The Council of Europe, the pan-European human rights watchdog, has risen from the ashes of World War II to become one of the pillars of European unity, participants at the council's summit meeting were told Monday.
Council of Europe: not to be confused with the European Union
"Never before has Europe been so strong, so safe, so close to being united," President Aleksander Kwasniewski of host nation Poland said in a speech to open the summit, held in Warsaw's Royal Castle, which, like many landmarks in the Polish capital, was rebuilt after being reduced to rubble in World War II.
"What better place than Warsaw to organize the first ever summit of the whole of Europe," said the speaker of the council's parliamentary council, Rene van der Linden. "Warsaw, a city which became the symbol of the horrors of World War II... a city that today welcomes a united Europe for the first time in history, a Europe united by the power of values, not the power of arms," he said.
Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, whose country will take over the six-month chairmanship of the council from Poland when the summit ends on Tuesday, also praised Europe's oldest political organization, for its role in promoting human rights, in consolidating democracy and expanding the rule of law, which he called "the three main pillars of its activities."
"The political transformations that have been taking place in Europe in the last decades demand more than ever a sustainable commitment to those values which reinforce our unity," said Socrates at the first plenary session -- entitled "European values, European unity."
A missing piece
But amid all the praise, Lithuanian leader Valdas Adamkus Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus reminded the gathering that a piece was missing in the puzzle of a united Europe. "The fact that European values have not won their way in Belarus testifies to our joint failure," Adamkus said.
"One European country is missing at this forum, a country whose citizens subscribe to the values of the Council of Europe, but who have been robbed of the opportunity to live by them. The Alexander Lukashenko regime is further isolating itself and the people of Belarus from the family of free European nations and the values of democracy," Adamkus said.
Lukashenko (photo) has been criticized in the West for the alleged systematic persecution of his political opponents, for rights abuses and for hampering freedom of the press. Belarus wants to join the 46-member Council, which was founded in 1949, four years after the end of World War II.
No room for Lukashenko's Belarus
A key role of the council since 1989, when the Berlin Wall crumbled, has been to monitor human rights and rule of law in Europe's post-communist democracies. Last year, the council poured cold water on Belarus's membership ambitions, with its rapporteur on the persecution of the press in the country saying it "stands no foreseeable chance of being admitted."
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier urged Belarus "to make a vital effort" to gain membership to the Council, which holds as its basic values democracy, rule of law and respect of human rights.
Council Secretary General Terry Davis (photo) alluded to the absence of Belarus at the summit, saying "46 out of 47 European countries" were members of the grouping. Davis, a former British lawmaker from the multi-ethnic Birmingham constituency also urged summiteers to "campaign against the new evil of terrorism and the old evil of racism."
Later Monday, the summit participants, who included 22 European presidents and 13 prime ministers, were meant to sign conventions on the prevention of terrorism, human trafficking, and money laundering and the financing of terrorist acts. Then they must be ratified by individual countries' parliaments and translated onto the statute books.
The council's parliamentary speaker, van der Linden, urged summit participants to actively implement the conventions they would sign in Warsaw, to ensure the future of the council and of Europe. "The decisions you are about to take will enable us to meet the challenges" of responding to European citizens' needs, of working more closely with civil society, of erasing the dividing lines still evident in Europe, he said.