Venice Commission, OSCE ODIHR & Presidency
International Round Table: ‘‘Civil Society: Empowerment & Accountability’’
Remarks by Minister Thomas Byrne
A Chairde, Friends,
Greetings from Dublin.
I wish I could be with you all in Strasbourg this morning.
But, if only online, I’m honoured to join such a distinguished group in opening such an essential conference.
And, on behalf of Ireland’s Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, I want to say go raibh míle maith agaibh – a thousand thanks – to our great friends at the Venice Commission and OSCE for partnering with us to arrange it.
And to all of you for attending.
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 a measured passion, showed what Vaclav Havel meant when he wrote of ‘‘the power of the powerless’’.
Permit me to quote, at length, from one 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?’’
I can find no better, purer way of expressing what ‘‘freedom of association’’ means than this brave young man’s testimony.
To associate, to convene, to come together for a common purpose is inherently - if not uniquely - human.
It’s amongst the most fundamental of our freedoms.
Taken alone - without freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and belief - freedom of association may mean little.
With them, it can mean everything.
Understanding that is what makes today’s conference so vital.
It’s why we must do more to empower civil society across this continent.
Why we must ensure our states see - and acknowledge - that common action is not the work of foreign agents, but the mark of engaged citizens.
And why we must be careful that accountability requirements are not used as an excuse to restrict collective action.
Nor security concerns as a pretext to suppress peaceful protest.
Ireland assumed the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers in May, at a point of profound crisis for our continent and challenge for this Council.
Grave moments, we believe, must be matched with great ambition.
And our aspirations reflect that.
As Presidency, we’ve set out to renew what we consider ‘‘the conscience of Europe’’.
Calling on the organisation’s forty-six heads of state and Government to convene for a fourth Summit.
And helping to launch strategic reviews by two high-level groups, chaired by two brilliant Irish women - our former President, Mary Robinson, and, at the Parliamentary Assembly, Senator Fiona O’Loughlin.
Their work, together, will chart the Council’s future.
Complementing it, in the here and now, our Presidency has pursued three more immediate objectives.
First, as a founding state, we’ve set out to reaffirm our ‘‘Founding Freedoms’’, protecting human rights across the continent, above all in areas of conflict.
Second, as we mark the centenary of our own independence, we’ve committed to countering illiberalism by doubling down on democracy - promoting participation, above all by youth, in our democratic processes.
Finally, under the rubric of ‘‘Fáilte’’ – the Irish for welcome – we’ve sought to draw on the change our society has enjoyed in recent years to foster a Europe which is more inclusive and welcoming for all.
Civil society is integral to all three priorities.
Hence engaging it is at the heart of our Presidency term.
Since 2013, our diplomats in Geneva have led negotiations on resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council to create and protect an enabling environment for civil society.
For two years, our diplomats in New York have worked tirelessly to ensure that whenever the UN Security Council gathers, civil society speaks.
Now, in Strasbourg, we’re doing the same at the Committee of Ministers.
In diplomacy, there are times when dialogue and decisions must happen behind closed doors.
But as a rule, policy works best when informed by open dialogue.
And challenged by diverse perspectives.
So, in June, we invited leading LGBTI+ activists to address the Committee of Ministers for the first time.
In July, we initiated more systematic and substantive exchanges with Belarusian civil society.
And, later this month, media representatives and journalists will join us to outline the growing threats to press freedom and what we can do to stop them.
These are important steps.
But we’ve much to do still if civil society is to be where it should – at the core of the Council.
With the incoming Icelandic Presidency, we hope to drive further reform in the months ahead.
But as well as stepping up in Strasbourg, we recognise our states need to do more at home.
Here, our diversity should be a strength.
Providing a natural platform for individual experimentation and shared learning.
The Conference of INGOs, for example, has praised Ireland’s use of Citizens’ Assemblies to promote participatory democracy and empower civil society.
This is one innovation, amongst many. And we should not overstate its impact or applicability.
But we should learn from it and other initiatives that have been trialled elsewhere.
Recognising that, if we’re to renew trust in our democracies, we must use all the tools at our disposal.
If democracies learn from one another, so too, of course, do aspiring autocracies.
The playbook is all too well worn.
We know what the consolidation of power looks like.
How readily a free media can be discredited and then supplanted.
How judicial independence can be eroded.
And civil society curtailed.
We know the result.
We have witnessed it far too often.
Democracy is a most precious metal.
But it tarnishes easily.
And, over time, corrodes.
Collapsing into autocracy like a bankrupt - gradually, then suddenly.
The Venice Commission and ODIHR exist, in part, to warn us of such risks.
They are expert and deliberate watchdogs.
And when they caution us, we should listen.
The risks of external interference in a state’s internal affairs today may be real.
But the first principle of regulation is that any regulatory responses must be proportionate.
We do not crack nuts with hammers.
Ostracizing foreign-funded NGOs will not safeguard our security.
But it will damage our democracy.
This week, the Russian Federation leaves the jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Its authorities cannot - will not - escape accountability for their crimes in Ukraine.
But from Thursday, the freedoms the Convention guarantees, the protections it affords, will no longer be assured to Yegor Zhukov and his fellow citizens.
That is their tragedy.
At the Council of Europe and the OSCE, it’s our duty to ensure that it does not become others’ tragedy also.
In so doing, let us take inspiration from the courage of Mr Zhukov.
Just as we do from President Zelensky.
Recognising that, great as the task we face may be, by coming together, through common action, we can restore trust.
We can renew democracy.
We can rebuild communities within which, as the young man had it, love may grow.
Go raibh maith agaibh.