Vilnius hosts Europe, wins prestige

  • 2002-05-09
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

Vilnius put itself firmly on the diplomatic map this week by hosting a major international conference. Terrorism, regional cooperation and abolishing the death penalty were at the top of the agenda of a meeting of representatives of the 44 Council of Europe member states held in the Lithuanian capital on May 2 and 3.

Lithuania has held the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe for the last six months, so it was its turn to host the get-together.

Major international agreements were initialed at the event. On the last day of the conference, representatives of 36 member states signed Protocol 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which ensures the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances.

By doing this, these countries ruled out the use of the death penalty even in times of war.

Eight states - Russia, Albania, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovakia - refused to put their signatures on the paper. However, there are just two, Russia and Turkey, that have not banned the death penalty in peace time, but even they have declared moratoriums on practicing capital punishment.

Council of Europe officials saw the signing of this document as a big step forward.

"It opens the way to abolishing this barbaric punishment in all circumstances," said Council of Europe General Secretary Walter Schwimmer. "We hope that this will be a decisive step toward a universal abolition of the death penalty, and we shall spare no effort in achieving this."

Some controversy was caused at the meeting over the issue of Belarus, one of just three European states not to be Council of Europe members. While Monaco and Yugoslavia are in the wings to join, and Bosnia-Herzogovina actually became a member of the council during the Lithuanian chairmanship, Belarus is considered as being too far outside European democratic norms to be allowed to join.

Schwimmer said Belarus needed to move toward democracy to get into the CE, sentiments echoed by other international figures."I am deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Belarus. We worry about its isolation and the fact that Belarus is not making progress. And the situation is worsening. It's a big concern," said Mary Robinson, the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights. She participated at the Vilnius meeting as a guest.

"I believe that Belarus is one of the leading European democracies, and it should be represented at the Council of Europe," said Yevgeny Gusarov, Russia's deputy foreign minister.

Lithuanian officials described Belarus as an important neighbor and have said they've tried to maintain a dialogue with that country. However, with the Belarusians making no moves toward compromise, inviting them to the meeting was not an option.

The Council of Europe is often described as the "older sister" of the European Union. Founded in London in 1949 by 10 states, its mission is to promote human rights, pluralism and the rule of law. One of the main movers behind the organization, which has its headquarters in Strasbourg, France, was Winston Churchill.

Lithuanians are therefore proud to host a body with such an august pedigree.

"This is the first time this oldest and biggest European political organization has met for a working session outside Strasbourg. Only twice have its meetings not been held in Strasbourg (in Paris and Budapest) - and those were held to celebrate anniversaries. They were not working sessions like this one in Vilnius," said Petras Zapolskas, spokesman for the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas emphasized that Vilnius is a perfect venue for international forums like this.

"Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and professor at Berkley University, once said, 'I am a citizen of the world, but my nationality is to Vilnius,'" said Brazauskas. "These words perfectly reflect the cosmopolitan spirit of this city and its openness to the world. That means we have things to share with the European democracies. This is our experience in the coexistence of various cultures and nations and in transforming cultural diversity into an advantage."

The event cost 800,000 litas ($210,500) to host, but Lithuanian officials are confident their guests left more than that at the city's hotels, restaurants and shops.

At the end of the session, the committee's chairman, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, handed over the presidency for the next six-month term to Lydie Polfer, Luxembourg's foreign minister.