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ROMA, HUMAN RIGHTS COURT AND BELARUS ARE PRIORITIES

Pan-European presidency starts

SLOVAKIA has taken over the temporary leadership of the oldest pan-European organisation for the next six months, becoming the 30th chairing country of the Council of Europe.
Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Ján Kubiš assumed the six-month presidency in Strasbourg on November 12 from his Serbian counterpart, Vuk Jeremic, in the Committee of Ministers, the council's executive body.

SLOVAKIA has taken over the temporary leadership of the oldest pan-European organisation for the next six months, becoming the 30th chairing country of the Council of Europe.

Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Ján Kubiš assumed the six-month presidency in Strasbourg on November 12 from his Serbian counterpart, Vuk Jeremic, in the Committee of Ministers, the council's executive body.

Observers say the presidency can polish Slovakia's international credibility and let it do some useful work if it sticks to its declared agenda: directing attention to the Roma community, pushing for reforms to the European Court of Human Rights, and reaching out to Belarus.

The Council of Europe was established by 10 Western European countries in 1949. One year later the organisation, which today has 47 members and protects the interests of more than 800 million citizens, adopted the Convention on Human Rights to promote and protect human rights.

Slovakia's annual financial contribution to the group is around Sk20 million (€600,000).

Chairing the organisation gives Slovakia the opportunity to influence the policies of the largest European organisation, and become more visible through its activities, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ján Škoda told The Slovak Spectator.

The chairmanship means Slovakia will be fully involved in the group's decision-making. It will also let the country confirm the high level of its diplomacy, like it did with its temporary membership in the United Nations Security Council, Škoda said. The main role of the chairing country is to achieve a consensus among all the member states.One of Slovakia's policy targets, the European Court for Human Rights, is the most visible body of the Council of Europe in the eyes of the public.

"Unfortunately the court has fallen victim to its own success," Škoda said. "After the massive enlargement of the Council of Europe, the court does not have the ability to handle the large number of complaints from citizens of member countries."

The number of unsolved complaints is currently estimated at 90,000.

Court reforms were launched a couple of years ago. To help it operate more effectively, the 14th protocol was added to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Basic Freedoms.

In order for the protocol to become valid it needs to be ratified by all the member countries. However, Russia still has not ratified the document, Škoda said.

About 60 percent of the Council of Europe budget currently flows into the court, but that isn't enough, Škoda said.

"Slovakia will be pushing for the fullest use of the organisation's budgetary reserves for strengthening the operation of the court," he said.

"We consider it just as important to start reforms to court systems in the member countries, so that the problems that emerge at the national level do not have to be solved at the European court."

Slovakia will also push for the court's decisions to be applied to member countries, and it plans to organise an expert seminar of governmental representatives to the court during its chairmanship, Škoda added.


Roma issues need attention


With the third-largest Roma community in the Council of Europe, Slovakia also sees the need to focus on the problems facing this community. Slovak state officials view Roma issues as a shared European issue, because the Roma are the largest European minority and they face similar problems in all member countries.

The problems include not only discrimination and intolerance from the majority population, but also housing and health conditions, according to Škoda.

"We want to seek solutions in international forums, including the Council of Europe and the European Union," he said.

One of Slovakia's contributions will be a large international conference about the education of Roma children, to be held in the spring of 2008 in Bratislava. There will also be accompanying events to encourage the exchange of information and experiences, and prompt concrete steps at the national level.

The proposed Roma initiatives have been well-received so far.

"Everybody welcomed Slovakia's decision to include this issue in its agenda," Matjaž Gruden, spokesperson for council General Secretary Terry David, told the đHospodárske Noviny financial daily. The council has been closely monitoring this problem, he added.

Belarus is the only European country that does not hold a membership in the council. Its special observer status was cancelled due to the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukachenko.

Slovakia said it will try to inform Belarusian representa-tives about the activities and the values of the council, Škoda said.

"In cooperation with the EU and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, we want to use all the options for a dialogue with the government of Belarus, and also the civil sector," Škoda told The Slovak Spectator.

Slovakia's efforts might result in Council of Europe information offices, where citizens and institutions can learn about the organisation's values and activities.

Gruden said the council is a huge body that Slovakia cannot be expected to change in six months. But he still believes that the country can achieve some important results with its agenda.

However, a political scientist with the Slovak Academy of Science, Juraj Marušiak, said the results of the six-month chairmanship do not depend only on Slovakia.

Though the Council of Europe does not currently play as big a role as some of the stronger players, like the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and NATO, the chairmanship will give Slovakia a prominent venue to present itself, he told the TA3 TV news channel.

"Certainly, Slovakia will have a chance to present itself as a country that cares about human rights," he said.

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