Speech during the High-level Conference on “Protection of human life and public health in the context of a pandemic" organised by the Greek Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe
Strasbourg, Wednesday 3 June 2020

Dear Minister,
Dear Secretary General,
Your excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for having us. I am very grateful to the possibility offered by this meeting to share our experiences and views on the protection of human life and public health in the context of the pandemic – I am sure this debate will provide a great deal of input in view of the Declaration which will be adopted during the Ministerial meeting in Athens. I would like to thank once again the Greek Presidency for this initiative

If you allow me, I would like to bring a few elements to this debate.

  • First of all, we should not forget that it is all about values, it is all about fundamental freedoms.

Today, as we are discussing protecting democracy and human rights during a pandemic – I would like to draw your attention to the fact that we should not only focus on human rights and democracy DURING a crisis, but also AFTER a crisis.
What we see today is that a lot of countries are taking measures and restrictions that in some cases the Executive might try to keep in place after the crisis for political reasons.

As we are now setting out principles on protecting human rights and democracy during a crisis, we should also to a certain extent address life after the crisis, and the importance of not accepting “the abnormal becoming the new normal” and thus not having our values, fundamental freedoms and our rights, 100% back in place after the crisis.

  • A second element that needs in my view to be addressed in the future Declaration is the fact that we are a multilateral organisation. This means that we should do something together, and not doing something alone.

What we have unfortunately seen during the past few weeks is that a number of countries have tried to cope with the crisis in a very singular way, trying to “retreat within themselves”. I don’t think this is the right solution: I think we should have a broader consultation in order to do things together and trying to adopt the same approach.

Therefore, in my view, the Athens Declaration should also consider the importance of multilateralism as opposed to nationalism and extremist.

And let’s be honest: once the lockdown measures and restrictions will be lifted, I believe that extremists and nationalists will try to grasp the opportunity to misuse the concept of freedom and use it for their own ends. It is therefore of utmost importance to address the issue of multilateralism in this declaration.

  • The third element I would like to mention is obviously the role of parliaments in general, and the contribution made by our Parliamentary Assembly to this debate.

So, how do parliaments cope with this crisis?

As the Minister said at the beginning of the meeting, I believe that parliaments need to be “on deck at all times” in a crisis.

Surely, from an organisational point of view, this might not be easy. But it is the citizens’ trust that is given to parliaments – even if the parliament then gives its trust, by majority, to an executive power – so no matter what, the parliament needs to stay on deck.

For this reason, it would be important in my view that as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe we set out some elements to help parliaments stay on deck during these times of crisis.

In this context, another element that should be mentioned is the relationship between the parliament and the executive during a crisis. Why do we need to address this? This is because we all know that it is the executive that needs to put in place certain measures, but in order to do so, it needs a legal basis, and it is the parliament that has to adopt it.

Many parliaments have given the Executive legal powers, but these acts need of course to be approved afterwards back in the Parliament. In this context, we need to address this relationship from the point of view of the “red lines” that shall not be crossed in terms of diminishing the power of the Parliament and consequently diminishing the power of the people, who have given their power to the members of parliament.

Now, as far as the Parliamentary Assembly is concerned, what are we now doing as a response to the COVID-19 crisis? We are preparing five reports and they can be added as additional information or as points of substance to the Declaration you are working on.

These report will cover a range of issues, including Rule of Law (from our Legal Affairs Committee, together with an opinion from the Culture Committee); what should parliaments be able to do in times of crisis, the relationship between parliaments and the executive, as well as multilateralism as opposed to nationalism (Political Affairs Committee); the consequences of the crisis for migrants and refugees (Migration Committee); upholding women’s rights during the COVID-19 crisis (Equality and non-discrimination Committee); lessons learned for future public health emergencies (Social Affairs Committee). This last report has already been approved by the Committee and will be discussed by the Assembly at the meeting of the Standing Committee scheduled for 26 June 2020.

All these five reports will address the issue from the point of view of “what should be the red line principles that should not be crossed during a crisis”, but also “life after the crisis”. Indeed, on this latter point, we need to make sure that our values, our fundamental freedoms remain one hundred per cent intact. We all know that our lives after the corona crisis will be different, but no matter what, our values and principles should remain the same.

The second initiative that we, as the Assembly, have taken is – on the basis of the toolkit prepared by our Secretary General – that we have shared with Speakers of national parliaments guidelines and legal tools, a sort of toolbox of the Council of Europe that could contribute to the debates being held in the national parliaments on the corona crisis and the life after the crisis. And, in this context, we also aim to organise a debate in parliamentary Committees in each national parliament with the participation of both national experts and experts from the Council of Europe. I can already inform you that we have, in principle, some countries on board – Belgium, Georgia, Greece and Germany – who are trying to have this event organised before the summer, while some others may hopefully be in the making – namely in the Netherlands, France, Turkey, Spain and Italy.

These debates will serve also to link up the work of the national parliaments with the multilateral work of the Council of Europe. And again, in this context, I think the Chair was right in his remarks: we cannot deal with the consequences of this crisis alone, we need to do it together. I hope that this initiative will also provide you with elements and ideas that could fill your work on the Declaration and that, together, we can identify the “red lines” which shall represent the basic principles we must adhere to during and in the aftermath of a crisis, protecting one hundred per cent our values and fundamental freedoms.

If you allow me to make one last remark Mr Chair, I would like to warmly thank you for having mentioned the issue of the environment and, in this context, let me also congratulate you for having carried over this theme as a priority through different presidencies of the Committee of Ministers – namely the Georgian, Greek and German presidencies.

The linkage between environment and human rights is extremely important and the Parliamentary Assembly is also starting to prepare new reports on this topic. I do hope that we can address this issue in the form of the “trialogue”. We have used this format in the past and it worked very well.

In this context, we should look at this current crisis as an opportunity: everyone has seen what happened to nature, fauna and the environment during the pandemic. Just think for instance how wildlife took over empty places during the pandemic and the drop of pollution levels. I think the public, the citizens are all the more sensitive to it now and to the idea that a decent, clean and healthy environment is a basic human right.

I think we could possibly try to add this dimension to the Declaration you are preparing for the Ministerial meeting in November and it would be very important.

Voilà, the elements I wanted to put on the table today during this meeting. Once again, allow me to thank the Greek Chairmanship for having organised this initiative and having brought us together. It is very important to share our experiences and views.

Et pour finir, je souhaite à toutes et à tous une très belle journée. Je sais bien que je me suis adressé à vous en anglais tout le temps, mais je voulais faciliter l’interprétation en évitant de changer de langue à plusieurs reprises. Encore une fois, je vous souhaite une belle journée et je vous envoie un grand salut de l’Assemblée Parlementaire depuis Strasbourg. Un grand merci pour cette réunion !