President of Slovakia

Speech made to the Assembly

Monday, 14 April 2008

Mr President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Mr Secretary General of the Council of Europe, distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, let me start by thanking the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for his invitation and for giving me the opportunity to address this eminent Assembly.

The context is provided by Slovakia’s chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the 15th anniversary of the Slovak Republic, which also marks 15 years of its membership of the Council of Europe as an independent state. Only a few moments ago, I had the honour of opening, in the foyer of this building, an exhibition representing important dates in the history of my country: years ending in the magic number 8; years that left a lasting impression on the historical development of the country that I represent.

Please allow me to share with you some of my personal feelings. My presence in this building today has a symbolic meaning for me. Next June, it will be 15 years since two newly established independent states – the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic – became members of the Council of Europe. Those two states split in a civilised, peaceful and constitutional manner in order to embark on their own individual paths. Those two nations parted ways only to become reunited later in the common European house. They are linked not only by rich common history and their spiritual and linguistic closeness, but, and mainly, by their genuine friendship and family ties. The only battle field on which they are fierce adversaries is the ice hockey stadium.

The year 1993, therefore, is very important in the history of my country, even though it does not end in the year 8. It was the year of the creation of an independent Slovak Republic. The Parliament of the Slovak Republic, which I chaired during that period, adopted a declaration in November 1992 expressing Slovakia’s interest in joining the Council of Europe.

Obviously, the Slovak Republic declared its adherence to the values of the Council of Europe and applied for membership. The application was approved in 1993, after which a new national flag could be hoisted in front of the Palace of Europe – that of the 31st member state of the Council of Europe, the Slovak Republic! I vividly remember that occasion, having been in Strasbourg at the time as speaker of our national parliament – the National Council of the Slovak Republic. That is why I speak of the symbolism of this moment and share my personal feelings, as I stand before you today as the head of the state that holds the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

At first sight, it might seem natural that the membership of two newly created states should flow in a smooth and unproblematic manner from the previous membership of their common state. However, it proved not to be so unproblematic. Our country was then a young democracy and the Council of Europe set us demanding tasks. At that time, one of our neighbours did not support Slovakia’s membership of the Council of Europe, despite the positive recommendations of the monitoring structures, which expressed a certain lack of confidence in the ability of the Slovak Republic to continue on its path to democracy and the rule of law, and to guarantee adequate protection of human rights, in particular, the rights of persons belonging to national minorities. I sincerely hope and believe that we have cleared up those doubts once and for all.

After becoming a member, the Slovak Republic took part in the drafting of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and was among the first countries to ratify that convention. It even submitted to the Council of Europe, on its own initiative, reports on the situation regarding the protection of the rights of persons belonging to national minorities before it was legally obliged to do so. On its accession to the Council of Europe, the Slovak Republic was required to take into account, besides legally binding treaties, recommendations of your Assembly, including Recommendation 1201 of 1993 on the additional protocol on the rights of national minorities.

We have always given our utmost consideration to these commitments, and your recommendation has been incorporated into our treaty on good neighbourliness and friendly co-operation with one of our neighbouring countries. We thus gave our guarantees in the form of a legally binding treaty for the protection of the rights of persons belonging to national minorities. Slovakia respects the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, in conformity with the legal instruments of the Council of Europe and other applicable national standards. Attempts to challenge the facts underpinning my words, and to look for problems where there are none, are morally and politically irresponsible.

However, we do not conceal our problems with the Roma community. Since 1991, Roma in the Slovak Republic have had the status of a national minority. They represent an important community, not only in terms of their number, but in terms of their distinctive character and specific problems. Addressing those problems calls for a targeted approach and constitutes a long-term challenge to both governmental and non-governmental institutions in Slovakia.

Roma live in practically all the member states of the Council of Europe, and are an issue shared by all of us. On the one hand, they are looked upon by the majority in a stereotypical and negative fashion, mostly due to a lack of knowledge of the Roma community, culture and history. Admittedly, communication with the Roma community has its specificities and is not always easy – we may say that it is difficult at times – as the Roma tend to regard new trends in co-operation with a certain reserve. On the other hand, the approach of society that borders on paternalism has taught the Roma to be on the receiving end, rather than teaching them how to run their own affairs and take responsibility for shaping the quality of their own lives. I am convinced that the latter philosophy also underpinned the initiative to set up the European Roma and Travellers Forum within the Council of Europe, which represents a unique platform for a dialogue between Roma about the Roma and their problems. I appreciate the commitment of the member states of the Council of Europe to its effective functioning, expressed by their support for the extension of the partnership agreement between the Council of Europe and the forum.

The Slovakian Government considers addressing the situation of the Roma to be one of its key policy objectives, as declared in its manifesto. A number of strategic concepts and projects have been implemented in Slovakia with a view to improving the living conditions of the Roma and promoting their inclusion into the majority society while preserving their ethnic identity. Let me mention a few of them: the “Community Social Work Programme” aimed primarily at enhancing social mobility among the Roma population; the “Long-term Housing Concept for Marginalised Groups of the Population” designed to ensure adequate housing; the “Health Promotion Programme for Disadvantaged Communities” intended to improve the health status of Roma communities through the activities of field health assistants, and the “Project of Police Specialists on Working with Roma Communities” with the objective of reducing crime committed in this setting.

In addition, the fact that a conference entitled “Education and Training of Roma Children and Youth: The Way Forward”, organised in connection with the Slovak Republic’s chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, was held on 8 April has a special meaning and symbolism. The conference took place on International Roma Day, commemorating the first world congress of Roma and Travellers.

The Slovak Republic entered the Council of Europe as an independent state 15 years ago. Let me just refer to its achievements in the areas of integration, international peace and security, and economic reforms. Today, the Slovak Republic is one of the most economically dynamic countries of the world. Our citizens have already seen for themselves that the modern market economy brings prosperity, but on the other hand, they are also aware of its risks and of the need for certain sacrifices. In spite of unquestionably positive outcomes, considerable social and regional disparities still persist and have an adverse impact on quality of life, particularly for the most vulnerable groups of the population. That is why my commitment, for the citizens of the country that I represent, is to the promotion of the development of a welfare state. I am glad that the current Slovak Government strives to implement its ideas of a social and prosperous state. Through its social policies, it mitigates adverse and painful consequences of the policy of economic transformation, which was unavoidable.

In 1993, the Council of Europe was on the brink of massive enlargement. It faced the demanding and responsible task of unifying a Europe that had been split for decades by the iron curtain. Over the past 15 years, membership of the Council of Europe has almost doubled from 26 to 47 member states. The Council of Europe has spread its values over the entire continent and beyond. So I ask myself the question: what will the Council of Europe do next? How does it want to preserve its historically meaningful place in the European architecture? Incidentally, the Slovak chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe considers the issue of the strategy for the future direction of the Organisation as its particular challenge. For that reason, it makes an active effort to bring the Council of Europe and its benefits closer to all the inhabitants of Europe.

Years ago, the founding states of the Council of Europe created their own set of rules, which they adhered to themselves, and which they were able to convince the governments of new member states to apply. Democratic values, respect for the rights of others and adherence to the same rules by all bring stability, development, security and prosperity.

In 1993, the year when the Slovak Republic joined the Council of Europe, the Council was probably the only organisation whose core activity was the promotion and protection of human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law. Today, we are witness to the fact that those intrinsic attributes of a civilised and secure society are attractive to many other international and European structures that want to make them their own.

The Council of Europe, in spite of its experience and numerical strength, seems to be unable to resist pressure and seems to be gradually losing its pre-eminent position in certain fields. The opinion of the Council of Europe on various issues involving compliance with democratic principles or respect for human rights is no longer heard with the same intensity as it was in the past, or it no longer has the same authority. We in Slovakia have had the experience of various special international representatives making comments on our legislation and on the need to respect human rights, but the voice of the Council of Europe – the most qualified expert in the field – is heard less than it was, or not at all.

The Council of Europe must stick to its values if it wants to be respected. That is why I see the future of the Council of Europe not in the search for new spheres of interest, but only and exclusively in the enforcement and deepening of its core values. Unless the Council of Europe is sufficiently active and firm, someone may replace it. At the last summit in Warsaw, I warned that a situation might arise in which the same set of issues and agendas would be dealt with by other organisations, and in which the same kinds of decisions were not respected and enforced. That is why I am convinced that the Council of Europe must stick to its values and consider its agenda with other international and transnational organisations.

The Council of Europe should look only forward. It should not evaluate present-day situations through the optics of history. Nor should it evaluate historical events on the basis of present-day criteria relating to the rule of law. In the past there were more dividing factors than unifying ones. Careful consideration must be given to the degree to which present-day categories may be applied to evaluating periods of the past when the Council of Europe and its norms did not yet exist.

The Council of Europe was created as a consequence of lessons taken from the Second World War. Consequently, revisiting the results of the war and post-war arrangements by the Council of Europe could undermine the credibility of the institution since it would go counter to the principles on which it was built. The future of Europe lies in co-existence, good neighbourliness, unity, and elimination of dividing lines of all sorts.

Distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly, I therefore call on you to make a distinction within your Assembly between those themes that unify the present and the future Europe and those themes that are obsolete or subversive.

By attaching my signature to the instrument of ratification for Protocol No. 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights I reaffirmed the good will of the Slovak Republic to contribute to resolving the current gridlock situation of the European Court of Human Rights. It was clear to us at the time that the protocol would not resolve all the problems faced by the European Court. Today, when the protocol has still not entered into force and is not operational, which is regrettable, it is even more true to say that the key to the solution must be sought somewhere else, somewhere closer – in our own countries. The basic problem will not be resolved by protocols, money, new judges, secretaries, lawyers or groups of wise men. Rather it will be resolved by natural respect and esteem for others and their dignity and rights and, above all, by the observance of basic moral and legal principles of society and the state. Improvements and solutions should be sought primarily at home. If an infringement occurs the state should be capable of remedying the situation by itself and taking care of those of its citizens who have suffered harm.

I would also like to appeal to you, distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly, to use your legislative activities, authority and experience to promote the creation at the national level of protection mechanisms similar to those that function in Strasbourg. If citizens are afforded perfect protection by their own state, they will have fewer reasons to complain in Strasbourg.

At this point, I would like to note, as a representative of the country that has had its own experience of decisions being issued against it by the European Court mainly on account of delays in judicial proceedings, that Slovakia is taking steps to address this problem, although not very effectively as yet. One constitutional amendment introduced a generally effective domestic remedy – a complaint against the violation of fundamental rights or freedoms that is filed with the Constitutional Court, which can also grant adequate financial satisfaction.

Another positive development is the increasing frequency with which the decisions of the Constitutional Court and of the ordinary courts contain grounds that are compatible with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. The most recent objective announced by the Minister of Jand and approved by the Government of the Slovak Republic is to strengthen the judiciary by appointing 50 new judges. The Slovak Republic has the commitment and the good will to respect human rights. The Charter of Basic Rights and Freedoms has become part of our constitutional legal system and the European Convention on Human Rights takes precedence over national laws. The Slovak Republic has presented its candidature for membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the election to be held next May in New York. I am confident that the credibility of our country will also be recognised in this election and that we shall be successful.

The system for the protection for human rights established under the European Convention on Human Rights constitutes the most important achievement of the Council of Europe, but its functioning faces a real threat. Regrettably, the situation has already lasted several years. Various plans have been proposed to safeguard the system, some of which envisage solutions that are problematic under international law. As a lawyer who has worked in the field of law all my life, I would like to express my concern at the erosion of the principles of international law that we are witnessing today. In the final analysis, international law is a very fragile system whose stability depends on compliance with the rules. Solutions that are based on the denial of recognised or generally respected principles of international treaty law can bring no good.

Please allow me to speak again as a lawyer who respects and esteems legal instruments and legal norms, especially those adopted with a view to facilitating the resolution of existing problems and preventing potential injustices. From this perspective, I appreciate the fact that every new convention of the Council of Europe becomes a major event. The history of the Council of Europe contains conventions that never took root and remained only on paper and conventions that had a short life or were never implemented. They may have been drafted to satisfy the political will of the time or may not have fully reflected the dynamic development in a given field. However, from this podium, I pay tribute to the recent conventions of the Council of Europe that have been adopted in the past few years and reflect and address the real problems of society. They sound alarms, make calls for action or signal facts that some prefer not to see or perceive. Every good convention is one that is alive and has a future and a meaning, especially for those it is intended to protect and for those who are in need of such protection.

Besides carrying out its core tasks, the Council of Europe is also engaged in many other useful endeavours. It would not be advisable to withdraw from those areas where the Council of Europe has recognised expertise and a verified track record or where it can offer an excellent ratio between the expert services provided and their costs. On the other hand, it is not feasible to maintain a whole array of activities only because they have been developed in a previous period.

The structure of expenditure by the components of the Council of Europe shows a falling year-on-year trend for expenditure on the programme activities of the Council of Europe – programmes, seminars, conferences, expert meetings and so on – and an increasing share of expenditure on the administration of the Organisation and personnel costs, an important part of which is represented by the employee pension fund and by expenditure on the European Court of Human Rights. I believe that more attention should be given to the modernisation and more efficient functioning of the Organisation, including the European Court where there is scope to reduce the internal resources needed for its functioning. Potential under-utilised resources should be identified within the Council of Europe itself while maintaining zero growth for the budget of the Organisation as a whole.

To create the optimum conditions to enable the organisation to pursue its core priorities and activities as outlined in the conclusion of the 3rd Summit of the Council of Europe, it is necessary to eliminate unnecessary overlap both within the Organisation and between its individual structures and to overcome parallelism in activities performed in conjunction with other international organisations.

Improvements are also needed in the monitoring system of the Organisation, which is an important instrument in overseeing compliance with the principles that member states have pledged to respect. To make that really effective it is necessary to reduce the unnecessary overlapping and duplication to a minimum. As regards the reporting and elimination and reporting of shortcomings, we should aim at identifying strategic solutions and at significantly strengthening co-ordination and effective co-operation between all the relevant components of the Council of Europe.

I would like to express my belief that through joint efforts, solidarity and the pursuit of our common goal, we shall achieve improvements in the quality of life of us all. I wish peace, mutual understanding and prosperity for our continent so that we may pass it on to future generations as a peaceful and prosperous one.

Thank you for your attention.

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

Thank you very much, Mr Gašparovič, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you.

I remind them that questions must be limited to 30 seconds and no more. Colleagues should be asking questions and not making speeches.

We will have to interrupt the questions at about 4 p.m. The first question is from Mr Biberaj, who will speak on behalf of the European People’s Party.

Mr BIBERAJ (Albania)

The history of your country, Mr Gašparovič, is one of successful transition from the time of independence to the time of Euro-Atlantic integration. Although the independence of Kosovo has largely been recognised by the new member states and others, what is the position of your country on that issue? With a more peaceful, secure and stable situation in the Balkans, do you think that accelerated Euro-Atlantic integration on the issue of the western Balkans is one of the most important priorities for European policy?

Mr Gašparovič, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that we should indeed look for quick solutions in the west Balkans. He asked whether we had all the tools necessary to avoid disturbing the fundamental principles of democracy on which the United Nations was founded. It was hard to find clear answers to such complex problems. Slovakia had made it clear that it was not ready to recognise Kosovo and had given its reasoned grounds for doing so.

European institutions had cited Kosovo as a project for the 21st century to ensure that human rights were recognised in autonomous areas in central Europe. Slovakia did not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. The decision on how to deal with Kosovo rested with the people and leaders of Kosovo and Serbia. There was a big question mark on that issue and it was our responsibility to assist them. Serbia needed to look forward rather than to the past, but in sum Slovakia was not ready to recognise an independent Kosovo.

Mr GROSS (Switzerland)

We have read in reports that, in the context of democracy and respect for human rights, autonomy is a way to integrate diversity into the unity of the state and that it does not pose a danger to that unity. Why are you personally so afraid of giving autonomy to cultural minorities, which form the majority in some regions? Autonomy is no more than an asymmetric devolution of power – giving power to the people to organise themselves in matters that especially concern them.

Mr Gašparovič, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

stated that he had no problem in giving autonomy to ethnic minorities with respect to their culture in his country and could provide countless examples of cultural autonomy in Slovakia. Minorities had access to pre-school facilities, primary and secondary schools and universities. There were no insurmountable problems with ethnic minorities. The only frictions that existed were verbal, which had no real basis. He invited people to see for themselves that there was no discrimination in Slovakia.

Mr BOSWELL (United Kingdom)

I thank the President for putting so much emphasis on his country’s approach to national minorities and also to the more difficult problems of Roma and Traveller people. Yet, in the real world, for all the legal structures, there remain great distinctions in practice. For example, I understand that, in the United Kingdom, infant mortality is 15 times greater in the Traveller population than in the settled population. Will the President tell the Council something about what can be done and what he can do to support the publication of such facts and to encourage our members to work together to deal with them?


answered that he had touched on that issue previously and that Slovakia was very active in integrating the Roma community into mainstream society. He acknowledged that it was at times difficult to communicate with the Roma community, but that it was equally important to raise awareness in a number of areas, for example, education. That was the case in all European countries. Slovakia was active in dealing with Roma people; for example, it was seeking to involve more Roma people in working in the security services. However, the majority of Roma people did not speak Slovak and it was therefore difficult to increase their participation in employment. The Council of Europe could provide assistance in raising awareness on health and education. Infant mortality among the Roma community was particularly high and there had been a drive to train Roma teachers to teach Roma children. He acknowledged that progress could not be achieved overnight, but Slovakia was on the right track.

Mr EŐRSI (Hungary)

For all the liberal democrats in the Council of Europe, freedom of the press is of the utmost importance. I mention this because the Slovak Parliament is passing a law that will limit the freedom of the press and place limitations on editors. The Assembly should know that, under this law, if someone is criticised in a newspaper, the editor must give that person space to answer. That measure was criticised by the high commissioner for freedom of the press at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. All is not lost, however, because the President has not yet signed the Bill. As a genuine democrat, I listened to his speech and I wondered whether he could block that law against the freedom of the press and prevent it from becoming law in Slovakia.

Mr Gašparovič, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that he had not seen the final wording of the law passed in parliament, but the law did not oppress freedom of speech – in fact, quite the contrary. He stated that he had no reason not to sign it. There was opposition to the legislation because it had supposedly been passed in an undemocratic way and he acknowledged that were he were to sign it, one group of parliamentarians would be dissatisfied. Those dissatisfied parliamentarians would still have recourse to the Constitutional Court and the European Court and should show their faith in those institutions. It would be up to the Constitutional Court to make a decision.

Mr KOX (Netherlands)

Mr President, you said that the Council of Europe should concentrate on core business, and I agree. Preventing the development of new dividing lines in Europe is surely the core business of this Organisation. Nevertheless, there are plans to install missile shields in your neighbouring countries. That could lead to new tensions and new dividing lines on the continent. Your Prime Minister opposed those plans strongly. Can we expect Slovakia to oppose this dangerous development?

Mr Gašparovič, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that the Prime Minister would never agree to such shields being installed in Slovakia. Slovakia had presented its position at the NATO summit in Bucharest and had sided with the Alliance. He reiterated that Slovakia would not vote against NATO or the European Union.


Thank you. I call Mr Pollozhani. He is not here. Mrs Naghdalyan is also not here. I call Mr Iwiński.

Mr IWIŃSKI (Poland)

Mr President, I welcome you as the head of state of a neighbouring country. I would like to ask you about your perception of the future of the so-called Visegrad Group. This is a regional structure encompassing the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and, in recent years, Slovenia. How do you see its future, given that we all also belong to the European Union? I do not see a contradiction; we could have good regional co-operation while at the same time being members of the European Union.

Mr Gašparovič, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that EU co-operation had been useful in solving problems between countries. The aim was for it to remain a compact group, but there was openness to the idea of inviting other countries to the discussions. Country groupings were useful for small countries to promote their opinions as one.

Mr NÉMETH (Hungary)

Slovakia is in the process of amending the law on education. I fear that the new law may have a harmful effect on the 600 000-strong Hungarian minority. The draft law would restrict the use of textbooks to those approved centrally by ministerial authorities, and would change the existing balance between Slovak and minority language classes. Why does Slovakia not comply with the 2006 recommendation of the Committee of Ministers? What does the President think? Is the draft law on education in line with the language charter and other instruments of the Council of Europe?

Mr Gašparovič, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

Mr GAŠPAROVIČ said that the amendment had not yet been passed, but noted that its contents were already known and asked how that was possible. He disputed the idea that there were 600 000 ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia: the figure was lower. The draft would be discussed in parliament.

Mr Németh’s points were not quite accurate. Ethnic minorities should experience six hours of instruction in their minority language, the same amount of time as their instruction in the official language; every citizen should speak the official language. Although it was not yet known what the law would be, he did not find the status quo worrying.

Mr BADRÉ (France) (interpretation)

said that Mr Gašparovič had been congratulated on Slovakia joining Schengen. He asked how Slovakia was experiencing Schengen.

Mr Gašparovič, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that joining Schengen had been one of Slovakia’s long-held objectives. Its Schengen border was an external eastern border of the EU. He was glad that inspectors had commended Slovakia for having one of the EU’s most secure external borders. Slovakia’s experience of Schengen was very positive, particularly on citizens’ travel options, but it also brought a great responsibility, especially regarding inward migration, a responsibility shared by all Schengen countries. He was pleased with the reports about the excellent condition of Slovakia’s borders.

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

We must now conclude the questions to Mr Gašparovič. On behalf of the Assembly, I thank him most warmly for his address and for the answers he has given to questions. The address has been a democratic exercise par excellence and the icing on the cake of the Slovak chairmanship, which was very successful.