José Luis

Rodríguez Zapatero

President of the Spanish Government

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

said that he was very satisfied to be addressing the Parliamentary Assembly, the most traditional one on the continent, and especially at a time when Spain presided over the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and a fellow countryman, Senator de Puig, presided over the Assembly.

Those who shared the responsibility of promoting the European project had to take into account the strong historical meaning of the Assembly and its meaning for the future. The members’ mandate endowed by their citizens, and the European vocation that had brought them to Strasbourg, symbolised in a particularly clear way the connection between Europe and democratic principles.

The important anniversary being celebrated, the 60th anniversary of the Council of Europe, made it necessary to reflect. It was a moment of paramount importance for the Council of Europe’s progress as a community of principles and political dialogue. It was a moment for balance, for a vision of future and for adapting to a new reality.

European citizens expected the members to be able to define the role of the Council of Europe in a globalised world; it was the Council’s responsibility to identify the most efficient methods and the most efficient institutional structures to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law in a global society in which the consequences of interdependence and the complexity of relationships could be seen at all levels. He wished to tell the Assembly, in the first place, that he thought that the alternatives to global challenges had to be sought through the construction of a real, efficient multilateralism.

The Spanish Presidency of the Committee of Ministers would encourage the adoption of a declaration during the ministerial session in Madrid in May, during which they would be commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Council of Europe.

It was necessary to meet great expectations concerning the political construction of Europe. There could not be a real European citizenship if there was no progress at the different levels at which the Council of Europe had made it possible to operate in a co-ordinated way. Furthermore, it made no sense to implement a political process that was not based upon a community of principles. It was the Assembly’s turn to determine the most adequate way for the institutions of the Council of Europe to carry out their tasks efficiently and to turn those values into the essential foundations of political action.

He insisted on the need for a dynamic perspective, because the defence of human rights was facing new challenges and had to incorporate new realities. It was necessary to keep defining the main tasks of the Council of Europe in order to face the new changes.

The present context demanded constant work with a two-fold goal: on the one hand, the consolidation of the democratic processes and institutions in those places in which they were still fragile, apart from constant vigilance regarding respect of the fundamental rights in all the member states; and, on the other hand, the extension of the new human rights required by democracy.

The population in Council of Europe countries was becoming increasingly heterogeneous and multicultural. Citizens’ freedom demanded efforts to design active, innovative policies of social inclusion, policies that might transform societies and eliminate the barriers of intolerance and discrimination.

The new conception of human rights involved the determined recognition of political and social pluralism at all levels, be it at the cultural level, at the level of sexual orientation or at the level of convictions or ways of life. He stressed the fact that working for progress demanded a firm leadership, a capacity to get to the bottom of social needs, and the introduction of changes through political commitment and co-ordinated action for which international co-operation was essential. The Rome Convention was probably the best example of the transforming power of international instruments as far as human rights were concerned.

The Council of Europe was also commemorating the 50th anniversary of the creation of the European Court of Human Rights, the most developed instrument in the international community for the defence of fundamental rights.

He had previously mentioned the symbolic meaning of the Assembly and had to also say that the Court was a symbol of Europe as a continent that embodied hope for citizens; it was a guarantee, a valuable sign of identity and legitimacy that backed up citizens’ freedom and encouraged them to trust the future. One of the specific, important challenges that the members of the Council of Europe and all those countries that were involved in the Organisation had to face was providing guarantees so that the European Court of Human Rights could keep on working in the long-term with the efficiency expected from such a prestigious, respected institution.

More than 30 years previously, when Spain was opening up to democracy, it had entered the Council of Europe, which had helped it consolidate its progress as a state based upon the rule of law and freedom, and that had led Spain into the inner circle of the most important institutions of a democratic Europe.

He was certain that the road towards freedom always led to new goals; it had to extend rights and provide equal opportunities for all citizens, men or women, regardless of their race, convictions or sexual orientation. The construction of an inclusive society was what gave sense to political actions.

Ever since he had taken office, specific political measures had followed the lines set up by the Council of Europe and by other international organisations, in particular those set up by the United Nations. The approval of a plan on human rights by the Government of Spain, a plan that had been elaborated through an intense dialogue with civil society, a plan that had been put forward at the United Nations during the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would make it possible to carry out a permanent, balanced follow-up of the main threats and risks concerning the breach of the fundamental rights.

The Council of Europe had done a great job in attaining the abolition of the death penalty. He was highly satisfied to see that nearly all the Council of Europe member states had abolished it and that those which still had not done so had applied an indefinite moratorium. The year 2008 had been the second year in which the United Nations General Assembly had approved a directive whereby more than 100 countries agreed a universal deferment of the death penalty.

As far as the international community was concerned, the Spanish Government had already taken certain steps to create an international commission that would be in charge of guaranteeing the universal abolition of the death penalty through the application of two specific measures. Firstly, the application of a moratorium concerning the application of executions that would come into force by 2015; and secondly, the establishment of a firm, definitive agreement whereby no country would apply the death penalty to people under 18 or to those who committed a crime when they were under 18, or to mentally handicapped people. During the Spanish Presidency of the European Union, the Spanish Government would intensify the negotiations in order to get a wider support for a third directive on the death penalty, which would be put forward before the General Assembly of the United Nations in autumn that year.

The integral plan against the trade in human beings, which had been approved on 12 December 2008, was the other meaningful step taken by the Government of Spain in order to guarantee human rights.

The efforts to attain gender equality, fighting limiting social stereotypes, had also been one of the guidelines of Spanish legislative proposals. The law against gender violence, which provided courts with specific resources to fight the brutal expression of male domination, was another important measure that the Spanish wished to be backed up, as soon as possible, by corresponding international instruments, so that it might spread throughout the continent. This was why the Spanish Presidency was giving so much relevance to the organisation of a convention of the Council of Europe on violence against women.

He agreed with the Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, who had said not long ago, in his fortnightly communiqué, that human rights must play a relevant role in all states’ foreign politics and that, in such a context, co-operation for development – understood as the fight against poverty – was more efficient than sanctions as far as fundamental rights were concerned. Spain had firmly and generously decided to work for that: the Spanish contribution to official aid for development had increased by 20% in just one year, in spite of, or rather, due to the fact that, it was facing an international financial crisis. Spain had done that, trusting multilateral organisations in particular, as aid, as an explicit goal, should not be subject to the influence of other interests.

Spain believed that, in that way, it had also contributed to the progressive consolidation of the instruments of that multilateralism, which could serve to fight global problems. That was the main tool for opening and transforming societies, for turning them into spaces of progressively greater freedom, in which intolerance would be never feature.

Poverty was still the main reason for social backwardness and for the breach of human rights, and, more often than not, of women’s rights, all over the world. The Millennium Goals were something that had to be attained. They were the specific expression of the solidarity that democracy demanded. The only way to guarantee our welfare was to fight poverty. That was not just a moral given or a matter of image. It was a political responsibility.

Solidarity also demanded the joint fight against one of the greatest scourges against human dignity and co-existence: terrorism. That was still a real threat for peaceful coexistence all over the world. No one could avoid the duty to fight it. No one could turn their eyes away from its causes, or from its victims.

The fight against terrorism and the strengthening of the contribution to the efforts of the international community were a priority for the Spanish Government. He recognised the important leading role played by the Council of Europe so far, for it had stressed the transcendental meaning of the respect of human rights and of the fundamental freedoms, of the mechanisms of the rule of law, in order to fight terrorism. That was an essential aspect for Spain.

The Council of Europe had made it possible to make important progress, namely, the achievement of a strong framework for the protection of human rights, raising awareness of it, and for the protection of the rights of both victims and their families. A very important agreement against terrorism had been adopted. The first conference of the states that had signed or ratified this agreement, which would be held in Madrid, after the ministerial session, next 12 May, would surely improve its implementation.

But the Council of Europe had also played an important role at another level: the organisation and development of the local and regional authorities. Finding the way towards their full autonomy would be another way to encourage pluralism and the benefits that would bring about for the parties involved. The technical difficulties in that regard would be overcome by the international instruments, which transmitted the experience acquired.

The kind of financial and economic development from the point of view of democratic control, which spread beyond state borders without an adequate control of its social consequences lead, irrevocably, to the results now being faced. This was one of the new limits of democracy, and it was necessary to adapt institutions and international instruments to that change.

This crisis was a period of difficulty for many people, whose needs should be attended to. He wanted to undertake a compromise, and wanted the Assembly to do the same, a compromise with the weakest, with those who were suffering the most adverse consequences of the crisis and, in particular with those who had lost their jobs. The impact of the crisis on the fundamental rights at all levels should be analysed so as to find out to what extent the efforts carried out to fight it had proved efficient. We should not let the causes of the problem make us avert our eyes from its consequences.

But the crisis was also a chance: a chance to prove to what extent our decision to take up the social model was ready to find creative solutions to keep up cohesion. A change in energy model might complement and even favour economic recovery. The new energies of industries could also be important for the economic recovery and for the construction of a sustainable development, characterised by solidarity with the generations to come.

In 2007, Spain had presided over the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and during the first half of the next year would also preside over the European Union. Spain had followed certain common principles which would guide the actions of the Spanish Government during this period. These had been the same principles that had characterised the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, since 27 November 2008. One of those principles was the desire to promote full harmony as far as the operation of the different European institutions was concerned. The most important element in order to structure their respective functions was closely linked to the tasks of the Council of Europe. He was sure that it was part of the common belief that the security and the political and economic development of Europe, as well as the transformation of our societies, must always be inspired on a progressive vision of human rights.

But the process currently being experienced at the Council of Europe, the process we were living in our continent, in general, could not remain enclosed in its own limits. There was an ethical responsibility towards the international community and, in particular, to co-operate, collaborate and set up a dialogue with neighbours, be they those countries around the borders of our Organisation, be it the southern Mediterranean neighbours or those on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. It was necessary to bring together the different cultures, the different views, the different policies and experiences.

Such a vision used to form part of the global initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations – and it still did – an initiative with which the Council of Europe had closely co-operated, and which was a privileged forum to avoid the construction of new walls, to avoid identity construction through confrontation, for identities should be mutually enriching. The intercultural dialogue, which was also important for the alliance and which was something Spain was leading, was related to human rights and, thus, it was a very important task of the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe had a long way to go. There had been an unmatched history and unmatched achievements. He encouraged political leaders to look to that future from a perspective of transformation. The development of human rights in favour of progress and of the plurality of our nations was the road which should be followed, according to democracy, right now.

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

Thank you very much, Prime Minister, for that most interesting address. You have time to answer a few questions from members of the Assembly. An impressive number of colleagues would like to put questions to you, so I remind them that questions must be limited to 30 seconds.

The first question is from Mr Agramunt Font de Mora, also from Spain, on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr AGRAMUNT FONT DE MORA (Spain) (interpretation)

said that Spain had assumed, and was soon to assume, the presidency of a number of international organisations, as had been acknowledged in the President’s address. He asked him for his views on Spanish involvement in the Western European Union.

Mr Rodríguez Zapatero, President of the Spanish Government (interpretation)

said the question was one of a domestic nature. Here, in the home of democracy and the rule of law, it was appropriate to acknowledge that the executive should always respect the legislature. He would do what he could to assist. Furthermore the minister of foreign affairs would be present at the Parliamentary Assembly on Thursday and would be in a position to respond to this question and ensure that members of the Assembly would be properly involved.

Mrs CORTAJARENA ITURRIOZ (Spain) (interpretation)

said that the President would be aware that women had been responsible for establishing the only bloodless revolution – the feminist revolution. She asked what his views were on the equality between men and women.

Mr Rodríguez Zapatero, President of the Spanish Government (interpretation)

said there had been 20 centuries of marginalisation of women which had hampered progress towards freedom, economic equality and tolerance. It was a main plank of his position that men and women should be equal.

He would go so far as to say that equality between men and women was the highest expression of that value. For many centuries in Spain, and indeed the 20th century, women were dominated and discriminated against in an intolerable way. Women faced significant challenges when it came to training for jobs and earning their own living. Women had achieved much in 30 years, but it was hard to remedy discrimination.

The Spanish Government had passed a law which required all representative institutions to provide gender parity. In eight years’ time, all administrative councils would be compelled to achieve a certain percentage of female members. It used to be the case that the only woman you would see in a large firm was the one who would take you into the office of the company chairman: that was the way things were. It was incredible that this remained the case in many boardrooms and universities. Where there were too few women, there was not enough democracy.

He was in favour of positive discrimination and of work-life balance to help reconcile professional and family life. That law did what it could to remedy the worst form of domination of women – domestic violence. That crime used to be hidden and took place behind closed doors. It was time to firmly condemn it. He offered a suggestion to the Council of Europe that it could not be genuinely democratic if it did not proactively defend women’s rights and champion real equality. It was too easy for democracies to sit back and allow discrimination to exist, when they should in fact be proactive and promote gender equality. Men would ultimately gain the most from this.

Societies had improved greatly because of gender equality: equality led to tolerance, tolerance to cultural creativity, cultural creativity to a better economy and social policies. Progressive politics by their very nature depended on equality and helping women. Spain was about to pass a new anti-discrimination law that would go beyond gender equality. This law marked a turning point in Spanish society and would make up for lost time. In political life, women did very well indeed.


We welcome the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Council of Europe and the Alliance of Civilizations on 29 September 2008. The Council of Europe participated at the highest level – with the Secretary General, Terry Davis – in the second forum of the alliance, organised in Istanbul three weeks ago. What concrete co-operation do you foresee between the alliance and the Council of Europe to further improve the intercultural dialogue?

Mr Rodríguez Zapatero, President of the Spanish Government (interpretation)

said that the whole idea behind the Alliance of Civilizations was that it was a forum to prevent intercultural and inter-religious conflict. It would be a good thing if the alliance’s secretariat – which was UN run – established links with the Council of Europe. The alliance was, essentially, an exhortation to understanding. His suggestion was that the UN representatives of the alliance – appointed by the Secretary General of the UN – held a meeting with representatives of the Council of Europe in order to learn from one another. The alliance was planning national activities, and training for young people. The alliance would benefit from Council of Europe involvement, especially in the area that the Council had responsibility. He thought that the alliance was exactly what the Council should stand for.

Mr REIMANN (Switzerland) (interpretation)

asked how similar the situation with Ceuta and Melilla was to that with Gibraltar.

Mr Rodríguez Zapatero, President of the Spanish Government (interpretation)

said that Spain’s position on this was well known. From a historical and legal view this was not the same as Gibraltar. Spain had always sought constructive dialogue with the United Kingdom, although that had varied over time. The two countries had recently entered into agreements regarding Gibraltar.

Mr KOX (The Netherlands)

Companero Zapatero, on 1 May socialists and unions in Spain and many other countries will call on all workers of the world to unite to fight for better conditions than neo-capitalism can deliver. You have the unique and excellent opportunity – from Europe, at least – to say goodbye to market fundamentalism and neo-liberalism and to say welcome to a more democratic and socialist approach to today’s problems and tomorrow’s society. You have the floor now for your 1 May speech.

Mr Rodríguez Zapatero, President of the Spanish Government (interpretation)

was delighted to answer that question. He said that Mr Kox was right and that two lessons needed to be learned from the recession. First, an unfettered market without democratic oversight and scrutiny tended to end up being a market of avarice and covetousness where people were swindled. Secondly, more social rights were needed. When that kind of economic crisis occurred, responses should be largely social. In the past, people tended to think that states should cut social welfare benefits, restrict the rights of workers and generally make sacrifices. The lesson from the current crisis was that such thinking was based on ideological prejudice and pre-conceived notions. The only way out of the recession was to extend social welfare and workers’ rights. That was what Spain would do. There would be no cuts in benefits and no restrictions of workers’ rights. Spain would move beyond dogma.

Often, the ideological camp that said states should cut public spending would prevail, but there was little private investment at the moment so public spending must increase. Many of those who held the view expressed above would then go to their government for a bail-out: this was the height of cynicism, and the people needed to be made aware of that. It was important for the health of democracy. Some people had sought to put their money into tax havens, these were usually the same people who were allergic to public spending and called for cuts. The weakest in societies must be the winners and the shameless and brazen must lose. The world had experienced 20 years’ of growth, there was a lot of prosperity and wealth in the world which should be better distributed so that people could live in dignity. States should ensure that profits were sustainable.

The point had to be made loud and clear. He would be with the people demonstrating on the streets on 1 May. He would ensure that they would not be the losers as they all too often were. The losers had to be those who had exploited the workers. He hoped that the workers’ ideals would be strong enough to ensure that the global financial order was just.

Mrs GAUTIER (France) (interpretation)

said that Spain’s attempt to abolish the death penalty in Europe was very ambitious. Council of Europe member states were exemplary in this regard, but many other countries were not so: for example China, Iran and the United States. She asked which means he wished to harness to achieve this noble end.

Mr Rodríguez Zapatero, President of the Spanish Government (interpretation)

said that he firmly believed that the death penalty would be abolished, though perhaps not in his lifetime. A number of countries and international organisations were determined to wage a campaign to win over the remaining countries. As of 2015, the Spanish wanted a moratorium and the elimination of the death penalty for minors and the mentally disabled. The Spanish were determined and had the strength of their convictions. If all Council of Europe member states were to throw their weight behind Spain’s efforts, those objectives would be achieved. Spain would certainly raise this issue when it held the Presidency of the European Union. It would be a great day for humanity once the death penalty had been abolished.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you very much, Mr President. That brings to an end your visit to the Council of Europe, and the address by the Chairman in office of the Committee of Ministers. I want to thank you very much indeed for defending the principles of this Organisation, and for your detailed and passionate answers to the questions.