130th Session of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Council of Europe: the Athens Declaration and the Observatory of History, the two legacies of the Greek Chairmanship of the Council of Europe (04.11.2020)

The 130th Session of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe was held by video conference on Wednesday 04.11.2020, with the heads of the institutions of the Council of Europe participating in person in Athens.

The Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe Miltiadis Varvitsiotis opened the proceedings with an address, followed by 44 Foreign Affairs Ministers and representatives of the Council of Europe’s member states via teleconference. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also addressed the conference, in person.

PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis: Europe striving to handle pandemic without eroding fundamental freedoms

The Session of the Committee of Ministers culminated in the attendance of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who thanked Mr Varvitsiotis and congratulated him on the successful Greek Chairmanship which, due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, was held digitally (e-Chairmanship) for the first time in the history of the institution.

“This ‘e-Chairmanship’ may have been dictated by circumstances, but has already proven a useful experience and a valuable tool for the countries that will succeed Greece in chairing the Council. We have found a new way to cooperate. And this, combined with the Declaration of Athens and the Observatory for History Teaching in Europe, is a positive, tangible contribution to the Council’s ongoing work”, stressed Mr Mitsotakis.

In reference to the Declaration of Athens, the Prime Minister underlined that it reinforces Treaty of Rome. “At the time, the objective was to consolidate democracy and the rule of law. The need at present is to address new, global challenges. Challenges that, sadly, are accelerating and coming to a head with unforeseeable consequences. However, I believe that today, 70 years later, we are better prepared to face the challenges of the present and the future”.

COE2020GR Chairman and Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs Miltiadis Varvitsiotis opening remarks

“The Declaration of Athens is our answer to the challenges we are facing since the start of the pandemic in terms of the protection of human rights and the rule of law in a state of emergency,” stated Alternate Foreign Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, in his opening remarks.

“The Greek Chairmanship worked hard for the preparation, elaboration and adoption of a strong political text in order to renew its commitment to the fundamental principles of the Council of Europe,” Varvitsiotis said, noting the need for the measures imposed to be temporary, proportional and based on the principle of necessity, as well as being subject to constant re-examination.
Varvitsiotis said that special importance should be given to special social groups, such as children, women, the elderly, persons with disabilities, unaccompanied migrant children and the Rom”.
Participants that were physically present at the meeting included the CoE Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the president of the European Court of Human Rights Robert Spano, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Rik Daems and the European Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic.

The speech of the President of the PACE Rik Daems was particularly emotional, in his praise of the Greek Chairmanship and its leadership in difficult times, while welcoming the trilogy between the Assembly, the Secretary General and the Committee of Ministers.

The President of the PACE hailed the Athens Declaration as a political response to the very difficult situation regarding Covid-19, noting “the red lines not to be crossed when it comes to defending democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. He added that all measures must be constantly monitored by parliaments. “Sometimes we see attempts by some to take advantage of the situation. But while life will be different when the crisis is over, it is important that the values ​​and fundamental freedoms we share remain the same.”

In referring to the reluctance by some member states in regards to the Athens Declaration, “perhaps regarding its reference to the Lanzarote and Istanbul Conventions”, he stressed that “violence against women is unacceptable” and “any man who beats a woman is a coward” .

According to the PACE President, Covid-19 brought to light a new generation of rights – the connection between the environment and human rights, artificial intelligence and the right to know the truth, and the Assembly provides the Convention with a strong political network that will continue to resist unfair attacks against the ECtHR and make constructive and innovative proposals, including ways to address these new challenges.

He expressed the hope that in the near future “we will all be able to work together on these important issues, because the CoE is an Organization that sets standards at the multilateral level.”We do not imitate, but we are a role model for others,” he concluded.

Statements after the end of the Session

Following the conclusion of the Session, the Alternate Minister and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mrs Marija Pejčinović Burić, made joint statements, during which Mrs Burić praised Mr Varvitsiotis for the well-organised Greek Chairmanship.

During his statements, Mr Varvitsiotis stressed that the Greek Chairmanship resorted to new modes of communication in response to the challenges of our times. As he noted, “this is the first e-Chairmanship in the history of the Council of Europe, having successfully organised over 100 digital events to date and covering approximately 70 hours of material in total, which led to the adoption of very important conclusions”.

As regards the Declaration of Athens, the Alternate Minister highlighted that, while complete unanimity was not achieved due to the narrow-minded approach of certain states, particularly with regard to women’s rights, the importance of the Declaration is nevertheless not diminished. “The Declaration of Athens enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of Council of Europe member states and concerns the way in which democratically organised societies must address such pandemics: through proportionate measures that must undergo continual scrutiny and enjoy democratic legitimacy”, he added.

With respect to the Observatory for History Teaching in Europe, Mr Varvitsiotis spoke of an independent organisation that will oversee or assist member states that wish to raise matters relating to history teaching at their schools, not to alter the nature of history. “Because”, in his words, “historical knowledge always helps us feel more confident about the past and the future and identify elements that could cause tension in the future”.

Finally, after addressing the dilemmas facing a modern democratic government and modern democratic governors during a pandemic, as presented earlier by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Mr Varvitsiotis announced the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights, to be held later on the same day at the Hellenic Parliament, with the President of the Republic as the keynote speaker.

PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ address

COE2020GR Chairman and Alternate MFA Miltiadis Varvitsiotis’ address

Statement by President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Anders Knape

Joint press statements by M. Varvitsiotis and M.P. Buric

The speech by the President of the European Court of Human Rights, Robert Spano

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The Declaration of Athens

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