New human rights challenges in the East

  • 2004-07-08
The Council of Europe is Europe's top human rights watchdog. It brings together 45 countries and since 1989 has served as the truest litmus test for transitional countries of Eastern and southeastern Europe. Its mission is to be the guardian of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and as such, it constantly monitors all member states. As history has shown, any country wishing to join the European Union must first satisfy the council.

The council's Parliamentary Assembly recently chose a new secretary general. It elected British MP Terry Davis for a five-year term starting Sept. 1. Davis, who succeeds Walter Schwimmer, has worked as a rapporteur on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh for the last three years. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty spoke to Davis about his plans.

What are your plans? What do you want the Council of Europe's main priorities to be once you take office in September?
I want the Council of Europe to concentrate on human rights and democracy, [and] also to be very active in the field of culture, and to deal with some big human problems -- equality between men and women, but also the huge problem of refugees. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees in many countries in Europe, and we should give more attention to this problem.

Among its members, the Council of Europe includes countries that don't yet meet all the council's standards. Do you want the Council of Europe, for example, to continue to urge the Armenian government to expand its dialogue with the opposition and give greater freedom to demonstrate?
I understand there is dialogue taking place between the Armenian government and the opposition. I don't think they need any encouragement from me, but I will be discussing matters in Armenia with the president of Armenia in due course.

One of the reasons for admitting both [Armenia and Azerbaijan] was the hope that this would help solve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, and this is something you've been taking a close interest in. Do you see any signs of this happening?
There has been a lot of recent activity. There have been several meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan and between their foreign ministers. There has been a lot more activity since February than there was in the whole of last year. So, to that extent, it is hopeful.
The last time I visited the region, and I also went to Karabakh itself, I was frankly depressed at the lack of contact, but I must now revise my opinion because, as I said, there has been a lot of discussions in recent months, and I would certainly encourage them to continue. These discussions are taking place under the auspices of the co-chairmen of the Minsk group, and I support their work very strongly.

Does the recent violence in Ingushetia make the problem of Chechnya more intractable? Or does it mean there's a greater need for a Council of Europe role?
All terrorism makes the solution of problems, such as Chechnya, more difficult. In fact, the aim of many terrorists is precisely to make a solution more difficult. And I think that applies in this case of the terrorism in Ingushetia and Chechnya.

In April the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly called for maximum political pressure on Belarus in relation to the disappearances of four men several years ago. What sort of action do you think the Council of Europe can take? And what could really have any effect?
I'm very concerned about the people who disappeared in Belarus. I've met the mothers and wives of some of the men who have disappeared, and it's a very serious problem, one that gives me a great deal of concern. But I can't comment in detail on what the Council of Europe is going to do in future. That needs to be discussed with the committee of ministers.
As I've said in an interview with your colleagues in Minsk, I'm not going to anticipate what the committee of ministers decides, nor will it be for me as secretary-general to impose a decision on them. We will have a discussion and come to an agreement about the best way to deal with these problems.

Council cracks down on bride agencies

Parliamentarians in the Council of Europe recently adopted a resolution calling on member states to combat all forms of domestic slavery and including some recommendations targeting matchmaking agencies. They said member states should regulate the agencies through a system of accreditation that would set minimum standards.
Agencies, which critics say leave women vulnerable to abuse, should also be required to carry out a background check on each prospective bridegroom to ensure he does not have a criminal record. And countries should consider including "mail-order brides" in the scope of the council's upcoming convention on trafficking in human beings.
"For these mail-order brides it is sometimes very difficult to [divorce], because once they are divorced it's very complicated for them to keep their place in the country where they were married. They usually have to leave the country, go back to their [home] countries, and the pressure is bigger because they
have to accept any kind of conditions inside this
marriage," Minodora Cliveti, chairwoman of the
Council of Europe's committee on equal opportunities for women and men. "Women have been abused, have been forced to do things they didn't want, they didn't get money, they didn't get a proper status of a married woman," she added.
Critics are also concerned that some agencies use Eastern women's perceived "submissiveness" as a selling point to Western men yearning for "old-fashioned" values.
But while that might be distasteful to many in the West, proponents of the business say it is hardly cause for a clampdown. They also say the women are no more at risk than in regular marriages.
"How can you regulate matchmaking?" says Joe Weiner, head of Hand-in-Hand, an agency that finds Czech wives for Western men. "It's almost impossible. If you're asking every marriage agency all over the world to check criminal records, forget about it - it's a physical impossibility. A little bit more education for the woman would be a better idea."