Address by Timo Soini, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, at the Session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on 8 April 2019
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It is my great pleasure to be here today. I am honored to address the Parliamentary Assembly.
As you know, and as we all expected, the Presidency of Finland has been busy. While the Council of Europe is celebrating its 70th anniversary, it is facing the greatest challenges of its history.
Our Presidency has been very active. We have highlighted issues that are important for us – issues that are very important for the whole of Europe. Today, I would like share with you what we have done so far and also what we are still planning to do before we hand the Presidency over to France.
Our first priority is strengthening the system of human rights and the Rule of Law. In February, we organised a High Level Conference on Artificial Intelligence. The event was a great success. The Conference was one of the main events of our Presidency.
During the event, topical questions were raised on how to ensure that artificial intelligence supports human rights, democracy and the Rule of Law. The Conference concluded that Artificial Intelligence impacts – both positively and negatively – on human rights, democratic societies, and the Rule of Law. This requires a joint response.
We also need to follow closely what gaps and needs there are in this field, and coordinate well with other international organizations and their policy and normative work. Artificial Intelligence should be developed to produce benefits for all levels of society, preventing discrimination and other adverse effects.
Our second priority is very dear to us – supporting equality and women´s rights. Under this priority, we organised an International Roma Women´s Conference in Helsinki two weeks ago. With this event, we wanted to show our strong support for the promotion of the most disadvantaged groups. And, today, we are proud to celebrate the International Roma day.
Another two events we organised under the women’s rights theme included a side event during the session of the Commission of the Status of Women at the UN and an Expert Conference in Helsinki.
Our third and last priority is openness and inclusion, as well as a focus on young people and the prevention of radicalization. Personally, I think this topic is essential because youth are the future. We need to listen to them. They play a key role in preventing violent extremism and radicalization. They have new ideas and tools to tackle these threats. For this, we need to engage more schools, which is why I have personally visited several schools and talked about this.
When talking about openness and inclusion, I want to highlight the role of civil society. As you know, free and active civil society and respect for the freedom of speech, assembly, and association are crucial for democratic societies. In Finland, we have adopted several successful practices in order to meaningfully engage our civil society.
Openness and inclusion means that everyone is able to meaningfully participate in the society. And by everyone I mean everyone – also those who belong to groups that are easily marginalized or discriminated.
Therefore, during our Presidency, we also promote the Council of Europe’s work to advance the rights of persons using sign languages in Europe. On Wednesday 10 April, we organise a side event on this theme here in Strasbourg. At the event, we will also launch a new study on sign language. And sign language rap artist Signmark will perform here in the Hemicycle.
When we began our Presidency in November last year, we knew that it is not going to be the easiest time to chair the Committee of Ministers. The Council of Europe was - and still is - in political, economic and institutional crisis.
We know very well the roots of the current political crisis. We fully condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. I again recall the Committee of Minister’s commitment to the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders. The basic principles of the European security, international law and respect for territorial integrity of all countries must be defended.
Let me underline, if we want results this will require constructiveness from all parties. All member States need to fulfill all of their obligations. Payment of membership fees is also an obligation, to all member States.
So, in the beginning of the Presidency, we recognized that there was a great amount of work to do. But we took this role as a great honor and with humble minds. We decided that we would work hard to be an honest broker in this situation.
What we realized was that finding a solution would require close cooperation with all member States and both statutory bodies – the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. Therefore, I proposed in January an initiative to start an enhanced dialogue between the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. The aim of this dialogue was to ensure that the Council of Europe institutions would come together and really listen to each other when trying to find a way forward. The enhanced dialogue took the form of four informal meetings in a composition consisting of the Presidential Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly and the Bureau of the Committee of Ministers.
But; the dialogue also involved all member states through frequent consultations within the Committee of Ministers as well as discussions in the Joint Committee. These consultations obviously continue up until the ministerial meeting in Helsinki.
Main issues identified for the discussion included cooperation, a common response to address non-compliance, as well as monitoring and the financial situation. Out of these four, the common response to non-compliance seems to be the one that could bring answers for the future of the organization.
The value of a common response to address situations where a member state violates its obligations is that it would be a joint effort by both bodies (Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers). A common response would strengthen the organization as it would not be a response by one part only, but a response from the whole organization. That would make the response strong, effective and legitimate. It could not be contested by anyone with argumentation that it presents the organisation’s view just partly.
A value added is also the increase of predictability. All member states would know what will follow if they violate the statutory obligations. This will be a message saying: if you wish to be a member of this fine organization, you need to respect the rules.
Concretely, in my vision, the common response procedure should have several different steps to address non-compliance. The steps could include an accelerated level of response by the organization. In my view, Phase One would be entering into special dialogue; Phase Two would entail special monitoring and Phase Three taking public actions and statements. Each step would also include a dialogue with the member state that has violated its obligations. The aim should be to address the situation and ensure that the state will become compliant again.
If all of the phases of the common response fail – the organization would then have the ultimate option that the Committee of Ministers can decide upon, according to the Statute, invoking articles 7 and 8. This would mean suspension of participation rights or even of membership.
To establish the common response procedure would not require a change of the Statute. It would require common efforts by the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers to elaborate a system by making more effective and flexible use of existing tools. This theme has now been elaborated by several different parties, including by the Political Committee of this Assembly, and I believe it is time to start consolidating the different views into one.
We are now beginning to prepare for the outcome of the Helsinki Ministerial meeting. This issue will be kept in mind. Our aim is to have a constructive outcome in Helsinki.
This is my last time to address you in your plenary as Chairman of the Committee of Ministers. I have very much enjoyed working with you and I believe that together we have gained more common understanding! Our common work for a stronger Council of Europe, for Europe – and 830 million Europeans – has been crucial. I can ensure you that Finland will make its best during the last weeks of our Presidency to strengthen human rights, democracy and the Rule of Law for all Europeans.