This month, it will be eleven years since Ukraine joined the Council of Europe and a little over nine years since the European Convention of Human Rights entered into force in Ukraine. Has the Council of Europe made a difference in Ukraine?
I do not know. Ask your 2700 compatriots who have applied to the Court in 2005 alone. Or ask the 119 Ukrainians who have so far obtained judgement in their favour out of 120 Ukrainian cases judged on merits by the Court. As numbers go, it may not seem much. What is important is that Ukraine has joined the club of European democracies who value respect for human rights so highly that they have agreed to subject themselves to the Strasbourg Court for Human Rights.
This club, the Council of Europe, is the oldest European international organisation. It was established in May 1949 by people who were determined to prevent any repetition of the atrocities of the World War. These farsighted men and women believed that the way to achieve their “never again” vision was to build an organisation based on respect for shared values: democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
However, the World War was followed by the Cold War, and the Council of Europe remained on one side of the Iron Curtain. The Council of Europe continued to do what it was expected to do: co-operate in the areas of human rights, justice, social affairs, culture and education. Over one hundred Council of Europe conventions were adopted. However, the Council of Europe had little contact with the other half of Europe on this side of the wall — because the Soviet Union and its allies spoke about democracy and human rights, but had very different ideas about what democracy and human rights meant.
Since then, the wall has fallen, and the Council of Europe has welcomed all the States of Europe. Nevertheless, the point remains valid: the Council of Europe is based on shared values, and we can only co-operate if we make sure that we read from the same hymn sheet about democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The Council of Europe is often described as a “Human Rights watchdog”. This is true, but only from a certain angle. Like a watchdog, the Council of Europe is indeed paid by the member States to bark at them when they break the rules they have themselves adopted. However, this is not our main role. It is to help our member States in achieving their goals where it comes to democratic reform, better protection of Human Rights and strengthening the rule of law.
That means helping the Governments to improve everyday life for their citizens so that people feel their freedom is protected, so that they trust their Government to be fair and transparent, and so that they have confidence that they will get justice if they go to court. That is why the Council of Europe puts the best European knowledge and expertise at the disposal of the Governments, encourages direct exchanges between people — what is often referred to as the civil society — and generally, fosters the invisible and intangible democratic culture.
After all, the Strasbourg Court costs money which comes from taxpayers. And when an applicant wins his case and the Court condemns a member State to pay compensation — in the end, the money comes again from the pocket of the taxpayer. It follows that, prevention is not only better and more cost-effective than putting things right after they have gone wrong. It is better to focus on drafting the right laws and implementing them in a way which reduces the number of complaints to the Court.
My role as Secretary General of the Council of Europe is to organise the work efficiently and effectively and to provide value for the taxpayers’ money. My role is to be a partner to the leaders of our member States in helping them achieve their plans where it comes to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. During my visit, I am looking forward to signing an agreement about the Council of Europe presence in Kyiv, which would greatly increase our capacity to assist Ukraine, and I will also have fruitful discussions about our future co-operation.