Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Address by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney TD, Chair of the Committee of Ministers
21 June 2022
President Kox, Secretary General Buric, Parliamentarians, Friends,
Two weeks ago, your counterparts at the European Parliament unveiled a bust of a great Derry man who knew this city well.
John Hume served a quarter century as an MEP.
And a lifetime as an advocate for peace and human rights.
Accepting the Nobel Prize in 1998, he recalled his frequent walks across the bridge to Kehl.
A symbol, he marvelled, “so simple yet so profound and so applicable to conflict resolution anywhere in the world”.
In that same address, he observed that, ultimately, ‘‘all conflict is about difference’’.
But while some see difference as a threat, John - like the visionaries who bridged the Rhine - recognised it as ‘‘the essence of humanity’’.
And that ‘‘the answer to difference is to respect it.’’
John was seldom wrong. But in this, he was never more right.
Respecting difference - that is the key to the Council of Europe.
And the European Court of Human Rights which has always been its - and our - guiding compass.
Today, as war rages in Ukraine, 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.
Ireland’s compass is the multilateral system we’ve helped build.
Our first principles are democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Principles first codified on this continent by the Council of Europe.
And promoted and protected by it still.
Fifty years ago, last month, the Irish people voted to join what is now the European Union.
But a quarter century before we did so, we lived – and shaped – European values.
In London, in 1949, we were amongst the ten original signatories to the Statute that created the Council of Europe and the European Convention and Court of Human Rights.
It was on Ireland’s initiative that a commitment to ‘‘the pursuit of peace’’ was added to the Statute’s preamble.
And it’s that ‘‘pursuit of peace’’ - and accountability for its violation - which occupies our minds today.
Like President Kox, Secretary General Buric and others here, I’ve visited Kyiv and walked the blackened streets of Bucha.
Words cannot capture the inhumanity of what the Kremlin has done there.
What it continues to do in the Donbas.
As Commissioner Mijatović put it, the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are ‘‘staggering’’.
I commend this Assembly for how you responded to this depravity.
Your actions were swift.
Your collective conviction resolute.
Regrettable as it was, your recommendation to expel the Russian Federation was right.
Their disavowal of the Council’s values and commitments left no alternative.
In Ireland, we’ve long considered the Council as ‘‘the conscience of Europe.’’
Here, you acted as such.
We need now to show the same conviction, the same conscience, the same urgency in supporting Ukraine.
As Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, Ireland has no higher priority.
The revised Action Plan the Secretary General unveiled last month is an essential step.
It recognises, rightly, that the Council is neither a security nor a humanitarian organisation.
And focusses on your core expertise – promoting democratic security.
As Presidency, Ireland will support the Plan and help to fund its delivery.
Next month, in Dublin, we will also seek to fasttrack Ukraine’s admission to the Council’s Development Bank.
Building on the billions the Bank has provided in loans to aid refugees and displaced Ukrainians across the continent.
But more is needed.
I said it in Turin.
I said it in Dublin.
Let me say it now in Strasbourg.
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.
President Kox and parliamentarians across this Assembly were the first to lead these calls.
And in Turin, I was heartened to hear Minister after Minister echo their sentiments.
I know some harbour doubts still.
To them, I ask simply:
If not now, when?
If not us, who?
In our lifetimes, in the lifetime of this Council, never has our continent needed its conscience more.
We must rise to meet this moment.
I commend Secretary General Buric for doing just that.
Drawing on the work of this Assembly, the High-Level Group she has convened will reflect on what should constitute our summit’s substance.
In our former President Mary Robinson, the Group will benefit from the wisdom of a global champion of human rights, gender equality, and climate justice.
Addressing this Assembly in the wake of the Council’s first summit, three decades ago, she described Strasbourg by invoking Ireland’s mythical ‘‘fifth province” or ‘‘cúige’’.
This, she told your predecessors, 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 this year, Europe’s fifth province might be a fitting location.
And November, as we pass the Presidency to our Icelandic friends, could be a fitting time.
Other options exist, of course.
Whether in Strasbourg or Reykjavik, late this year or early next, under our Presidency or Iceland’s, it matters less to me where a summit is held or under whose auspices.
What matters is that we hold one, that we do so soon – and that we deliver real substance, framing the work of this body for years to come.
What might that substance be?
The High Level Group will provide its expert guidance.
But let me offer some thoughts.
I listened with intent to President Macron’s speech in Strasbourg last month.
In reflecting on the future of the EU, he called for the ‘‘reinvigoration’’ of our values.
And made a compelling case for “defending the integrity of our democratic processes… and the rule of law everywhere in our territory”.
He spoke, thoughtfully and with care, to the challenges of enlargement and the need for creativity in addressing them.
Reflecting on his comments, one thing seems clear to me - however the debate on the future of the EU develops, the Council of Europe must be at its heart.
The institutions share a flag and anthem.
A source of confusion, at times.
But one that highlights how closely they align. In values and in history.
The Council of Europe predates the EU, of course. 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 today.
Acknowledging this, our leaders should decide how we can better align the institutions’ work.
Both in supporting those, like Ukraine, on their path to EU membership.
And in engaging states who, in one way or another, are failing to uphold their commitments.
To this end, a fourth summit should see the successful conclusion of negotiatons concerning the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights, in line with the Lisbon Treaty.
In that same spirit, our instiutions and their members should 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 Minister Baerbock suggested in Turin, a summit should see heads of state and government build on that, reviewing and renewing the pillars of the Istanbul Convention.
Critically, it should also see us recommit to the Council’s first principles – above all the effective functioning of the European Court of Human Rights and execution of its judgments.
The Court is where the conscience of Europe truly lies.
Ireland was the first state to accept its jurisdiction.
And we’ve always abided by it. Through the decades, we’ve had our share of judgments.
Some were historic. Several were, at their time, contentious.
But all were respected.
This was not always easy. But it was always right.
Because a ruling ignored is a right infringed.
And if we’re selective in applying the rule of law, lawlessness will soon be the rule.
Protecting the Court and the Convention has a special meaning for Ireland.
In the wake of the Troubles, John Hume and others pushed to ensure the institutions formed a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement.
Serving to build and bolster public confidence in policing and political structures across Northern Ireland.
The unilateral actions the UK Government last week on the Northern Ireland Protocol have eroded trust and set back the progress of the past quarter century.
The draft legislation it has tabled separately on legacy of the Troubles is also deeply concerning.
A unilateral step itself, it breaks with the approach our Governments had previously agreed and, to our reading, contravenes the Convention.
The Committee of Ministers’ Deputies considered the issue a fortnight ago and will return to it in September.
I know that this Assembly will follow that work closely.
Just last week the Global Peace Index ranked Ireland as the world’s third most peaceful country – a source of pride and a measure of how good the Good Friday Agreement has been.
We dare not imperil it.
Our summit should seek to redouble the Council’s support for Ukraine.
Refocus relations with the EU, including through its accession to the Convention.
It should recommit our leaders to first principles, above all the rulings of our Court.
And renew our collective determination to tackle the worst human rights abuses across this continent.
Delivering such an agenda will require resources.
I’m 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, Ireland will play our part.
This morning, alongside the Secretary General, I announced voluntary contributions of €865,000 towards a range of key Presidency priorities, including the Action Plan for Ukraine, the Human Rights Trust Fund, the implementation of Court rulings and the Istannbul Convention.
We will help fill the gap in the Council’s budget this year.
And, as Chair of the Committee of Ministers, lead negotiations to do the same for 2023.
A summit should see leaders recommit to resourcing the institution over the longer term.
Beyond these, there are many other vitl subjects that warrant consideration at a summit.
But one seems to me particularly essential:
How should we engage with and support civil society and human rights defenders in Belarus and Russia, states of this continent, but outside this Council?
Alongside President Kox, Secretary General Buric and my Finnish counterpart, Pekka Haavisto, I had the honour of sharing a platform earlier with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
She and I have spoken, many times.
And last July we had the privilege of welcoming her back to Roscrea, in Tipperary. Where, as a young woman, as I mentioned, she, like many compatriots, spent several happy summers.
Now, as the song has it, ‘‘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, represent this institution’s best principles.
For that reason, and others, it is imperative that this body support her work.
And that we find ways to actively engage with those striving to promote our values in Minsk, Moscow and beyond.
I began these remarks quoting a great Derry man.
Let me end doing the same.
Like John Hume, Seamus Heaney knew Strasbourg well.
And lived the values it represents.
But where John promoted peace through politics and prose, Seamus did so through poetry.
One of his most celebrated works is entitled ‘‘From The Republic of Conscience’’.
Dedicated to Amnesty International, it ends with the refrain that the Embassies of that Republic: ‘‘were everywhere/ but operated independently / and no ambassador would ever be relieved.’’
As all here know, Svetlana’s husband, Sergei, is a prisoner of conscience.
An ambassador for the rights we all cherish.
I hope he will be relieved before too long.
But I know the sacrifice he is making for his people.
Today, in his honour, and in Seamus’s memory, I present a print of that special verse to President Kox and to this Assembly.
Framed in the oak that is Derry’s symbol.
From our Republic.
To your Council - the Conscience of Europe.
Thank you President. Thank you all.