At the hand-over ceremony in Strasbourg Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins promised not to focus exclusively on political issues during the six months of its presidency. He also vowed to pay special attention to the cultures of small European states.
Berzins earlier told the Baltic News Service that Latvia's main task will be to prove that a small country is able to head the organization. It will also be a chance to enhance the country's image.
Berzins stressed that Latvia will not use the presidency for tackling bilateral relations with any member state.
Latvia has set five broad priorities for its presidency. In politics special attention will be paid to the situations in the Balkans and Caucasus. Latvia will also seek ways to improve the Council of Europe's efficiency.
While planning for the presidency Latvia expressed concern about inefficiencies at the European Court of Human Rights and said the issue would be central to its presidency.
Egils Levits, a Latvian judge at the court told BNS that the presidency would have to focus on the large backlog of court cases. The human rights convention stipulates that any of the continent's 800 million inhabitants can apply to the court.
The court's jurisdiction is limited and many complaints do not fall within its competence, said Levits.
Therefore some thought should be given to ways of reducing its workload.
It should be established that a human rights case is primarily an issue for national courts and the case should go to Strasbourg only as a last resort.
During its presidency Latvia is committed to emphasize the role of the Council of Europe, the oldest human rights organization in Europe in setting standards not only for member states but also among candidate and observer nations.
As the Council of Europe presiding country Latvia will pay special attention to cultural heritage and its preservation as it is one of the areas to which Latvia can contribute most.
The closing ceremony of the Council of Europe's common European heritage campaign will therefore be held in Latvia in December 2000 and an international conference on Europe's minor languages is on the agenda for April 2001, probably with the participation of Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
To underline the importance of culture during Latvia's presidency, an exhibition of the work of Latvian photographers Inta Ruka and Andrejs Grants titled "Changing and unchanging reality" will be mounted. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga will deliver a speech at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Jan. 23 and Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins will deliver a report on the performance of the presidential program on Jan. 25.
Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer told BNS Thursday he was surprised by Latvia's program for the presidency, especially the section containing suggestions for improving the organization's efficiency and political role.
Schwimmer said that the admission of Azerbaijan and Armenia as full members will be one of the greatest challenges Latvia will face during its presidency.
Latvia's experience in solving ethnic problems and its transformation into a European-style democratic country could be very useful and serve as a good example for both Caucusus states, the secretary general said.
The Council of Europe was established in 1948 and presently comprises 41 member states. Latvia acquired special guest status in 1991 and became a full-fledged member in 1995.
The organization's main goals are human rights protection and the development of democracy.