Opening address for the April 2014 part-session
Strasbourg, Monday 7 April 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

Our Organisation and Europe as a whole are currently facing a serious crisis.  A crisis which represents a huge challenge to the values and principles that we defend, and also to peace and international co-operation, which, according to the Statute, are our Organisation's aims.  The annexation of Crimea – Ukrainian territory – by the Russian Federation is unacceptable and constitutes a serious violation of international law.  As President of the Assembly, I issued a strong condemnation of Russia's action on 18 March 2014.  The Committee of Ministers and Congress of Local and Regional Authorities have also reacted in the same terms.  Now our Assembly has to adopt a position.

Colleagues, it is our duty to react to actions by one of our member States – Russia.  Respect for territorial integrity is one of our most fundamental rules, and one of the commitments which all member States are required to make, and I would like to emphasize "all member States".  We must therefore, during this part-session, discuss the consequences of the annexation of Crimea.  As you are aware, two motions have been tabled in respect of the challenging of the credentials of the Russian delegation.

The Assembly has to decide what action we are going to take.  I should like to inform you that I have, for my part, taken the initiative of contacting by telephone both the President of the Duma and the President of the Verkhovna Rada.  Last week I had long conversations with the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors. Dialogue being one of this Organisation's preferred instruments, I have also been in contact with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, in order to identify the contribution that we ourselves, as representatives of international organisations, might be able to make to the search for solutions to this serious crisis.

Dear colleagues,

From my official journey to Ukraine, made jointly with the members of the Presidential Committee, I hold in my memory a powerful image, symbolic of my visit to Maidan Square.  Looking at the tents and barricades, which are for me both a symbol and a memorial, with people gathered round them, I heard an appeal for all of us to ensure that the loss of over 100 human lives had not been in vain.

During that visit by the Presidential Committee to Kyiv, Donetsk and Lviv, from 21 to 24 March 2014, we were able to gauge the full scale and complexity of the challenges that lie ahead.  The priorities are well known: reform in the constitutional sphere, electoral reform, decentralisation, reform of the justice system and the fight against corruption, to name but a few examples.  The co-rapporteurs of the Monitoring Committee will review all these initiatives during the debate on "Recent developments in Ukraine: threats to the functioning of democratic institutions".

We must also applaud the action taken by our Secretary General, who is actively involved in the search for solutions to the crisis.  Our debate must give political impetus to our Organisation's action vis-à-vis Ukraine, particularly in the context of the immediate assistance measures proposed by the Secretary General last week to the Committee of Ministers.

Today, in order for our discussions to be both dignified and respectful, I appeal to everyone to take a responsible approach, bearing in mind that our values and standards must prevail in our words, thoughts and actions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite the difficulties our Organisation has to face, the Council of Europe remains today a beacon for all those, in Europe and in the World, who strive to protect human rights, build democracy and uphold the rule of law. Our values and our standards are a powerful force of attraction and I'm very glad that in the recent years we have managed to take decisive steps to promote the values we share in our neighborhood. Tomorrow, we are going to examine the request for the Partnership for Democracy Status submitted by the Kyrgyz Parliament, the first Parliament from our eastern neighbourhood to apply. I welcome the determination of our colleagues to build strong democratic institutions. As a pioneer in the region, they have a huge responsibility on their shoulders. They are not allowed to fail! Therefore, the ongoing reforms should steadily continue, in accordance with the recommendations of our Rapporteurs. On our side, we should also be up to our responsibilities, providing the necessary political support and expertise. I hope that the granting of the Partnership for Democracy Status will open a new era of cooperation between the Council of Europe and the Kyrgyz Republic, at the level of the Assembly as well as within the many Council of Europe expert bodies and institutions.

Dear colleagues,

What has made the Council of Europe what it is today is the result of the work of ambitious women and men, who believe in the value of human rights and act everyday whenever rights and freedoms of individuals are under threat. Our colleague, José Mendes Bota, is certainly one such person and his commitment deserves our full appreciation. During my recent participation in the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, together with the Deputy Secretary General, I could see how our legal instruments – namely, the Istanbul Convention and the Convention on action against trafficking in human beings, – could be used to spread the Council of Europe's acquis worldwide. In this context, I am looking forward to the debate on Mr Mendes Bota's report on Prostitution, trafficking and modern slavery in Europe.

I am also looking forward to the report of our Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Mui┼żnieks. His commitment to defending and promoting human rights, his availability and readiness to react promptly when human rights are under threat, as he did when he went recently to Ukraine, his open and direct style, are much appreciated by the Assembly members and will allow for an interesting debate.

That said, to make the Council of Europe's work genuinely effective, we need the support of all our member states and their leaders, their Heads of States. Some ten days ago, I had the honour and privilege of receiving in Strasbourg His Royal Highness the Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg and her Royal Highness the Grand Duchess. The Grand Duke's address to the Human Rights Court was a powerful message in support of the Council of Europe and of our values.

This week, we are looking forward to hearing the address of the Federal President of Austria, Mr Heinz Fischer, which takes place during the Austrian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. I am sure that our exchange of views on the most topical issues of European politics will be both interesting and beneficial for the Assembly.

Allow me to conclude my speech on yet another human rights note: in less than a month, we will reach the deadline for nominations for the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize. This prize sends a strong message in support of our values across the World. I call on you to submit, in time, candidatures of all those who deserve receiving this prize for their outstanding action for human rights.

There is another event which is taking place this week. Tomorrow, we are going to have our traditional Museum Prize – a Prize which is highly symbolic for the Council of Europe, an Organisation which pursues the objective of strengthening European unity on this basis of shared values and common historical and cultural heritage. This time, our award goes to the Baksi Museum in Turkey and I would like to congratulate our Turkish colleagues, as well as the Museum, for winning this prestigious award.

Before I finish, I should like us to pay homage to the memory of the victims of the genocide in Rwanda, on this day of commemoration of the 20th anniversary, reminding us of the appalling things that happened.

And now, dear colleagues, as we are about to start a challenging part-session, let me call upon all of us to contribute to an atmosphere of mutual respect and serenity.