(Strasbourg, Monday 23 April 2012, 11.30 am)

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you here to Strasbourg today.

The agenda for this part-session faithfully reflects current events on the international political stage, with developments in the European vicinity taking pride of place. Our aim, as ever, is to ensure that the democratic changes in the southern Mediterranean go off as peacefully as possible, with full respect for fundamental human rights. This has not always been the case in Syria, where confrontations between the forces of Bashir Al-Assad and those opposing his regime are continuing, causing mass violations of human rights. There have been over ten thousand deaths since the beginning of the protests. Thousands of refugees have fled the massacres committed by the armed forces – this is a genuine humanitarian disaster. We cannot remain silent in the face of such atrocities!

During my recent visit to the United Nations in New York I discussed the situation in Syria with the Secretary General of the United Nations. I assured him of our full support for the work of the UN and Arab League Special Envoy, Mr Kofi Annan, whom I have in fact invited to address our Assembly in the near future. However, the ceasefire negotiated by Mr Annan is still not being fully respected and we have serious doubts about the credibility of the commitments entered into by President Assad’s regime.

That having been said, I remain optimistic: UN Security Council Resolution 2042, which was unanimously adopted recently, authorising the sending of an unarmed observer mission, and Mr Annan’s six-point peace plan highlight the basic conditions for settling the conflict. The debate under urgent procedure on the situation in Syria scheduled for next Thursday will provide an excellent opportunity for supporting the international efforts to solve this major crisis.

Moreover, a great deal of work still lies ahead in ensuring the full implementation of our values and standards, even among our partners. Two weeks ago we were all shocked by the execution of three prisoners by the Gaza authorities. I would remind our colleagues from the Palestinian National Council today that the death penalty has no place in the Council of Europe. It is your duty to do everything you can to ensure respect for the standards and values to which you subscribed on accepting Partner for Democracy status. We are of course at your disposal to support you in these efforts.

However, we should not forget that generally, the Arab Spring has given rise to an impressive dynamic for democratic change in your southern neighbourhood, and Partner for Democracy status provides enormous potential for expanding our co-operation with the region. During this session we shall have the honour of welcoming Mr Saad dine El Otmani, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco – our former colleague as a member of the Moroccan delegation to the Assembly – who will be reporting on the progress achieved in his country since Morocco was granted Partner for Democracy status.

We shall also be considering the “gender equality” dimension of the Arab Spring, as part of the debate on Ms Saïdi’s report, with the participation of Ms Bassima Hakkaoui, the Moroccan Minister for Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development. I am convinced that this debate will provide us with new ideas for our activities in the region.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The busy international political agenda should not makes us forget the major “European” projects in hand. Doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of the system of protection provided by the European Convention on Human Rights. One important aspect of the problem is obviously the reform of the Strasbourg Court. During the current affairs debate on the future of the European Court of Human Rights scheduled for this part-session we shall be carefully analysing the Brighton Declaration, which was adopted only last week.

The reform of the Court is just one part of the process, however. I personally attended the Brighton Conference, where I pointed out in my address that it was a matter for all of us national parliamentarians to ensure that national legislation was in line with the standards of the Convention and that national human rights mechanisms were genuinely effective.

Ladies and gentlemen,

During this session we shall be celebrating an important event: exactly 10 years ago Bosnia-Herzegovina became a member of our Organisation. In 2002, this sent out a strong message for Europe and the whole world, and was an opportunity for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina to advance along the road to European integration. Today, however, a number of major reforms are still in abeyance, as noted by our Monitoring Committee. Yet I remain optimistic: the only way for us to advance is through co-operation, and I am glad that Mr Zlatko Lagumdzija, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, will be addressing our Assembly on Wednesday, with an exchange of views which I hope will be frank and constructive.

This leads me on to another topical issue in Europe, namely our so-called “frozen” conflicts. As you know, I have taken this subject as one of the priorities for my term of office, and I would like to share with you some preliminary results of my work. I recently visited Moldova in order to congratulate Mr Timofti on his recent election as President of the Republic, following three years of institutional deadlock. I also visited the Transnistrian region, where I noted that there is now a genuine “openness” in seeking a solution to the Transnistrian conflict. Clearly our Assembly has a useful contribution to make to consolidating the climate of trust among the various players on both sides of the Dniester, and parliamentary diplomacy is the optimum tool for achieving this. After prior consultations within our Assembly and with our partners in the European Parliament and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I am now intending to propose establishing dialogue between the members of the Moldovan Parliament and of the Supreme Soviet of the Transnistrian region.

Lastly, since my election as President, I have been heavily involved in reinforcing our relations with the EU institutions: over the last three months I have visited Strasbourg and Brussels three times during European Parliament sessions. In my talks with various parties I advocated complementarity between the actions of both institutions. I also underlined the need to prevent duplication in the activities of the Council of Europe and the EU, particularly in connection with the Agency for Fundamental Rights, which is already operating, and the EU plans to establish a European Fund for Democracy and a Special Human Rights Representative. All those I spoke to were highly receptive to my arguments, and I sense an enormous potential for co-operation and new synergies here. Furthermore, I invited the President of the European Parliament, Mr Schulz, to address our Assembly, and he promised that he would be visiting us in the very near future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you can see, we have a lot on our plate in Strasbourg, although getting to the city could perhaps be made a little easier!

Improving the accessibility of Strasbourg is one of the priorities for my presidency. Since my election I have organised a series of interviews with the main people responsible for this issue in an attempt to pinpoint solutions.

I can assure you today that local councillors, the French Government and Air France are determined to find solutions as quickly as possible. We shall have an opportunity to discuss this matter during an exchange of views with the members of the Bas Rhin Department Council (Conseil Général) this Wednesday, 25 April, after the sitting. I would urge you all to attend this encounter.

Lastly, let me just tell you that new direct lines are currently being introduced between Strasbourg and various European cities. This is one initial practical outcome of our discussions, and I am sure that there will soon be further developments in this direction.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that you will have an interesting, lively session replete with fruitful debates, and wish you an excellent stay in Strasbourg. Thank you for your attention.