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Speech by Lord Russell-Johnston

Lord Russell-Johnston

The President of the Parliamentary Assembly

On: The Future of the Council of Europe

19 July 2001

“From personal experience, I am very much opposed to after-dinner speeches.  I seem to recall that the great Greek orator, Demosthenes, had it written into his contract that he would not be required of any and that Pericles had comparable arrangements.  The other thing about after-dinner speeches is that people expect them to be funny.  The most successful are those made by comics and I am not feeling in a very comical mood.

Before beginning, I would like to pay particular tribute to Elma Dangerfield sitting in front of me, whom I remember as a flibbertigibbet in the 60s when I first became a Member of Parliament.  She does not seem to have changed all that much.

I have now been President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for two and a half years and I would like to say a little about one or two of our problems with which we are engaged.  

The international media, particularly the English speaking one, are prone to abbreviation, in substance as much as in form. When they refer to our Parliamentary Assembly, they often use the term “talk shop”, occasionally a “human rights talk shop” and, sometimes, in moments of editorial largesse, they would even go as far as calling us a “prestigious human rights talk shop”.  Whatever the term used, there is always the suggestion that what we do is talk, and nothing else. That in term of real political influence we are powerless. Because talk comes cheap, and fares poorly when compared to the military might of NATO, the economic strength of the European Union, or governmental infatuation with the OSCE.

Perhaps. On a purely pragmatic level, I would be ready to accept that our resolutions would get additional attention if they were enforced with Tomahawks.  That our self-confidence would get more of a boost if we could sanction the failure to comply with our recommendations by imposing immediate trade embargoes.  If, overnight, we could have the power to flood a country in distress with Land Rovers and walkie-talking personnel.

We have none of that. Occasionally, that causes frustration.  Nobody likes to talk and not be listened to, to ask questions that are not answered, or to make demands that are ignored.

So what can an assembly like ours do, when its demands are met with ignorance, arrogance or obstruction?

We can play to the audience. Raise our voice in self-righteous indignation, bang our fists frenetically on the table, promise that all hell will come down on those who dare not to abide by our words. 

The media would love it, at least for a while, but there are risks.  If those threats are not followed through, eventually and inevitably, our credibility would be undermined. If our threats are followed through, and when the levels of sanctimonious adrenalin are back to normal, we run the risk of seeing that the problems we wished to resolve did not get any better, and that, if anything, we lost an opportunity to do something about them in the future.

Alternatively, we can lower our sights and settle for less. If you cannot have what you like, you should like what you can have. It is a popular approach among many of our governments in situations where ethics represent a threat to their pragmatic objectives.

There is a rich panoply of euphemisms for doing little, or nothing at all.  We can critically engage, we can pursue dialogue.  We can consult – as President Bush is doing with his friends and allies on anything from the missile shield to global warming.  In moments of real crisis, we can organise a seminar, even a round table.  And feel good about ourselves.

I exaggerate, of course, but it is to make a valid point.

We are parliamentarians. We talk. But these are not just words. They are the words spoken with the authority of the 850 million Europeans whom we represent. They are the words of people committed not to our governments, but to our own concept of what is right.  We have a democratic legitimacy that compensates for the lack of Tomahawks, euros and Land Rovers.  If governments decide to ignore our voice, they do so at their own expense.  In the long run, values will always win against short-sighted pragmatic interests.

But the long run, unfortunately, often turns out to be too long for those who suffer injustice and violence, today, right now, as we speak.  From a safe distance, within the comfort of our homes and offices in the more fortunate and safer parts of the world, it is far too easy to rationalise and abstract the human suffering of others.

Last week, under a scorching Bosnian sun, I attended a ceremony commemorating the six year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.  It was a place called Potocari.

Five thousand women came to mourn almost ten thousand of their loved ones, husbands, fathers, and sons, some only ten or eleven years old, even babies, who were killed in a five-day-long spree of homicidal madness, committed by the Bosnian Serb troops under the command of Ratko Mladic, an indicted war criminal, who is still at large.

A simple white marble stone with a brief inscription: “Srebrenica, July 1995”, was erected in the place where this horrendous crime took place, only a stone’s throw away from the barracks of a UN battalion, sent there to protect the people, or so it had been claimed.

The ceremony passed without incident, to the huge relief of many who feared the reaction of Serb extremists.  A relief that was premature. Only a few hours after the ceremony had ended, a sixteen year old girl from a returnee family of Srebrenica survivors was killed by a sniper’s bullet, while she sat in her home watching the rerun of the commemoration on television.

And while I stood there watching the crowd of weeping mothers, I searched my soul, asking myself, whether, as the international community, we could have done more, to prevent this, and other crimes, from happening. 

The answer is yes. We could have. We should have. It is not enough to say that we did not know that we could not imagine that we could not believe that such things were happening.  Sometimes, we do not know because we do not want to know. Yes, we did talk about Srebrenica during the long months of its siege, we warned, we planned, we pleaded with the Serbs and we threatened.

There was the dramatic arrival of General Morillon, who promised to stay with the people of the town until they could be saved, only to leave them on their own again a few days later with a few feeble promises and shattered hopes.  We all know what happened afterwards.  We left this people to die, and if we did not know, that was no excuse, because we should have known.

If I may add a personal postscript; last Monday I was in a place called Visoko which is about 30 kms north of Sarajevo where the Bosnian Commission for identification of dead persons is located for the very practical reason that there is a large mortuary there.

I was taken round by the forensic anthropologist, a little Polish lady who has become an Icelandic citizen because she fled there during General Jaruzelski’s repression. 

She was working in a large room with trestle tables where skeletons were being formed as was also happening on small mats on the floor.  She explained to me some of the difficulties in making sure that they were fitting the right bones together.  “You realise”, she said, “that most of these people were shot twice: once in the back or stomach to immobilise them and make it impossible for them to escape and only later in the skull to kill them.  The first shot usually broke the vertebrae of the backbone and if subsequently the body was loaded on top of another, there was always the risk of bones becoming mixed up and this is a real difficulty”.  She was very practical about all this as if she was discussing gardening techniques, but perhaps that is the only way of handling matters where the level of cruelty has been so huge.

We should bear the message of Srebrenica in mind when we deal with other large scale human rights violations that, sadly, continue to happen on our continent.

Frank Judd knows that from first hand experience.  He is the Assembly’s rapporteur on Chechnya, a person who has invested a huge amount of effort, personal commitment, and, occasionally, an amazing amount of belief in the inherent goodness of people.  I want to pay tribute to Frank for what he has done, and for what he is doing.  Because of his experience, I would also welcome his comments on my views on the matter.

Let me; first of all, take you through a short chronology of the Assembly’s involvement with Chechnya.

In April last year, the Assembly decided to suspend the voting rights of the Russian parliamentary delegation as a sanction for human rights’ violations during the security operations in Chechnya.  That only came after the end of a year in which the Assembly had passed repeated resolutions which the Russian Federation had completely ignored.

The voting rights were restored in January this year, when it was agreed to set up a joint parliamentary working group on Chechnya.  The group is co-presided by Frank Judd, and Dmitri Rogozin, the leader of the Russian delegation on behalf of the State Duma.  On the same occasion, the Russian authorities were asked to provide a detailed list of the on-going investigations by the civilian and military prosecuting authorities of allegations of human rights’ violations in Chechnya.  A provisional list was provided in April.

The group has so far held two meetings, in Moscow and recently in Prague.  The first meeting was largely devoted to the above-mentioned list, while the second focused on initiatives for finding a political solution to the conflict.  On this occasion, and, to my knowledge, for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, representatives of the Russian authorities officially met with an envoy of President Maskhadov.  This is, in itself, an important achievement, but its relevance will have to be proven by a concrete follow up.

Parallel to the suspension of the voting rights, the Assembly recommended to the forty-two governments of the Council of Europe to lodge an interstate complaint against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights.  Nothing has happened yet in this respect.  Nevertheless, this recommendation remains an active adopted policy of the Assembly, and there has been some movement recently in the parliaments of several European Union member states.

On the intergovernmental side of our Organisation, three Council of Europe experts have been working in the Office of the Special Envoy of President Putin for Human Rights in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, since last June. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, reported on the results of this participation to the Assembly during the part-session in Strasbourg last month.  Mr Schwimmer was critical of the failure to investigate allegations of human rights and conditioned a prolongation of the experts’ mandate by immediate progress in this regard.

This was “the state of play” at the beginning of the summer. There has been movement; there has been some progress. However, it is my opinion that, ultimately, progress should not be measured solely in terms of institutional dialogue, but, first and foremost, in terms of the tangible impact on the improvement of the human rights’ situation on the ground, in Chechnya, and there has been very little, if any, of that.

In recent weeks, there has been mounting evidence of the rapidly deteriorating human rights’ situation in Chechnya. There is little doubt that the conduct of the Russian forces – as manifested during the recent “mop-up” operations in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya – was largely to be blame for this.

Reports of new human rights’ abuses came in against a background of the Russian authorities’ deplorable lack of willingness to properly investigate the allegations of past abuse. 

The failure to bring to justice those responsible for crimes constitutes a blatant violation of Russia’s obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and a party to its most important conventions, notably the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and we cannot allow ourselves to ignore these violations.

An Assembly delegation will visit Chechnya from 13-16 September, with a view to examining the human rights’ situation on the ground. A meeting of the Assembly’s Joint Working Group with the Russian State Duma, to which Chechen representatives, including representatives of President Maskhadov are invited, is planned for 21 September, and will be followed by a debate on the human rights situation in Chechnya during the Assembly’s September part-session from 24-28 September. 

By that time, we expect to have received evidence of concrete and substantial progress with regard to both the present conduct of the Russian security forces and the investigations into past abuses.

This is where I will stop. I do not really have a proper conclusion.  I would rather find one through a discussion with you on Chechnya, and bearing in mind Srebrenica.

I am not drawing any parallels between the war in Bosnia and the conflict in Chechnya, except perhaps the parallel between innocent people suffering violence, torture and death.

And there is another parallel.  The one between the question I asked myself last Wednesday in Srebrenica, and the one we should be asking ourselves today – are we doing enough?”