Speech by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Mr. Rik Daems at the opening of the Conference of Presidents of Parliament of the Council of Europe member-states
Rik Daems, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
European Conference of Presidents of Parliaments
Athens, 21-22 October 2021
Speakers of Parliaments
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Opening & COVID 19
- My first words of thanks go to the President of the Hellenic Parliament for welcoming us to Athens – the birthplace of democracy. And for hosting our conference during which we will discuss how to protect and strengthen democracy - I could not think of a better place to do so. Σας ευχαριστώ (thank you in Greek)
- I would also like to thank each and every one of you for being here today – I know it is not easy to take time away from your busy agendas back home and travel under, the still in place, COVID-19 restrictions. Your presence here, shows that you attach a great deal of importance to parliamentary democracy, parliamentary diplomacy and parliamentary exchange. Thank you!
- We live through very challenging times. One crisis followed by another. The most recent the COVID-19 pandemic. The toll it has taken on human lives and our societies are devastating. And the impact will be felt for years to come.
- But in the adversity of this unprecedented crisis, we have also witnessed a formidable display of the power of human resilience. Including at parliamentary level.
- We rose up to challenges and delivered on the duties and responsibilities our citizens have both, assigned to and trusted us with. The most important one: ensure that the sanitary crisis does not turn into a democracy crisis.
- With very strict safety measures in place, parliaments at national and European level continued to represent citizens, adopt laws and oversee all actions of the executive.
- Parliamentary scrutiny of all measures, policies and laws adopted during the crisis has been indispensable to ensure that our fundamental human rights do not become collateral damage of emergency and restrictive measures.
- Or in other words, to ensure that the ‘red lines’ were, and are not crossed. That measures which affect our fundamental rights and freedoms are lawful, necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory and in line with the European Convention of Human Rights.
Environment and Human Rights
- I am very proud of the work that our Assembly and my fellow parliamentarians have been doing not only to safeguard the system of fundamental human rights but to further strengthen it. Despite the crisis, we have actively pursued our work around the new generation of human rights, notably Artificial Intelligence and Environment and Human Rights.
- On Artificial Intelligence, work is progressing well at intergovernmental level with the on-going feasibility study which we fully support. We also hope it will duly consider Assembly’s call on the Committee of Ministers to elaborate a “legally binding instrument governing artificial intelligence”.
- On Environment and Human Rights, from the very start of my mandate as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January 2020, I have been advocating that the right to live in a healthy, clean, sustainable and safe environment is one the most important of this generation of rights. And I believe that it should be part of the universal corpus of fundamental human rights.
- Therefore, I was very happy when during the autumn part-session, the Assembly adopted unanimously a series of texts which demand a paradigm shift in international and national law and government policies, to ensure that a healthy environment is recognised as a basic human right.
- One key demand of the Assembly is that a new right to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” be added as a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter. Which fully concurs with what I have been advocating throughout my Presidency despite hesitancy or at times outright opposition to the idea of a legal instrument.
- Why? Because I strongly believe that the momentum is building up for real change in how we approach the issue of environment and human rights. A healthy environment is essential for all of us – but it must become a legally-enforceable right if we are to make the huge changes our planet needs in the years ahead.
- It is now up to the Committee of Ministers to follow up on the recommendations of the Assembly and I am confident they will find a way forward to make progress.
- I also look forward to the Conference discussions on this issue, ideas on how to carry this forward. And I hope we can count on national parliaments to show political leadership at national level and both encourage and support governments to act.
The future of Europe & Route 47
- The risks we face, are not only those related to the pandemic. Or climate change. Democratic backsliding is another very real risk! And one that comes at an extremely heavy price for the rights and freedoms we enjoy. Lack of trust towards democratic institutions, apathy towards political debates and processes and the overall functioning of public institutions combined with the pervasiveness of fake news and conspiracy theories and the frightening speed at which they spread and take root in public opinion, and at times failure by governments to ensure full transparency of their actions and respond to citizen’s needs, feed into growing disenchantment and the belief of the people that their voices are not heard. That they do not matter.
- Which brings me to an important reflection we should all engage with and try to find the answers to the questions of how do we keep and increase peoples’ trust in their democratic institutions? In the parliaments they have elected to make sure their voices are heard and their governments are held accountable?
- Our shared belief in the Assembly is that we can do this not only by paying attention to their concerns, but also by offering workable solutions to the issues that really matter to them. Which affect their daily life. Be it in national parliaments or at the level of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
- Our success with the Route-47, which is all about identifying issues of concern, sharing expertise, good practice and solutions at parliamentary level, are an example of how to better link the work at national and international parliamentary level. Bring national concerns at international fora and offer solutions based on equally agreed standards.
- These standards are not only based on fundamental human rights and shared values. They also build on the best policies and laws at national level.
- Whether it is expertise about the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, upholding human rights in times of crises, constitutional expertise by the Venice Commission or experts of the Social Charter, parliamentary know-how from among the member States or the views of the Commissioner for Human Rights or case-law by the European Court of Human Rights – such events have been both welcome and proved to be very useful for national parliaments.
- We should further develop and strengthen such work if we want to remain relevant to our citizens. And our Assembly is the place to do this. Why? Because it is the true parliamentary representative of European citizens – it is the Parliamentary Assembly of Europe. Not the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Union only.
- Because our members are elected members of national parliaments, thus truly representing European citizens at European level. This dual responsibility allows them to bring national concerns to the attention of all Europe and benefit from the standards and experience of all of the 47 European member States. Standards we have drafted and agreed together. On equal footing. No matter how big or small a country. Rich or not. Old or new democracy.
- Why the Assembly? Because let us not have any illusions: we cannot solve global problems by isolating ourselves to national borders – take COVID-19 - the virus knows no frontiers. Or migration and refugee crisis – be them triggered by war, terrorism, economic reasons. Or climate change and its devastating consequences including on migratory trends.
- By ensuring a flow of issues and commonly agreed solutions from national parliaments to the PACE gathering and back to national parliaments we show that we are in this all together and only by standing united in solidarity will we be able to raise to the immense challenges we are facing.
Fellow parliamentarians, ladies and gentlemen,
- As we discuss the pressing issues and growing challenges which we face to keep democracy, democratic processes and institutions strong, we are going to ask several questions about what parliaments and parliamentarians can do. I look forward to our discussions, your voices - the voices of European citizens, the lived experiences, the ideas and solutions we can offer to make sure we deserve the trust of our citizens. And keep democracy strong. Let’s get to work!