Council of Europe – January 2012

The January 2012 session of the NGOs meeting started well with the announcement, only days previously, that Andante had been granted participatory status at the Council of Europe by the Committee of Ministers. Members of Andante have attended the NGO sessions as observers for several years but this time we had a vote and were able to participate in the election of the President and the three Vice-Presidents of the Conference of INGOs.

The Conference of NGOs is one of the pillars of the Council of Europe but during 2011 it has had to implement budget cuts (a drop of 57%!) and consequent re-structuring. The NGOs now meet only twice a year and have three committees instead of five. Each committee works in cooperation with the other pillars of the Council of Europe: the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. It was disappointing that, this time, all our meetings were held in a separate building from the Parliamentary Assembly, which limited opportunities for lobbying.

The Education and Culture Committee has five working groups: Culture and Arts and Living Together in Europe, the Teaching of History and its Contribution to Citizenship in Europe, the Teaching Profession in the 21st century, Thinktank 21 and Education in the 21st century, Access to digital media. Andante representatives are member of the ‘History working group’ and the one on ‘Access to digital media’. All working groups reported back to the Committee and a common theme was the need for preparation for European citizenship linked to Human Rights. There is an existing group on Religions and Human Rights which outlines religious ideas and shows the complexity of the relationship between religions and Human Rights. The Andante representatives have taken part in the work of this group from its very beginning.

At the meeting of the Human Rights Committee there was some discussion on the reform of the European Court of Human Rights. UK Prime Minister David Cameron had delivered a speech on the subject at the Parliamentary Assembly on the previous day. The HR Committee is concerned that the proposed reforms could sharply curtail the right of individual application and the contribution of the Court and its jurisprudence in European democracy. It expressed its strong opposition to the proposal to impose costs on applicants to the Court, and refused the proposal to require compulsory legal aid from the beginning of the procedure. It also strongly opposed the proposal that an application would be automatically struck out of the Court’s list of cases after a certain period of time, unless during that time the Court has invited the State concerned to submit observations.
A recommendation was adopted on combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Four new working groups were established for 2012:
• The European Social Charter – to promote collective complaints, to encourage reactions to national reports and to prepare the annual hearings before the Governmental Committee
• Extreme poverty and human rights working in close co-operation with UN and EU projects
• Violence against the elderly and human rights which includes physical, psychological and material violence.
• Human Rights Defenders – to promote a positive perception of Human Rights work in public opinion and within public authorities, and act against stigmatization of human rights defenders.
Former groups who are finalising their work include:
• Human Rights and religions – the report will be presented to the Committee of Ministers later this year. Its target groups will be teachers and representatives of religious organisations.
• Education for human rights and democratic citizenship in the field of digital media. A seminar was organised in December on existing experiences and analysis with a view to preparing a Symposium ‘Living Human Rights in a Connected World’ in 2012.

There was a Round Table held at the Democracy, Social Cohesion and Global Challenges Committee which involved participants from the administrative structures of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and an NGO “7 Pains” in Strasbourg which serves about 300 meals a day to people who are in need.
This year the triennial meeting of the World Water Forum, which was set up by the United Nations, will take place in Marseilles. Its main point of discussion will be access to water for everybody and it is advocating a coherent and integrated approach to water management. The Committee is already involved in the consultation process for the Rio+20 Summit this year.
The Committee has nine working groups but unfortunately most of them were unable to report due to lack of time. There was a presentation by Jean-Pierre Estival on ‘Political and social revolution in the Southern Mediterranean countries’. Some of his statements and conclusions were hotly contested by several members of the Committee. A draft resolution and recommendation on ‘Gender perspectives in political and democratic processes in the MENA Region’ was introduced by Anje Wiersinga (International Alliance of Women) and after discussion and amendment it was passed.
Anje Wiersinga was also responsible for organising a meeting of the ‘freely constituted working group’ which discussed the future of gender perspectives in the NGO business meetings. The Andante representatives joined this group. Betty Doornenbal from the Netherlands was elected ‘gender expert’ at the final plenary NGO meeting; as such she will be a member of the standing committee of the INGO Conference.
Together with other NGOs Andante was invited to attend a meeting with Michelle Bachelet, the Executive Director of ‘UN Women’ who spoke about gender equality. She mentioned the austerity measures which were being imposed as a result of the economic crisis and that many women were suffering from the cuts in public sector employment and also public services, such as childcare. However she stressed that austerity should not set back gender equality – women needed to be part of the solution to the problems. They needed economic and political empowerment. They remained under-represented in politics. Ms Bachelet praised the role that women had played in the Arab uprisings and emphasised that the needs, rights and priorities of women should be part of the agenda in the re-building which is taking place. In spite of laws and measures in many countries to counter violence against women, the problem remained pervasive. The Council of Europe was commended for the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. Education of women and girls was all important – it is not only right and just but an investment in the future.

Freda Lambert, NBCW England & Wales
Former member of the Andante Coordinating Committee