.

How we respond to these outrages is a test to the credibility of the Council of Europe.

The result will resonate far beyond Ukraine. And far beyond this time.

Determining how the Convention – and the rights it enshrines – are viewed and applied across other conflicts for years to come.

Since February, Ireland has welcomed over 50,000 Ukrainians to our shores.

As Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, our highest priority has been to address their nation’s plight.  

To that end, we’ve strongly backed Secretary General Buric’s revised Action Plan for Ukraine, and invested significantly in it.  

We’ve fast tracked Ukraine’s admission to the Council’s Development Bank, establishing a new donor fund to aid those displaced by the war.

And we’re striving in Strasbourg - as in New York, Geneva, and the Hague - to ensure accountability for the crimes perpetrated on Ukrainian soil.

In all of this, our first and most essential goal has been to aid a fellow Council of Europe member and her people.

But we are investing also in the future of the Council system.

And in the values it underpins across our continent.

Today’s conference is part of that investment.

Building on reflections on Interstate Cases organised under last year’s German Presidency, it addresses a key challenge facing the Council:

How to leverage the full range of the institution’s tools to reinforce the Convention where it is currently most curtailed.

This is a challenge of first principles – the protections the Council system provides should be available to all Europeans.

We all recognise the political sensitives at play.  

But, by design, I know, this conference is not a platform to pronounce on status.

Rather, it’s an occasion to consider standards and systems – and how we can maximise their effectiveness.  

While supported by our Presidency, today’s conference has been independently organised by the Centre – above all by Dr Andrew Forde.  

It is innovative in focus and design.

And, as the High Level Group our former President Mary Robinson chairs reflects on the Council’s future, it is very timely.

Importantly, it is also inclusive.

Drawing on expertise from across Europe.

And the breadth of the Council’s core institutions.

In this approach, it reflects the wisdom of one of the seanfhocails - or proverbs - for which Galway is renowned:

‘‘Ní neart go chur le chéile.’’We are stronger together.  

Let me end on that sentiment.

Wishing you stimulating and successful discussions today.

Hoping that, through your efforts, even as summer ends and the days begin to darken, we might find new ways of casting light across this continent.

Go raibh maith agaibh.