Motto: “For us and for all who share our civilization and our desire for peace, there is only one duty: Persevere. Persevere towards those objectives which are lighted for us by all the wisdom and inspiration of the past: Persevere.” Sir Winston Churchill
In the mid ‘90s, as a young diplomat at the Permanent Mission of Romania to the EU, I used to travel from Brussels to Strasbourg to attend European Parliament’ sessions and meet colleagues accredited to the Council of Europe (CoE). I rediscovered those familiar places in 2022, once back to continental Europe after almost 15 years spent in London and New York.
After the fall of the Communist regime in December 1989, joining the European and Euro-Atlantic organizations became a top foreign policy priority for Romania. The accession to the Council of Europe was one of the first steps in this process. On 19 July 1993, the Report of the Parliamentary Assembly of CoE (PACE) stated: “Romania is able and willing to fulfill the provisions of Article 3 of the Statute which stipulates that every member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. On 4 October 1993, the Committee of Ministers of CoE launched the “Invitation to Romania to become a member of the Council of Europe” (Resolution (93)37), and the membership became effective on 7 October 1993. Upon accession, Romania entered into a number of commitments which were subject to monitoring by PACE until 1997.
Three decades later, PACE Resolution 2466 of 13 October 2022 on “The honoring of membership obligations to the Council of Europe by Romania” finds that: “Since its accession to the Council of Europe, Romania has made important progress with regard to the functioning of democratic institutions and respect for human rights. The Assembly commends the political will and commitment shown by the Romanian authorities to fully respect their obligation to comply with democratic standards. The Assembly commends Romania for its commitment to protect the rights of persons belonging to national minorities. Romania can be considered as an example of good European practice in this area… Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation on 24 February 2022, Romania has faced large flows of refugees from Ukraine. Romania is to be commended on its swift reaction and the help it has given to a large number of people in need of international protection.”
When Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine erupted in February 2022, Romania became a safe haven and transit point for Ukrainian citizens seeking sanctuary. By September 2023, over six million Ukrainians had sought refuge in Romania. Romania’s solidarity with Ukraine also coagulated a significant humanitarian international support and facilitated the transit of more than 22.5 million tons of Ukrainian agricultural products. After Russia declined, in July 2023, an extension of the UN-backed safe passage deal “Black Sea Grain Initiative”, Romania’s Black Sea port of Constanța emerged as Ukraine’s biggest alternative shipping route.
Romania is a party to more than 100 Conventions of the Council of Europe, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Criminal Law Convention on Corruption, and the revised European Social Charter. Thirty years after joining the organization, Romania’s objectives at the Council of Europe focus on consolidating its status as a democratic country, strengthening economic and political cooperation in Europe, promoting peace, stability and security on the continent, and connecting CoE activities with global priorities such as the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and tackling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.
These objectives anticipated the spirit of the 4th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe, held in Reykjavik on 16-17 May 2023, which discussed the future of the organization. A recurrent issue, as Jean-Claude Juncker (then Prime Minister of Luxembourg), noted 21 years ago (PACE, 26 June 2002): “I very often read that the Council of Europe is searching for its identity and trying to find the way to a secure position in the future. At the very time when the Council of Europe has found its identity, it has set out looking for it. There is no need for the Council of Europe to seek a new identity, it only needs to remain faithful to what it has always been”.
Next year CoE will celebrate its 75th anniversary, in the meantime the mankind has become a global village with global challenges requiring global solutions, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 10 December 1948, keeps its relevance intact. Human rights are universal because everyone is born with and possesses the same rights, regardless of where they live, their gender or race, or their religious, cultural or ethnic background. The Council of Europe played a pioneering global role in developing standards on human rights, democracy and rule of law. Today, a new generation of rights is emerging – those related to environment protection, artificial intelligence, or Metaverse (on 14 September 2023, CoE debated on the “Impact of immersive realities on human rights, rule of law and democracy”).
The Reykjavik Declaration “United around our Values” requests to “strengthen the role of CoE in the evolving European multilateral architecture and in global governance by enhancing its external dimension”. But at a time described by President Joe Biden as an “inflection point in world history… Let’s bend the arc of history for the good of the world because it’s within our power to do it” (UNGA, New York, 19 September 2023), CoE relevance will also depend on the perseverance with which it will invest in the cooperation and the synergy with other international organizations (EU, UN, OSCE, African Union), in a joint effort to make the planet a place where every person can turn their dreams into reality. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to address gaps in global governance and make a multilateral system better positioned to positively impact people’s lives will be the UN Summit of the Future (New York, September 2024). The Council of Europe has to be part of this process.
The Reykjavik Declaration also approaches one of the most pressing environmental risks of our time, the air pollution (UN statistics show that polluted air kills 6.7 million people per year): “Human rights and the environment are intertwined and a clean, heathy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of human rights by present and future generations”.
It is a message of political will at a moment which seems to coincide with the beginning of the age of climate lawsuits: on 12 June 2023, the first trial in US history concerning governments responsibility for climate change started in a courtroom in Montana; a court in Hawai’i scheduled a similar trial for 24 June 2024; and in Europe, on 27 September 2023, the Grand Chamber of the European Court on Human Rights had the hearing in a case where the applicants claim that forest fires that occurred in Portugal in the last years are a direct result of global warming and affect their living conditions and health.
These developments may announce a paradigm shift, because until recently the environment degradation was considered in terms of Celsius degrees, tons of CO2 emissions and financial costs, rather than the loss of lives. But as John F. Kennedy once said: “Change is the Law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
Dr. Ion I. Jinga
Strasbourg, France, September 2023
Note: The opinions expressed in this article no not bind the official position of the author.