Carlo Azeglio


President of the Italian Republic

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 26 September 2000

Mr President, distinguished members of the Assembly, the Council of Europe's founders wanted to enable Europeans to put behind them the nightmare they had only recently endured and encourage them to place their faith in the future. They dreamt of a civilised Europe, one steeped in history, and they defined the essential rules of coexistence.

From the start, showing bold foresight, the Council of Europe, saw the interests of Europe’s citizens as hinging on a system of well-defined rules and values from its inception. The European Convention on Human Rights, whose fiftieth anniversary we shall be celebrating in Rome in a few weeks’ time, marked a decisive step towards codifying states’ international responsibility for human rights violations.

The Council of Europe, the only genuinely pan-European organisation, rejects the notion that divisions are cast in stone. It stands for a dynamic civic awareness, for clarity, dialogue and cohesion.

The Council of Europe also stands as a warning against the dangers of fragmentation, intolerance and xenophobia, and provides a bulwark against the evil that erupts, at times unexpectedly, in the course of human history, sometimes in tragic circumstances, and sometimes in the lethal guise of populism and egoism, in flagrant contradiction with fundamental European values.

The Council of Europe’s original message encourages us to look ahead to the extraordinary possibilities that are opening up in the twenty-first century.

The Council of Europe represents a great historic design, enduring symbols of which are Strasbourg cathedral and the village a few kilometres away where Albert Schweitzer was born, reflecting the extraordinary values of human solidarity that have flourished in what was once a border region.

Without the original vision of the Council of Europe and an act of faith in European unity at the Congress of The Hague, the European Community might never have taken its first decisive steps along the path towards integration.

The need to open up to embrace all the peoples of Europe was an extraordinary intuition, one that found realisation immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the rapid accession of the countries of central and eastern Europe and the Russian Federation to the Council of Europe.

I wish to pay a warm tribute to those countries, and express my faith and hope in them and in their renewed commitment to consolidating democracy and respecting human rights. The Russian Federation has a vital role to play in helping to forge a common destiny of freedom and democracy. It is in that spirit that I hope the Russian delegation will be able to resume its participation in the work of the Assembly.

This Chamber bears living testimony to the way in which countries have built up economic prosperity and social well-being after the devastation caused by the war and totalitarianism by opting for freedom, democracy, the rule of law and the market economy.

The standard-setting system of the Council of Europe is now part of our democratic heritage, but it still requires the support of committed individuals. The European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities are the pillars on which that heritage rests. The many laws that have been codified on the basis of those texts have broadened the scope of freedom and justice in Europe and consolidated a sense of pride among Europe’s populations in the fact that they are members of a common civilisation.

Their practical and committed application will highlight what needs to be done to improve European democracy and the enjoyment of the inalienable rights of the individual, of which the Council of Europe has shown itself to be such an able guardian.

The constant concern for the problems of those who are excluded from society, for the weak and for minorities is a credit to your institution. Let me mention in particular the social role of the European Development Bank in raising the living standards of the less-privileged sectors of society.

Today, Europeans have an anthem and a flag, and it is thanks to the Council of Europe, which, as early as the 1970s, realised the power of symbols and the need to ensure that Europe would not be perceived as a faceless entity.

Mr President, distinguished members of the Assembly, the Council of Europe has already given a convincing reply to the question of Europe’s borders, breathing a historical spirit into a geophysical definition. The boundaries of European civilisation are not fixed; rather they depend on its ability to radiate.

The confidence of this reply is justified by the huge area you represent: forty-one countries with a total population of more than 800 million, destined to grow further when they are joined by another two ancient nations, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many of the countries represented here are members of the European Union, while others are waiting to join and still more aspire to cast their anchors in an area of democracy and freedom by establishing an enduring bond of cooperation and partnership.

Greater Europe does not clash with lesser Europe here in Strasbourg. It is more a case of Europe’s different concentric circles finding fertile ground for interaction, thanks to a sense of belonging, rooted in the common patterns of thought and feeling that have evolved throughout European history. It is your task to consolidate, in this vast area, the values and principles which define the features of a truly European civil society, without which there can be no community of values.

The principle of domestic jurisdiction can no longer be used as an argument to justify violations of fundamental human rights. This important development will open up new areas for your work, provided it is based on a permanent readiness to come forward with proposals and engage in dialogue. Where these issues are concerned, member states can no longer jealously cling to pockets of national sovereignty.

The Council of Europe’s monitoring of the application of democratic principles in its member states provides an incentive to consolidate, wherever necessary, the conditions needed to ensure that human dignity and fundamental rights are respected. It is in the interest of everyone concerned to foster a direct and patient dialogue which, through mutual goodwill, knowledge of local situations, and identification of the obstacles, paves the way for solutions and pre-empts clashes alien to the conciliatory tradition of the Council of Europe.

Our efforts to win the Balkans over to European values are a test of the solidity of our principles and the credibility of international organisations. The Council of Europe is helping to build civil society in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania, as well as engaging in dialogue with representatives of Yugoslav civil society and culture. It can stimulate new and fruitful contacts between Albanian Kosovars and Serbs. It is carrying out an important task in warding off the anti-historical temptation to create mono-ethnic states.

Three major aims have now emerged from the Council of Europe’s experience of fifty years, aims that must take in the vast area situated between the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific: human rights, good governance and European cultural identity, taken to include both our common heritage and a desire to live together in peace.

There can be no setting up of a system of rules to protect local, regional and national interests in the abstract. It would be contradictory to advocate and accept commitments relating to human rights and the protection of minorities, but then fail to monitor the practical application of those principles. Thus, it is crucial to move on from the think-tank stage and a plethora of conventions to the adoption of an organised system of principles and rules, both perceived to be and effectively constituting the authentic common heritage of European democracy.

During its term in the chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, Italy is striving to narrow the gap between the Council of Europe’s legal instruments and their applicability in practice, in the knowledge that it is a moral duty, more than a legal one, to honour one's international obligations fully.

Political stability and economic progress are prerequisites for guaranteeing the sound functioning of democracy, but they are not sufficient in themselves. The grey area of indifference must be bridged by guaranteeing the credibility of institutions and the effectiveness of legislation.

As Cesare Beccaria wrote in 1766: “To me it appears absurd that laws which abhor and punish murder themselves commit murder, and that, in order to prevent citizens from committing murder, they order public murder to be committed.” I quote these premonitory words in a renewed appeal to see the death penalty definitively abolished within the boundaries of the Council of Europe region. It must be removed from those legal systems that still make provision for it, and substantial progress must be made in those countries where moratoria remain in force.

That would indeed be a resounding signal of a European identity, one addressed to the entire international community, and conveying the authority born of genuinely shared sentiments.

Culture is a vital force in ensuring the triumph of Europe’s founding principles, but how do we define culture today? Is it just the sum of our different national cultures? Are we to seek the essence of our identity in a system of shared values only? Europe’s cultural identity runs like a red thread across national memories, uniting them within a broader sentiment. It feeds on diversity, differences that have been mutually enriching through the ages, on the rejection of drab standardisation and on the cultivation of our humanist roots in the face of calls to consider technologies as ends in themselves, rather than as means. It is all these things that express the essence of Europe.

Italy, with a heritage accumulated over millennia, and with die oldest language in the west, is firmly convinced that now, more than ever, culture must be placed at the very heart of the work of the Council of Europe. The mock-up of the imperial forum in the age of Emperor Trajan, now on display here, is a reminder of our Latin Mediterranean heritage, a vital substrate on which the concept of Europe was to develop. Italy intends to bear witness in practice to an ancient European world unified by law and made prosperous through peace.

In a world dominated by a tendency towards the marginalisation of culture, the idea of giving substance to a common European cultural identity is one that must be tenaciously pursued and made the centrepiece of all our endeavours. There is a risk of seeing Europe’s historical memory, its natural and urban landscape and the very wealth of its artistic and cultural heritage forced into a subordinate position as immediate consumer and market demands prevail.

We can never pay sufficient attention to these issues: they must be made an absolute imperative – one capable of mustering the best forces in society. The Council of Europe can do a great deal to ensure that Europe does not just mutely bear witness to a glorious past. This means enlisting Europe’s young people and universities and backing projects and programmes that help people to see our traditions as a common legacy and as a reason to look confidently and responsibly to the future.

There is certainly a deep-seated desire among the Italian people to see the Council of Europe step up its commitment to a system of values and guarantees, and foster constant progress.

We note with satisfaction that the charter of fundamental rights, the drafting of which is nearing completion, and the European Convention on Human Rights are bound by a sense of shared aims and responsibility. The cause of human rights in Europe can only gain from co-operation between the two institutions. Mr President, distinguished members of the Assembly, there can be no let-up in the introduction of a system of law designed to enable the whole of Europe to progress in the wake of a civilisation the foundations of which were undermined by the spiritual and material devastation of two world wars.

Showing great foresight, the Council of Europe sensed the aspirations of our age, grasping what was common to a multifaceted Europe and sparing no effort to make the rules of peaceful coexistence between all Europeans intelligible and practicable. These objectives alone would suffice to justify the Council of Europe’s mission. Without constant vigilance and pre-emptive action, democracy might become an empty shell, cloaked in lofty but meaningless words. The most ambitious political proposals come to nothing if they do not have the backing of coherent projects and specific initiatives. Here again, I am thinking about the situation in the Balkans, where full advantage must be taken of the experience and the capabilities of this institution.

Never allow your main qualities to be undermined: your ability to talk to all sides, your aptitude for dialogue, your readiness to look at the facts and your constant involvement, all of which spring from, and indeed foster, an awareness of being part of a wider European civil society.

Twentieth-century European history warns us that only the pursuit of values will improve the human condition and satisfy the aspirations of our citizens. The citizens of all the nations represented here must increasingly be involved – that is the ultimate aim of the Council of Europe – in exalting the deep roots of our common civilisation, and affirming an identity based on the principles of pluralist democracy and human rights.

Architecture –I mentioned Strasbourg cathedral earlier – teaches us that a simple brick building can be more beautiful than one clad in marble. The Council of Europe should remember that and exploit its inherent characteristics to make the individual and human dignity central to its mission.