Opening address for the January 2015 Part-session
Strasbourg, Monday 26 January 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

One year ago, you did me the honour of electing me President of our Assembly.  Today you have again expressed your confidence in me, for which I thank you.  I am grateful for your unfailing support in our common task, which is becoming less and less easy.  Co-operation with Presidential Committee colleagues has been particularly productive.  I should also like to thank the Secretary General of the Assembly, Mr Wojciech Sawicki, and the secretariats of the Assembly, national delegations and political groups, for their professionalism, willingness and commitment.  We are fortunate to be able to work with such a competent team.  I also wish to thank the Ambassadors for their excellent co-operation with the Committee of Ministers and on the occasion of our numerous bilateral meetings.  I should also like to applaud the good coordination with the Secretary General, Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, and the Deputy Secretary General, Ms Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, and with the staff whom they lead.

2014 was definitely not a good year for the fundamental principles which we defend in Europe.  In some of our continent's countries, civil society was subjected to an unprecedented assault.  Numerous partners of the Council of Europe, intellectuals, human rights defenders and journalists acknowledged internationally for their commitment to liberty are in prison.  Others, as they go about their work, have to cope with considerable pressures, searches, arrests, prohibitions and refusals to co-operate.  The award of the 2014 Vaclav Havel Prize to Anar Mammadli confirmed our commitment to stand alongside civil society when it is under threat and being muzzled.  On 15 January we invited nominations for the 2015 Prize, and we shall continue to support those who fight for human rights on the ground.  The deadline set for the submission of nominations is 30 April.

In some of our countries, a return to "traditional values" is being used as a pretext to deprive citizens of the rights for which generations had fought.  The corruption which continues to poison our societies remains a major challenge.  Our anti-corruption platform, launched last April, can make a contribution to meeting this challenge, and I invite you to play an active part in it.

Populations fleeing from wars and poverty continue to land on the shores of the Mediterranean.  We know that there have been thousands of deaths, and the survivors often face indifference and contempt.  Across Europe, and elsewhere, extremist movements of all kinds are re-emerging, fuelled by xenophobia, hatred, social malaise and intolerance.  These movements regard as a threat that diversity which constitutes the inestimable richness of our societies.  They pose a huge threat to our shared values.

We have seen terror and violence emerge in many European countries, including France, the country which hosts our Organisation's headquarters.  The acts of terrorism in Paris were an assault on our fundamental values.  Those tragic events are a reminder to us of the need to continue our day-to-day battle and overcome political divisions to reject intolerance and defend our democracies, harmonious coexistence and freedom of expression.  We can only applaud the huge surge in solidarity across Europe after the barbaric crimes committed in France.  Now it is time to turn that wave of solidarity into a long-term movement against hatred.  It is our responsibility to make that commitment a lasting one.

When he addressed the Council of Europe last November, Pope Francis proposed the creation of a new agora as a platform for interfaith dialogue and exchange.  That proposal is in line with our work over many years on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue, and in 2011 we had already proposed the creation of a stable platform of this kind.  We must put this idea into practice now, since repressive solutions will not suffice to cope with mounting intolerance.  The "No Hate Parliamentary Alliance", which we shall officially launch on Thursday, will also have to become an effective instrument in our fight against violence and intolerance if our commitment is genuine.  The declaration of a European Day for Victims of Hate Crime, for which we expressed support at the September session, is all the more important in the current context.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

2014 has been an enormous challenge for all of us. For the first time since the end of the Second World War we face a unilateral attempt to redraw the map of Europe. The annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation is a flagrant and major violation of international law. It is a dangerous precedent which risks plunging our continent back to the times when war defined borders. Europe needs Russia as a reliable partner and a responsible power, but Russia has to respect its international obligations for there to be peace, security and stability in Europe.

Today the Ukrainian people continue to suffer. According to the latest data from the United Nations, more than 5.000 persons have died since the beginning of the conflict, including in the recent tragedies near Volnovakha and in Donetsk. We mourn the victims. Over one million persons have fled their homes because of the fighting. This catastrophe reminds us, a century after the start of the First World War, of the danger of geopolitics prevailing over values of democracy, rule of law and even human life. The profound economic crisis and the absence of strong and reliable state institutions aggravate further the complex and difficult situation prevailing in Ukraine. Together with the Presidents of political groups I visited Kyiv ten days ago. Our interlocutors spoke with one voice that respect of the Minsk agreement was an imperative first step towards peace and reconciliation. One of the elements of the agreement is the exchange of prisoners of war and hostages. In this respect it is of grave concern that Ms Nadiya Savchenko, who is now member of the Verkhovna Rada and since this morning confirmed as a member of our Assembly, is detained in the Russian Federation. I hope that her situation will be resolved swiftly and she will be able to join us in this hemicycle very soon.

The rule of law and respect for human rights must guide the steps we take. Those responsible for human rights violations must be brought to justice, no matter which side they are on and regardless of whether the events occurred during the conflict in the East of the country, in the course of the Maidan related events or during the May tragedy in Odessa.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

We know that what we are witnessing is not the end of history; and the page of history that we are living and writing is regretfully not a happy one. We live in a world facing disruption where on the European continent we see fundamental rights undermined.

Last year I was often asked if I was optimistic or pessimistic as to the future of Europe. In order to reply to this question, I referred to the founding fathers of the Council of Europe who were convinced that we could and we had to overcome our history, modelled by disputes and injustice, in order to build a common future based on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The founders of the Council of Europe were neither optimists nor pessimists. They were men and women who chose to commit themselves to build together a peaceful and united Europe in spite of the deep wounds and ambient mistrust left by a horrendous war. I believe that today we need to draw inspiration from their example. We have to strive to find solutions that are not guided by short-term considerations; we have to put our mission in a middle- and long-term perspective.

What kind of tools do we have to confront today's challenges in Europe? Our main force is parliamentary diplomacy and mutually respectful dialogue. But to conduct dialogue does not mean to close our eyes to shortcomings and violations. Our duty is to have the courage to speak the truth. Sometimes you have to criticise, and sometimes you have to take criticism. 

The challenges before us are great, but we should not give up. The immensity of these challenges shows that the commitment of each one of us is more important than ever. It is our responsibility, as representatives of parliaments of 47 states, to make all possible efforts to protect the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

We need to do this first and foremost in our own countries, but also in this hemicycle. We can succeed only if we work together. I will not give up, and with your support I will continue to try to make a difference. I know that you will not give up either, and I thank you for this.