Congratulation vied with condemnation this week, as the Council of Europe celebrated its 65th anniversary with a high-profile ‘hostage’ release and a Viennese politics-fest, amid warnings of civil war in Ukraine and human rights failings in Azerbaijan.

Vienna summit

Firm handshakes, finger-pointing and photo-opps were the main camera highlights when the glitterati of European diplomacy gathered in the Austrian capital for probably the most important Committee of Ministers’ meeting in six years.

Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) tweeted the conference agenda before his plane had even left the Tarmac in Stockholm. “On my way to @coe ministerial in Vienna,” he wrote. “Celebrate 65 years of work for rights and democracy tonight. But Russia aggression will dominate.”

Later, in another tweet, Bildt, a former Prime Minister of Sweden and something of a Twitter superstar among Europe’s diplomatic corps, set out his vision of regional politics in the 21st century. “I am a firm believer that the task of our generation is to safeguard a Europe whole and free,” he confirmed.

The tweetmeister at the United Kingdom’s delegation to the Council of Europe (@UKDelCoE) joined Bildt in setting the summit mood music. “The @coe is 65 yrs old today,” the community manager’s tweet began. “The founders set the highest #humanrights standards for Europe, but are we living up to their vision today?”

The conference, which featured Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukraine’s acting foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsya, took place with media outlets still reporting on the deadly clashes in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa and the spread of violence to other parts of the country.

According to USA Today, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told a reporter from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “The threat now is that we are reaching the point of no return – a moment when the escalation cannot be stopped anymore and we literally are on the threshold of a war in Eastern Europe.”

Steinmeier’s bleak assesment chimed with concerns over Ukraine’s reliance on Russian energy supplies, the march of separatism in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and inter-government disagreement over the timing of the country’s presidential election. Little wonder then that Anne Brasseur, President of the Parliamentary Assembly, described the situation in Ukraine as “very worrisome indeed” in a podcast review of her first 100 days in office. Brasseur later suggested that henceforth, the three priorities of the Council of Europe should be “Ukraine, Ukraine, and Ukraine.”

Captives free

It was a message not lost on Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland. He began the week on a high, when Vladimir Lukin, a former human rights ombudsman of Russia, arranged for ‘captive’ OSCE international military observers to be handed-over to Jagland at a checkpoint on the boundary of Slovyansk.

“I am relieved this mission succeeded, because it is so important to protect the work of international organisations and observers,” the Secretary General said.

Jagland, the driving force behind the International Advisory Panel (IAP) on Ukraine, received endorsement from Russia’s Foreign Minister for his encouragement of dialogue and “de-escalation” in Ukraine.

The Russian delegation to the Council of Europe relayed a foreign ministry tweet in which Lavrov affirmed: “We appreciate efforts by the OSCE and Council of Europe to create conditions to start talks among Ukrainians on Ukraine’s future.”

Spotlight on Azerbaijan

Austria has now passed the baton of Committee of Ministers leadership to Azerbaijan, detonating an avalanche of criticism aimed at the country’s human rights failings.

Certainly, the Twittersphere is well-primed for the close-surveillance of Azerbaijan’s six-month chairmanship, a fact confirmed by 140-character directives from among others, the blogger Agil Ali Maharram (@AgilAliMaharram), a member of Azerbaijan Popular Front Party`s Youth Committee, Mammad Ibrahim (@Mammad_Ibrahim) and Razi Nurullayev (@RaziNurullayev).

Indeed, 30 prominent media, legal and civil society representatives have added their signatures to an open letter to the Secretary General, warning him that the organisation’s “credibility is on the line” due to the “legal persecution and ongoing harassment of the critical voice in Azerbaijan.”

The letter reads: “The Azerbaijani authorities have a proven track record of using detention and other forms of pressure to stifle dissent and protest.

“This year, the stakes are higher than usual for those voicing critical opinions in Azerbaijan with the country assuming the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. Local media workers and human rights defenders fear that once international attention has waned, they will face acts of retaliation for exposing unsavory truths about the country, and indeed, some critical individuals have already targeted in the run-up to the chairmanship.

“Critical media workers and human rights defenders face detention based on the political use of laws and other forms of persecution such as harassment, threats and blackmail.

“As organizations and individuals working against the odds in Azerbaijan, we count on your voice, and your moral authority, to be heard in condemning the systemic human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan, a Council of Europe member state since 2001.”

Whilst the social media lens shines brightly on the crisis in Ukraine and concerns about human rights protection in Azerbaijan, other important regional issues are rising in temperature elsewhere to less fanfare.

Northern Cyprus court ruling

For example, next Monday, the European Court of Human Rights will deliver a damages, costs and expenses ruling on Turkish violations of human rights law in northern Cyprus, surely a Mediterranean bell-weather of the success of the European project.

The 12 May European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber just satisfaction judgment in the case of Cyprus v. Turkey (application no. 25781/94) concerns Article 41 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a ruling delivered on 10 May 2001, the court’s Grand Chamber found numerous violations of the Convention by Turkey, arising out of the military operations it had conducted in northern Cyprus in July and August 1974, the continuing division of the territory of Cyprus and the activities of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (the TRNC).

EU accession to ECHR

Of equal importance, is the progress of the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights. Stian Øby Johansen, PhD fellow at the University of Oslo Faculty of Law, reported on this week’s hearing at Luxembourg’s European Court of Justice concerning the Draft Agreement for the Accession (DAA) for the Øby-kanalen blog.

He noted that: “All three EU institutions and all the 28 EU member states submitted that the DAA is indeed compatible with the EU treaties.”

Johansen reminds readers that there remain caveats and complications but concludes his carefully-argued analysis of the two-day hearing with a prediction.

“The DAA will not be found to be incompatible with the legal autonomy of the Union,”he writes. “The ECJ has gotten all the safeguards that it asked for during the negotiatons, when it published a ‘discussion document’ outlining its appraisal of the forthcoming accession negotiations. “Furthermore, the ECtHR will probably never be in the position to interpret Union law on its own, without being able to rely on a previous ruling or judgment of the ECJ in the same case as an authoritative interpretation of Union law applicable.

“And, if the ECtHR in exceptional circumstances will have to interpret Union law without prior ECJ intervention, the ECtHR’s interpretation would not be binding on the Union.

“All these arguments seem to point towards the conclusion that the DAA is compatible with the Union’s legal autonomy. Accession to the ECHR is not much different from e.g. the Union’s present membership the WTO, which also puts the Union under the supervision of an external judicial body that interprets an external body of law and make judgments that may become legally binding for the Union.

“If the ECJ nevertheless puts its foot down, it will probably be seen by the broader EU law community as an exercise of discretion by the ECJ, in a manner that is inconsistent with the Union’s commitments to human rights and the obligation to accede enshrined in TEU article 6(2).”

Not exactly “yes, yes, a thousand times yes,” from the man on the spot but positive feedback all the same!

And so to next week

With the Brazil World Cup headlining a summer of international sport, Deputy Secretary General Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni will travel to Montreal Canada, to attend the Foundation Board meeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The organisation’s VIPs will challenge Europeans to think critically about the treatment of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer and inter-sex (LGBTQI) people on 17 May’s International Day against Homophobia and thereafter, with a series of media interviews and statements. Indeed, the Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Mui┼żnieks has already started the ball rolling by calling attention to the lack recognition afforded to intersex people in Europe.

Meanwhile, Istanbul will be the venue for a Parliamentary Assembly conference on ‘The role of National Parliaments in Media Governance in Europe.’ Should be interesting!

Click here for more information on the organisation’s activities over the next seven days.

Bon weekend

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