The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has four Plenary Session each year. Below is John's Delegation Leader report for the June 2023 session.
This session of the year took place between 19th and 23rd June 2023. The rebellion of the Wagner group in Russia occurred towards the end of the part session. It drew attention to the continuing war of aggression in Ukraine and the problems of neighbouring Belarus. In this respect we looked at the support we could give to the democratic opposition in Belarus. In addition to this, there was still much anger between Armenia and Azerbaijan despite the two countries being seemingly close to settling their differences. In addition, the Turkish elections also featured in debate with a report of the election observation mission. A major issue was also the possible ban on Belarusian and Russian athletes from the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Another issue which arose was the tumult which is occurring in Poland over a new law to identify those who are alleged to have co-operated with the Russians or indeed with the Soviets. We also heard from Mr Péter Szijjarto, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, which was not an entirely pleasant experience. In addition, we heard from the President of Slovenia. Finally, the two major issues which were discussed were the forthcoming budget of the Parliamentary Assembly and the issues facing migrants and refugees across Europe. We also remembered the tragic fate of the migrants who lost their lives when a fishing boat carrying more than 700 people sank off the Greek coast. Such a horrific accident reminds us of tens of thousands of people who tragically died over the last decade trying to reach Europe and underlines the importance of addressing this issue.
John Howell OBE MP
Leader of the UK Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
REPORT JUNE 2023 PLENARY SESSION
The UK delegates participated fully throughout the week, and I was invited to chair two sessions of the Assembly – one on Transnational repression as a growing threat to the rule of law and human rights presented by Sir Christopher Chope MP and the other being the joint debate on refugees and migrants.
Major debates held are set out below. Where a debate runs out of time those who have been waiting to speak can submit a written version.
Observation of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Türkiye (14 and 28 May 2023) The will of the people in the end was acknowledged as the result of the elections. However, the elections did not take place in the sort of environment which is asked for from democratic elections. There was self-censorship in the media, not just in the public media. We still do not have the honouring of a fundamental judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. The Supreme Election Council has enormous rights, and its decisions cannot be changed.
John Howell MP added that having rapporteurs on the election observation was essential, first to look at the environment in which those elections take place, and second, to look at the process by which those elections take place. The process of the elections in Turkey were fair, witnessed by the large number of people who participated in those elections and whose votes were cast. But the environment left a lot to be desired. I hoped I would be able to have Mr Kavala released in due course.
Sir Edward Leigh MP also presented a written speech on migrants and Turkey
Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ, Secretary General of the Council of Europe answered questions about Turkey, Ukraine, the Reykjavik Summit, and, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Mr Péter SZIJJÁRTÓ, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary. Mr Szijjartoo said that the war in Ukraine was not the fault of the people of Europe and he was worried by supplies of armaments which were being made to Ukraine. He believed the world was going to be divided again into major blocks. He pointed to the need for industry to go through change. He added “we will always represent the Hungarian national interest, which is to create peace as soon as possible in our neighbourhood.” Mr Sijjarto was asked questions about judicial independence in Hungary, the release of people traffickers, LGBT, asylum and migration, energy projects and the lack of credibility of the EU. John Howell MP asked a question on why Hungary had voted against Kosovo and what it would take for it to change its mind.
Performance of the Volny Chor (Belarus) and Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA Leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition. We heard a performance of the choir and from Ms Tsikhanouskaya. Ms Tsikhanouskaya said “The regime can imprison people - but it cannot imprison people's will for freedom, their dreams and their creativity. Among thousands of political prisoners, there are hundreds of people of culture – musicians, painters, writers, and producers. The regime fights writers, artists and creators because it is afraid of them. The power of art demolishes dictatorship more than weapons."
Communication from the Committee of Ministers. Mr Edgars RINKĒVIČS Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Chair of the Committee of Ministers spoke to the Assembly about the Reykjavik Summit and how Ukraine “must receive all the support it needs.” Russia must be held accountable. He set out the objectives of the Latvian presidency which were essentially to implement Reykjavik. He answered questions on Ukrainian children and other prisoners, and on the case of Osman Kavala. Sally-Ann Hart MP asked a question on the budget for the Council. Questions were also asked about the ad hoc tribunal and Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Addressing the specific challenges faced by the Belarusians in exile. The debate called on Council of Europe member States to put in place, in close consultation with democratic forces, measures that will make the exile of Belarussians less painful pending their return to a democratic Belarus. Issues about enabling Belarusians in exile to live legally, freely, studying, working, paying taxes, safeguarding and developing their language and culture were discussed. We also had an address by Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA. Lord Russell and John Howell MP spoke and both mentioned the “adopt a Belarussian prisoner” scheme which operated in the UK parliament.
Current affairs debate: Recent political developments in Poland. The assembly heard how the political climate in Poland is tense and the elections will be fiercely contested. The legitimacy of key courts in the country is widely questioned, domestically and internationally, including by both the European Court of Human Rights and the EU Court of Justice, and judicial efficiency is deteriorating. In particular, the Chamber of the Polish Supreme Court which adjudicates election complaints is no longer considered a tribunal established by law in the eyes of the European Court of Human Rights.
It is crucial that after the election in a democratic country, the contestants and the public accept the process and thus the outcome of the election. The government has proposed a law on Russian influence in Poland and this law was adopted and is now formally law. The essence of the law is that a committee of nine members, elected by the Sejm, where the government parties hold a majority, will investigate Russian influence. The committee can investigate, use every document including state secrets, can summon people, and the committee can make decisions and sanction individuals. The committee is tasked to show the first results by September. The debate centred on the rule of law in Poland.
Public health emergency: the need for a holistic approach to multilateralism and health care. The debate discussed the need for multilateralism in health care and what role should be envisaged for the WHO. This was discussed in the light of personal freedom and a smaller role for Governments.
Her Excellency Ms Nataša PIRC MUSAR, President of Slovenia. In contrast to the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ms Musar pointed out that the geopolitical polarisation among the "Big Powers" was deepening. As a result, the block mentality is returning and is hindering the Council of Europe from progressing for the benefit of all. Small and intermediate states make up the majority of the Council of Europe’s membership. There should be worry that the international decision-making process is moving behind and away. She pointed to the crisis in multilateralism. Lord Foulkes and John Howell MP participated. Lord Foulkes asked about media freedom and John Howell MP about Kosovo.
Budgets and priorities of the Council of Europe for the period 2024-2027 / Expenditure of the Parliamentary Assembly for the biennium 2024-2025. Ian Liddell Grainger MP and Lord Foulkes participated in this debate from opposite sides. Ian Liddell Grainger MP praised the work done by political groups and called for fewer aspirations. Lord Foulkes pointed out the need to work closely with the European Court of Human Rights. The budget was indicative of the political importance attached to it and represented a clear expression of the necessary political will which member states invest in implementation on determined priorities. The budget was just at the start of being worked on.
Integration of migrants and refugees: benefits for all parties involved / Social inclusion of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons through sport / Health and social protection of undocumented workers or those in an irregular situation. In these debates on migrants and refugees, "assimilation", "Inclusion" and "integration". Were examined wit particular emphasis on integration. Steps to integration were set out in detail. In addition, the social inclusion of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons through sport was examined. In addition, undocumented migrants were examined in the context of workers without rights. Ruth Jones MP, Jeremey Corbyn MP, Kate Osamor MP and David Morris MP participated. Ruth Jones pointed out that the day previously had been World Refugee Day, and the positive impact refugees had had. She pointed to the injustices of the Illegal Migration Bill in the UK. There was a need for affordable and decent accommodation which in the UK was worsened by the housing crisis. Jeremey Corbyn MP attacked the use of hate speech in dealing with migrants and refugees and praised the need to integrate. Kate Osamor MP pointed to a group of migrants who are documented but are in an irregular situation. They are marginalised because they have no recourse to public funds (NRPF). She pointed out how NRPF excluded migrants from accessing a significant section of the Public Safety Net, despite paying income tax and national insurance. Finally, David Morris MP pointed to the welcoming nature of the UK.
UK reform of its human rights legislation: consequences for domestic and European Human Rights protection. The rapporteur examined two draft laws being introduced by the UK government: the Bill of Rights Bill and the Illegal Migration Bill. Whilst the former is still in its initial stages of parliamentary consideration and may well stay there, the Illegal Migration Bill, however, is currently being examined by the House of Lords and is being progressed more rapidly through the Westminster parliament. It is primarily for states, in line with the principle of subsidiarity, to implement and enforce human rights at the national level. The Human Rights Act of 1998 does this with the UK having the lowest findings of violations against it, per capita, of all member states.
The rapporteur focused on aspects of the Illegal Migration Bill that might raise concerns from the perspective of the rule of law.
Lord Keen, Ruth Jones MP, Lord Griffiths, Jeremey Corbyn, Sally-Ann Hart all spoke. Lord Keen commented that we could not continue to ignore the criminal activity in the Channel, the criminal activity in the Mediterranean, and the criminal activity in the Aegean, which places so many people at risk of death. The United Kingdom government is determined to take steps necessary to challenge such a criminal model. Ruth Jones MP said that the UK Government should understand the importance of, in the words of the draft resolution, "core principles such as the rule of law, robust democratic institutions, and effective guarantees for the protection of human rights". Lord Griffiths pointed to the absence of an impact assessment in the UK work on the Illegal Migration Bill. Jeremy Corbyn MP promised to fight on to try to protect the right of people to be defended by the European Court of Human Rights. Sally-Ann Hart MP in a written speech commented on the pernicious influence of criminal gangs.
Joint debate under urgent procedure: Political consequences of the Russian Federation's aggression against Ukraine / War of aggression against Ukraine – Participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Paris 2024 Olympics and Paralympics? Jeremy Corbyn MP and Lord Foulkes both delivered written speeches.
Ensuring free and safe access through the Lachin Corridor. A debate to examine the consequences of lack of access to the Lachin Corridor
Transnational repression as a growing threat to the rule of law and human rights. Sir Christopher Chope MP made the point that transnational repression is a growing threat to the rule of law and human rights. This was brought home in the United Kingdom with Mr Alexander Litvinenko's case and the Salisbury poisonings.
Closing the digital divide: promoting equal access to digital technologies. Digital technologies have become indispensable for our private exchanges, our purchases, our professional activities, our banking transactions, and our administrative procedures, which enable us to access our rights. However taking steps and exercising our rights online requires equipment that is often expensive: an appropriate connection, device, storage capacity, operating system, and an adequate paid subscription.
The next Plenary Session of the Parliamentary Assembly will take place 9-13 October 2023.