Just a few days ago, I visited one of the most impressive churches I’ve ever seen.
It had no fancy interior, no glitter, no gold.
Instead, I stood in a bright, sunlit, modern room. It could have been one of the most peaceful places on earth.
Had it not been for the photographs on display behind me – photographs of the worst atrocities you can imagine. Photographs that have gone around the world – like the one showing a man shot in the street. Next to him, a bag of potatoes he had been carrying.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t just any church. It was the church in the middle of Bucha.
Bucha has become a symbol for Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, a war that is breaking with our European peaceful order.
The peaceful order that we developed together in Europe after the Second World War – with the Council of Europe as a key pillar.
A pillar for upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
A pillar that would be null and void if we tolerated a country waging war against our fundamental European values.
That’s why we stood united in excluding Russia from the Council.
That’s why we must also stand united in sharing the political and financial consequences of that exclusion by filling the gaps in our budget.
This sends a clear message of solidarity and will enable the Council of Europe to fulfil its mandate.
But it’s not only money that’s needed for the Council of Europe to remain strong at this watershed moment.
I believe we must also improve the effectiveness of our organisation while focusing on its core competencies, as the Secretary General has highlighted just now.
That’s why we are supporting the establishment of a “committee of wise persons” to develop proposals for a strategic reorientation of the Council of Europe – a committee not only balanced with a view to gender and regions, but also in terms of its age structure.
Besides tackling these long-term structural reforms, we have to uphold our common values today.
To me, four aspects are crucial in this regard:
First, even though Russia is not a member of the Council of Europe any more, we should seek ways and means to work with civil society in Russia – as we did in Belarus, even though it is not a member. We must not punish the people of these countries for their governments’ actions.
Second, it is crucial to intensify our cooperation with those countries that Russia is trying to destabilise, like Moldova, Georgia, and also the Western Balkans. My recent visit to the Western Balkan countries brought home to me how crucial it is to intensify our cooperation with these states at this decisive moment.
That’s why I would like to send a clear message to our partners in Kosovo: we fully support your wish to join the family of Council of Europe member states. Nevertheless, such an important step needs to follow a well-planned process.
Third, it is our common understanding that no one in Europe should be imprisoned for political reasons. Everyone has the right to a fair trial.
That’s why we must act resolutely when a member state ignores its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
If need be, this can also take the form of infringement procedures – as in the case of Osman Kavala.
Fourth, there is a yardstick by which the state of liberal democracies can be measured, and that is women’s rights. After all, if half of society is not represented or paid equally, then something is going wrong. Often, the restriction of women’s rights starts by turning a blind eye to increased violence against women.
Therefore, I call on all member states to ratify the Istanbul Convention swiftly.
At a time when our European values are under attack, we must join forces and defend them all the more forcefully. The Council of Europe is a crucial pillar for this.
It’s up to us to ensure that it can do its work.