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Speech by Minister Soini at the CoE Parliamentary Assembly Standing Committee meeting

Speech by Mr Timo Soini, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Standing Committee meeting, Helsinki 23 November 2018

Madam President (of the Parliamentary Assembly),
Distinguished Members of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish you warmly welcome to Helsinki! I am honored to address you in my role as chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. Finland assumed the presidency only two days ago in Strasbourg. It gives me great pleasure to have this opportunity to present our programme and priorities to you, distinguished Members of the Parliamentary Assembly, immediately after the start of our work. I am very much looking forward to our dialogue and close cooperation in this Standing Committee meeting as well as throughout the whole six months ahead of us. During the hand-over ceremony two days ago, I spoke about the importance that Finland gives to the Council of Europe. We stress the core mandate of the organization.  The Council protects human rights, the Rule of Law and democracy of about 830 million people in the member States. It is a truly remarkable task, which requires the support of all of us.

Only member States of the Council of Europe can be Contracting Parties to the European Convention on Human Rights and hence under the jurisprudence of the Court. The ratification of the Convention is a prerequisite for the membership of the Organisation. These two are interlinked. The right to individual application is a key component of the protection system. Access to justice is not just a right in itself - it also empowers individuals to enforce other rights. The system of the European Convention on Human Rights is something to be proud of in all member States. It is something we must respect, preserve and defend.

The Council of Europe has defined a broad range of standards, both legally binding instruments and political commitments. Many of the treaties are open also to non-members of the Council of Europe. It has also established mechanisms to promote and protect these rights and to assist member States in carrying out their responsibilities. These include for example mechanisms to the prevention of torture, protection of national minorities, prohibition of violence against women and many, many other instruments.

The Council of Europe is an important forum for rules-based multilateral cooperation. I truly believe that Europe is a better place when our countries are committed to the multilateral rules-based system.  Structures that provide fora for dialogue, and legally binding instruments that keep countries accountable, are still as necessary for peace and stability today, as they were when the Council of Europe was established after the horrors of the Second World War.

Madam President,

Our common organization – the Council of Europe – faces many challenges. These include political, economic and institutional questions. For the coming 6 months and beyond, I foresee three central political issues where efforts of all of us in the Committee of Ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly, are required. 

Firstly, the current question of non-payment of membership fees by one member State, as well as participation rights in the Parliamentary Assembly, continue to be issues that challenge the organization.

As chair of the Committee of Ministers, Finland will do its best to facilitate discussions and initiatives that can lead to solving the problem of non-payment. On these fees, the rule is clear – member States have to implement all their membership obligations, including payment of membership fees.

Obviously, a solution demands close cooperation by everyone, all stakeholders need to come together, for the best of our citizens and our organization.  Honest cooperation is needed between member States as well as between the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly.  We need clarity and we need solutions. And I must say this: if nothing is done, nothing will be solved.

Secondly, the reform process of the Council of Europe is conducted during the coming spring. One of the issues will be to respond to the economic crisis of the organization. When doing this, we believe the core of the Council of Europe should be defended. This means the Court, monitoring mechanisms, the Commissioner for Human Rights. Unfortunately, cuts will be inevitable in many fields. 

However, the reform process is not only about economics and cuts. It is also about focusing the work, making it more effective and efficient and more open. And it is also about ensuring that the Council of Europe and its mechanisms are able to react swiftly to new human rights challenges. 

One particular issue that Finland seeks to advance during the reform is the question on new technology and artificial intelligence from a human rights perspective.

Thirdly, next spring will also be devoted to the selection process of a new Secretary General for our organization. As we know, the task is very demanding, and we hope to see many good candidates, who can bring their knowledge and guidance for the benefit of Europe.

With these three challenges in mind, the next 6 months will be a very interesting period indeed.
Finally, Madam President, I have the pleasure to present to you the priorities of the Finnish presidency. The process of preparing and selecting the priorities included many of our ministries and authorities, and, as always, we also heard our civil society. The symbol of our presidency is a swan, the national bird of Finland, combined with the "e” of Europe. I am proud to tell you that the logo was designed by a company that only employs disabled persons.

We have three priorities. The first and most central one is strengthening the system of human rights and the Rule of Law in Europe. As I said at the beginning of my presentation, we wish to highlight the importance of the human rights convention system, the European Court of Human Rights, numerous other treaties and monitoring mechanisms as well as the Commissioner’s work. All these core functions demand respect and we value their independence and all the benefits they bring to our citizens. Under this main priority, we also address new questions affecting human rights, namely technology and artificial intelligence. A high-level conference on artificial intelligence and human rights will be organised in Helsinki on 26-27 February 2019. 

Other events under this priority include an anniversary seminar on the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in November and a conference on Rule of Law tools and indicators in Tampere, Finland in February.

The second priority is very dear to us – the promotion of equality and women’s rights. I spoke earlier this week at the World Forum for Democracy on Women, Security and Democratisation. I repeat here what I said there: Finland is a staunch supporter of the Council of Europe’s work in the field of elimination of violence against women. The Istanbul convention is a truly remarkable achievement and we urge all countries to ratify it and implement it.
While Finland is a forerunner of women’s rights in many ways, violence against women remains a problem for us, too. It is something we need to work at, tirelessly.

Our third priority is openness and inclusion as well as a focus on youth and the prevention of radicalization. This theme underlines the role of free and active civil society as a key to functioning democracy. We stress the importance of supporting and protecingt human rights defenders. During our presidency there will be two events in particular on - and for - human rights defenders, one in November in Strasbourg and another one in December in Helsinki. The latter is organized by the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights.

We organize also another event together with the Commissioner for Human Rights. This is an event marking the 20 years of the Commissioner’s institution and it takes place during the PACE week in January. We are proud to have initiated such a prestigious and effective institution and its work continues to have our strongest support.
It is of great importance to involve young people in the discussion on the prevention of radicalization.  I have personally visited many schools, met young people and discussed with them on this topic. I have to say – this has been a valuable effort. Young people are smart and they are interested and eager to have their voices heard. Finland has an excellent school system, and we continue to work on it.

This is something where I believe we can sincerely share good experiences with other countries.  Inclusiveness and human rights and democracy education are useful ways to prevent marginalization as well as violent radicalization.  
The Finnish presidency will be over after the Ministerial meeting in Helsinki, in the Finlandia Hall, on 16-17 May 2019. The Foreign Ministers of member States will have a great deal of demanding issues to discuss there – for example the reform. In addition to the Ministerial meeting, we will organize an Anniversary Event to mark the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe – this will be in the evening of 16 May. 

And finally, distinguished Members of the Parliamentary Assembly, I would like to invite each one of you to participate in our social media campaign for human rights. You will be able to choose between different messages, all for human rights, and have your picture taken outside of this room!

Thank you, Madam President!

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