Minister of State Byrne’s Address to PACE

12 October 2022

A Uachtaráin, Monsieur le Président,

A Chomhaltaí den Tionól Parlaiminteach, Members of the Parliamentary Assembly,

A Chairde, Friends,

Three weeks ago, the Russian Federation ceased to be a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Three years ago, a young Russian man reminded us why those rights matter so very much.

In August 2019, Russian authorities arrested 21-year old blogger Yegor Zhukov.

His alleged crime?

To have ‘‘incited extremism against the state’’ by reporting on rallies across Russia that summer, protesting blatant electoral fraud.

Facing sentencing, the judge afforded Mr Zhukov a last chance to address the court.

The young man rose.

And with measured passion, showed what Vaclav Havel - whom you have honoured here in Strasbourg this week - meant when he wrote of ‘‘the power of the powerless’’

Permit me to quote a section of Mr Zhukov’s remarks: 

‘‘Common action’’, he observed ‘‘… is a rarity in a country where few people feel responsible. And where common action does occur, the guardians of the state immediately see it as a threat. It doesn’t matter what you do—whether you are helping prison inmates, speaking up for human rights, fighting for the environment—sooner or later you’ll either be branded a ‘foreign agent’ or just locked up. The state’s message is clear: ‘Go back to your burrow and don’t take part in common action’…. Where can trust come from in a country like this—and where can love grow?’’

Mr Zhukov’s testimony captures eloquently what rights really are.

What civil society, media freedom, judicial independence – too often abstract terms – mean concretely.

And why your mission in this Assembly – to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law across our continent – matters so profoundly.   

It’s a mission the Committee of Ministers shares.

Ireland assumed the Presidency five months ago, at a point of profound crisis for our continent and challenge for this Council. 

Grave moments, we believe, must be matched by great ambition.

And our aspirations have reflected that.

As Presidency, we set out to renew what we consider ‘‘the conscience of Europe’’. 

Refocusing the Council’s efforts, in the wake of Russia’s expulsion, on the institution’s core values.

And ensuring the most effective possible support for Ukraine and its people.

In voting, unanimously, last March to recommend Russia’s expulsion from the Council, this Assembly responded resolutely to this unjustified and unjustifiable invasion. 

You acted as ‘‘the conscience of Europe’’ should.

Our task since has been to show the same conviction, the same conscience, the same urgency in supporting Ukraine.

And in holding Russia to account.

Internationally, Ireland has been to the forefront of these efforts.

In New York, as an elected member of the UN Security Council, we have consistently condemned Russian aggression, denouncing the invasion as illegal, unjustified, and unprovoked.

In Geneva, we pressed the Human Rights Council to appoint an independent international commission of inquiry into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

In The Hague, we joined 38 other States in referring the invasion to the International Criminal Court, enabling Prosecutor Khan to advance his critical investigations.

And here in Strasbourg, through our Presidency, we’ve worked with President Kox, Secretary General Buric and others to ensure the Council’s expertise is channelled as effectively as possible towards supporting Ukraine.

In that context, we’ve backed the agreement of the Council’s new adjusted Ukraine Action Plan.

In July, we helped to fast-track Ukraine’s accession to the Council of Europe’s Development Bank, establishing a new Donor Fund there to aid those displaced by the war, and enabling the Bank to play a key role in rebuilding Ukraine’s shattered social infrastructure.

And last month, for the first time in our history, we joined more than twenty other member states in intervening as a third party before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Ukraine v Russian Federation.

While ahead of High Level Week at the UN, our Presidency led the Committee of Ministers in reaffirming the urgent need for an unequivocal international legal response to the crime of aggression against Ukraine.

Clearly, we must hold authorities in Moscow and Minsk to account.

But it’s vital also to strengthen support to those in both countries who, like young Yegor Zhukov, seek to defend human rights and promote democracy.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a friend of Ireland from her teenage years, addressed this Assembly in June.

At our Presidency’s invitation, she returned to Strasbourg in July to speak to the Committee of Ministers.  There, she called for “more Council of Europe in Belarus, and more Belarus in the Council of Europe.”

Last month, the Committee of Ministers agreed to deliver just that.

Committing to holding regular exchanges with Ms Tsikhanouskaya and inviting Secretary General Buric to establish a “Contact group” to engage with representatives of Belarusian democratic forces and civil society.

I commend this initiative.

And I hope that, before long, we can take similar steps in support of Russian activists.

Much has been done, then.

But, let us be in no doubt - more, much more, is needed.

And within this Council, more is possible.

It is to that end that, since assuming the Presidency, Ireland has called for the Heads of Government of the Council’s 46 member states to convene for just the fourth time in its history.

To reaffirm our shared conviction in the rule of law.

To recommit to the human rights enshrined in our Convention.

To answer autocracy by doubling down on democracy. 

A Summit will not be held in our Presidency term.

But I add my voice today to those urging it to be agreed as soon as possible.

And convened under the incoming Icelandic Presidency.

I ask all of you across this chamber to join me in that – and to call on your Governments to do the same.  

Let Reykjavik be the place to reaffirm Europeans’ rights and renew our democracies.

And let this be the time.

Because if not now, when?

And if not us, who?

As to what the substance of a summit should be, the High Level Reflection Group convened by Secretary General Buric and chaired by Ireland’s former President, Mary Robinson, has devoted the past four months to considering that very subject.

Distilling submissions from this Assembly, the Court and many others, the group presented its final report to the Committee of Minsters just last week.

I commend their efforts.

And I would urge all here today - and across our continent’s capitals - to reflect  on the wise and balanced recommendations they have put forward to adapt this Council to today’s realities.

I know that this Assembly, too, has convened an ad-hoc committee to reflect on the case for a renewed and reinforced Council of Europe.

I’m gratified that another brilliant Irishwoman, my friend, Senator Fiona O’Loughlin, head of our national delegation to PACE, is serving as rapporteur to this committee.

And I know that she will soon present what is sure to be a similarly impressive report.

Read together, these two reports will present a blueprint for institutional renewal.

They may be ambitious.

But this is a time for ambition.

A Chairde, Friends,

At the heart of the High Level Reflection Group’s report, and at the core of Ireland’s Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, is a recommitment to this institution’s ‘Founding Freedoms’.

Above all else, this means refocussing on human rights protection for civilians across Europe, not least through the work of the European Court of Human Rights.

Yesterday, I had the honour of joining President Higgins as he called on the Court to meet President Spano and Judge Síofra O’Leary, who will next month take office as the Court’s President.

She will be the first Irish citizen to do so.

And, more significantly still, the first woman.

Her appointment is a great credit to her expertise and a reflection of her standing here in Strasbourg.

It’s also a source of great pride to all in Ireland.

Because we understand well the importance of the Court.

As the brave organisers of Europride in Belgrade affirmed to the world last month, LGBTI rights are Human Rights.

Last week, Slovenia made history as the first eastern European state to establish marriage equality – and let me commend them today for it. 

In 2015, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly for the same right.

But the path to that remarkable referendum result was laid in the courtrooms of Strasbourg in 1988.

When Senator David Norris, a champion of civil rights, won a case against the Irish state that decriminalised homosexual acts.  

It was a testament to the Senator’s own bravery.

But also to the vital importance of the Court in protecting individual rights.

And the wisdom – for any who doubt it – of states implementing the Court’s judgments, however challenging they might seem.

Because a Court ruling ignored is not only a human right infringed.

It is societal progress delayed.    

Inspired by Senator Norris’s example, and by the change our society has since enjoyed, Ireland has made protecting LGBTI rights a priority of our Presidency.

In June, we invited leading LGBTI+ activists to address the Committee of Ministers for the first time.

And later this month, in Dublin, we’ll host a European roundtable on combatting LGBTI hate crime across Europe.

Above all, we’ve set out to counter the false pretext some states advance that, by denying individual rights, they’re defending traditional values.

That by promoting fear, they’re protecting families.

The truth is very much the opposite.

No value is more traditional than welcome.

And what does family entail if not love?

That is what the people of Ireland voted for in 2015.

What Slovenia embraced last week.

And what this Council represents.       

Along similar lines, our Presidency has focussed on what the High Level Reflection Group rightly identify as one of the most egregious and persistent violations of human rights on this continent – the scourge of domestic, sexual and gender based violence.

Two weeks ago, in Dublin, our Justice Minister Helen McEntee led 38 states in signing up to a Declaration recommitting to the Istanbul Convention and bolstering our collective efforts to strengthen legal standards in the area of gender equality and violence against women.

As the conference title stressed, there can be ‘‘no safe haven’’ for those perpetrating violence against women. Or justifying it under false pretexts.

Freedom of expression is integral to documenting such abuses – whether by individuals or states.

Without a free press, there can be no freedom.

But too often, the price is steep.

To record Ukraine’s resistance and document Russia’s tyranny these past months, Europe’s journalists have risked their lives.

Many have lost them.

Amongst their number was photographer Pierre Zakrzewski (ZAK-SHREV-SKI).

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

Pierre has been laid to rest in Ireland.

But his legacy is that knowledge of the crimes perpetrated in Ukraine will forever be with us.

We owe it to him – to all those journalists risking their lives today in Ukraine and elsewhere – not to let that knowledge fester into anger.

But turn it, as Pierre did, to purposeful action.

It was with this in mind that two weeks ago Ireland convened a special meeting of the Committee of Ministers on media freedom and safety of journalists.

And that last month I joined President Kox, Secretary General Buric and others in addressing a Presidency conference, arranged with the Venice Commission, on New Challenges to the Freedom of Association.

A Chairde, Friends,

In protecting these and other fundamental freedoms, the European Convention on Human Rights is our North Star.

And the Court our compass.   

The implementation of the Court’s judgments is not simply a legal requirement.

It’s a moral imperative.

That’s why the Committee of Ministers treats so seriously – as you do here in PACE - Türkiye’s continuing failure, as a Party to the Convention, to implement the judgment of the Court and release Mr Osman Kavala.

I raised the case with Deputy Foreign Minister Kaymakc in August, pressing for Mr Kavala’s release.

My colleague, Minister Coveney, did the same when he met Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu in New York two weeks ago.

The Committee of Ministers continues to monitor the case very closely.

And, following the Presidency’s exchanges with the Turkish government, last week decided to appoint a contact group, comprising Permanent Representatives, to visit Ankara to impress upon Turkish authorities how vital it is to comply with the Court’s ruling.

More generally, as the High Level Reflection Group has urged, we must do more to ensure the freedoms the Convention enshrines are fully afforded to all our citizens.

It’s for that reason that Ireland supports, so strongly, the group’s call for the European Union’s accession to the Convention to be completed as soon as possible.

And it’s to that end that, in September, our Presidency supported two important conferences at the University of Galway, along our western shores.

The first, titled ‘Lighting the Shade’, focussed on how, collectively, we can better protect human rights in areas of conflict and contestation across the continent.

The second, titled ‘Irish Travellers / Mincéirs and the State’, reflected on the distance we in Ireland still have to travel in protecting our Traveller community and enabling their full participation in Irish society.

In safeguarding rights, we recognise that we’ve more to do at home. As across this wide continent.

As the High Level Reflection Group records, we’ve more to do also – much more - in countering democratic decline.  

The risks are all too real.

The playbook too familiar.  

Across this continent, we’ve seen how readily power can be consolidated.

How a free media can be discredited.

Judicial independence eroded.

And civil society curtailed. 

We know the disastrous results.

These days, we’re witnessing them far too often. 

Democracy is a most precious metal.

But left unpolished, it tarnishes easily.

And, over time, corrodes.

As parliamentarians, we must renew our efforts to restore its lustre.

Building a strong culture of democracy is key to defending it. 

Working with Secretariat, across a series of conferences and seminars, Ireland’s Presidency has pressed to promote participatory democracy; to strengthen youth engagement in the democratic process; and above all to reinforce the value of civic education across our schools and universities.

The final events of our Presidency term, like the first, will focus on democratic engagement.

On 3 November, we host a Congress on Global Education in Dublin, where states will agree a new European Declaration, committing to investment in Education for Sustainable Development, Global Citizenship and Human Rights.

Four days later, Minister Coveney will join the Prime Minster of Iceland here in Strasbourg to deliver a keynote address to the World Forum for Democracy, where we will profile Ireland’s positive experience of Citizens’ Assemblies.

But we must do more. 

For as John F Kennedy observed, democracy is ‘‘never a final achievement… it is a call to untiring effort.’’

And if we’re to reverse democratic decline, our efforts must be untiring.

Last week, our Taoiseach joined the leaders of all but two of the 46 states that comprise this Council in Prague to discuss energy, environment, economic and security policy in the framework of a new European Policy Community.

That initiative was welcome. And those discussions necessary.

But let us be clear.

Without democratic security, there is no real security.

Without rule of law, there is no lasting economic progress.

Without human rights, there can be no environmental renewal.

In these critical areas, a European Political Community was not established in Prague last Thursday.

It has existed since 1949.

And it is here, in this very chamber!

But we must use it.

A Chairde, Friends,

The tasks of the Committee of Ministers are many and I cannot speak to all of them this morning.

But I must reference one more issue to which we, as Chair, are devoting much time and care.

Shortly before we assumed the Presidency in May, Kosovo applied for membership of the Council.

As chair, we have sought to be balanced and impartial in affording the Committee of Ministers time and space to review the application.

Over the summer, we requested and received detailed guidance from the Secretariat on legal questions around the application. 

On 14 September, we held a valuable exchange of views with Miroslav Lajčák, EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue.

And later this month, we will hear Commissioner Mijatović’s report on her recent visit to Kosovo.

We’ve engaged extensively with members of the Committee of Ministers, and will continue to, recognising the importance of the issue for all involved. 

A chairde,

When Judge O’Leary assumes the Presidency of the Court next month, she will join Secretary General Buric and Commissioner Mijatović in leading this Council.

How much stronger this institution is for having such brilliant and inspiring women across three of its key offices.   

On 8 September, the world lost another inspiring female leader.

In Ireland, we have a tradition of the month’s mind – where we gather, a month after a person’s passing, to remember them together.

So let me end this morning by remembering Queen Elizabeth and her historic State visit to Ireland in 2011.

In Dublin Castle, where our state secured its independence from Britain a century ago, the Queen addressed guests as I have addressed you all today, in Irish – ‘A Chairde’, ‘Dear Friends’.

She spoke, with profound honesty and eloquence, of the relationship between our islands.

Observing that her visit reminded us, and I quote - of the ‘‘complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation, of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it.’’

As all here know, and as the Queen remarked in Dublin that day, the Good Friday Agreement, brokered by the British and Irish Governments, and underpinned by the European Convention on Human Rights, saw a ‘‘knot of history… painstakingly loosened’’ on our island.

It is a legacy, I know, that the Parliamentarians of this Assembly are determined to protect.

And I am grateful for your efforts.

But the Queen’s remarks that evening in Dublin Castle are a reminder also of the possibility of reconciliation, even in darkest times.

And of what her Majesty described as ‘‘The lessons from the peace process… [that] whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be all the stronger for working together and sharing the load.’’

The load this Council bears - protecting democracy, human rights and rule of law across this wide continent – is indeed a heavy one.

But it can be lightened through collective efforts.

In the months ahead - as we work to pursue peace, ensure accountability and reaffirm Europe’s conscience - let PACE, let the Committee of Ministers, let the Court, let the Congress, let all this Council’s many institutions and brilliant minds work together - alongside the EU, UN, and other partners - to share the load.  

To loosen the knots of history.

To light the path ahead. 

Recognising that, in so doing, together, we can restore trust.   

We can renew democracy.

We can rebuild societies within which, as Yegor Zhukov had it, common action can flourish.

And love grow.

Go raibh maith agaibh.

Thank you.