Mrs. Annelise Oeschger,

President of the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe

 

The INGO [1] and the Council of Europe: a passionate relationship

for a more human and just Europe

 

 

Thank you, Mr President and many thanks to FECRIS for inviting me here today.

 

As you know, I am the President of the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe and, since last July, FECRIS is one of nearly 400 INGOs which have participative status with the Council of Europe. If I understand correctly, one of the goals of your Conference is to reflect on how this participative statute can serve FECRIS. In order to contribute to this discussion, I will tell you briefly how FECRIS and the INGO Conference are situated within the general framework of the Council of Europe.

 

The Council of Europe, is located in Strasbourg and it is not and institution of the European Union. Currently it has 46 Member States: Byelorussia is the only European country which is still missing and that is why I have to leave you in an hour’s time. I am very sorry about this, but fortunately, I had the opportunity yesterday evening to discuss with some of you in order to better understand your combat.

 

I have to leave because today and tomorrow in Warsaw there is a Regional Congress of ONGs, with of course Polish NGOs, but also NGOs from Ukraine, Russia and Bielorussia. And it is particularly important that the INGO Conference is taking place with people, who like you, are at the source of significant future discussions. Therefore, please excuse me if I leave you, but Daniele Muller who represents FECRIS in the Council of Europe will keep me informed of the current evolution of your work. 

 

The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 and that is significant!  It was founded to build a just, human and mutually supportive Europe and from the very start the founders had the wider Europe in mind. Its principal goals are to promote human rights, democracy and the State of law. The State of law is obviously crucial for your combat.

 

The Council of Europe as an intergovernmental organisation is headed by the Committee of Ministers. All the 46 member States have a Permanent Representative in the Council of Europe and it is these permanent representatives who, as delegated by the ministers, take the principal decisions. 

 

There is also the parliamentary Assembly: it is not composed of people, who have been specially elected to be in this Assembly, as it is the case for the European Parliament, but the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is made up of national members of Parliament, selected by their national peers to sit in this Assembly. If I insist on this, it is because this is interesting for you. For each of the 21 countries here represented, there are national members of Parliament whom you can approach in your capitals and provinces to attract attention and explain the reasons of your combat to them. You inform them in order that they may discuss your objectives with the other members of Parliament of other countries represented in the Council of Europe. These parliamentarians meet in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg for a whole week 4 times a year.   This is a real occasion to forge alliances and it is important that you should prepare this at your own country’s level. Of course, from our end we do what we can, but you are more apt to speak to your own members of Parliament than we are because you know their sensitivities and what is going on in your countries. 

 

Then, there’s the third pillar of the Council of Europe, it is the Congress of local and regional authorities where the Mayors, the Burgmeesters, the Presidents of various areas and towns of Europe sit. It is an interesting gathering because it is there that elected officials meet who usually know well the problems and the aspirations of the populations they represent. Obviously something would be missing if those components closest to the citizens and their experience were not represented and it is for that reason that since 1952 the Council of Europe gave the INGOs (International Non Governmental Organisations) advisory status.

 

In 1952, no one had yet spoken of civil society, but the founders were all the same convinced that it was necessary that voices which came directly from "ordinary people", as they were called, should be heard by all and particularly where decisions were taken. I also represent an INGO in the Council of Europe, the International Movement ATD Fourth World.  The 400 INGOs who have obtained participative status constitute the INGO Conference, with an elected body which is the INGO Liaison Committee. For two years now, I have chaired this Conference of the INGOs, and for me it is significant to know an INGO like yours so as to be able better to represent the engagement of all.

 

In 2003 advisory status was transformed into participative status because the Committee of Ministers had well understood the INGO carry out a significant work for the Council of Europe.  Thus our importance increased and since last December the INGO Conference occupies the same place within the governmental committees that prepare in particular the legal instruments of the Council of Europe, on the same level as the parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of local and regional authorities.  Thus the Council of Europe is the only international institution in the world where the INGO are incontestably inside, there is no need to throw tomatoes on the windows one can take part inside, and it is the INGOs themselves that can choose their representatives in the governmental Committees and other official committees. Thus even the INGOs that fight with objectives considered awkward by some, have the possibility of effectively using their experience, bringing their questioning and their proposals. It is at this point, that gradually, the interest for FECRIS to be with us becomes obvious. 

***

 

Inside the INGO Conference we created regroupings based on common themes in order to work out common opinions, but also to exchange and make the ones aware of the others’ combats, in order to break down the barriers which are current in organised civil society which weaken its capacity to contribute effectively in forging public opinion and policies.

 

There are a certain number of ideas in these regroupings about which all are convinced, as the central position given to individual freedom. Among the ten regroupings, I will quote only those which can more particularly be of interest to FECRIS:

 

        human rights generally speaking

        general health questions 

        the European Social Charter and social policies

        education and culture

 

You all know the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which supervises the application of the European Convention of Human Rights and, in this context, articles 9 and 11 are particularly significant for the combat which you are waging:

 

item 9 : freedom of thought, conscience and religion

 

item 11 : freedom to meet and to associate

 

***

 

I want to tell you briefly why it’s so important that you should now be present, at this particular time, in the Council of Europe. At the last Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe (it was only the third, because the Council of Europe has very little money and has only organised 3 such summits in 56 years) it was decided that the intercultural dialogue would be the significant subject on which the Council of Europe would now work.

 

A White Paper on the intercultural dialogue is being prepared in which the foundations and the conditions for this dialogue will be discussed.  The respect of Human rights is obviously one of the conditions. It is apparent that it has become urgent to close the door to a tendency to  “tolerate”,  ready to put up with – allow – anything and everything under the pretext that it is the individual’s freedom,  protected by the European Convention of Human Rights which it threatened.  Of course, we defend Human Rights without reserve - but there is a problem - with which you are well acquainted.  It’s the danger that under the pretext of protecting freedom of thought or freedom of religion we are defending precisely those acts which are contrary to individual freedom. The INGO Conference will be consulted in the drafting of this White Paper which will lay down the conditions for the intercultural dialogue. This consultation will take place at the end of 2006 and at the beginning of 2007. 

 

The European Year of intercultural dialogue, envisaged by the European Union will take place in 2008; The Council of Europe’s White Paper must be ready before launching this European Year. It will treat essential concepts for your combat too. It will for example have to clarify what the freedom of religion covers and what it does not cover.  Freedom of thought does not mean that one has the right to do just anything and there it’s up to you to point out the facts and together we must have the courage to affirm that there are people who abuse of the freedoms that the European Convention of Human Rights protects. I also received telephone calls and e-mails before FECRIS obtained participative status.  But let us dare speak up, one cannot accept everything and there is another example, it is the genital mutilation of girls.  There are people who excuse it and who want to tolerate it saying "it’s in the name of their culture that they do it". We all agree that no religion demands this mutilation, but then they say that it is in the name of a specific culture. Even some NGO militants who, full of goodwill, say "yes, but it we should understand this or that ".   No, in our countries we do not accept this kind of behaviour, it is forbidden by law and we should say it, even if we run the risk of being treated of anti- I don’t know what. Because it is important for humanity, for its freedom and its well being - and for this reason, I count very much on you.

 

The other project that I will briefly evoke is a recommendation relating to the statute of ONGs and a definition of the right of association that the Council of Europe wants to work out. There too, you are concerned because any group with illicit goals can ask for recognition under the pretext that they are defending Human Rights or any other generous idea. We as representatives of ONGs must be vigilant because all that is called ONG is not always recommendable.  There will be a Committee of expert who will prepare this recommendation and a representative of the INGO Conference will participate.  There too I count on your contribution to clarify the concepts through your experience and expertise.

 

I very much appreciated being among you and I wish you a profitable Conference, which will help you to work with renewed energy. And we will continue together.

 


[1] Non Governmental International Organisation