17 May 2005

European leaders call for democracy in Belarus

WARSAW - Calls for democracy in Belarus and agreement on the Warsaw Declaration charting the course for the Council of Europe over the coming years closed debate at the council's summit in Warsaw on Tuesday.

Poland's president Aleksander Kwasniewski slammed human rights violations in Belarus and called for the democratisation of Poland's eastern neighbour, dubbed by other leaders at the summit Europe's last dictatorship.

Kwasniewski was echoing calls made on Monday by senior leaders from France, Georgia, Latvia and Lithuania, among other states, that Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko introduce sweeping democratic reforms which would allow Belarus to join the Council of Europe.

German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, one of the few western European government heads attending the summit, on Tuesday underscored the indispensability of the council in safeguarding democratic rights across the continent, including freedom of speech in the media.

Also speaking at the summit's closing debates, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticised parliamentary resolutions by European states honouring up to 1.5 million Christian Armenians who died or were killed in massacres and deportations by Ottoman Turks during 1915-23.

Erdogan termed the killings the "so-called Armenian genocide" and said current discussions amounted to "lobbying" which Turkey would not support. But he also declared his country was prepared to open its archives and called on Armenia and other states to do the same to review the events of 90 years ago.

Armenian president Robert Kocharian, who also attended the summit, called on Monday for the 1915-23 killings to be recognised as genocide.

While Armenia and most historians say between 1.2 and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians died or were killed by Muslim Turks in a bloody wave of deportations and massacres, Turkey says there were no more than 300,000 dead and that they were not deliberately planned or desired.

The Council's 46-member states on Tuesday also signed a formal declaration of cooperation with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) aimed at co-ordinating their work for human rights and democratic freedoms.

The OSCE is the world's largest regional security organisation with 55 member states. It shares the fundamental objectives of the 46-member council, but includes members from outside Europe.

Tuesday's agreement is intended to avoid overlap in the work carried out by both bodies. Attention was also focussed on cooperation with the European Union, which although distinct from the Council, includes 25 of its member states.

The Council of Europe Warsaw Summit brought together 37 European heads of state and government for two days of debates focussed on human rights, the rule of law and security issues.

The summit was the council's third since its establishment in 1949.

At the close of debates on Tuesday, Poland handed over the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers to Portugal, which will hold the rotating office for the next six months.

Three treaties were endorsed by several but not all member states during the summit, according to the Council of Europe press service. Some 14 states signed a convention on action against trafficking in human beings, 18 states signed a convention on money-laundering and 11 states inked an agreement on the prevention of terrorism.

All members were expected to sign the documents in the near future, a senior Polish official said.

About 1,000 left-wing and anti-globalisation activists as well as Buddhist monks led a largely peaceful protest march through Warsaw on Monday urging Council of Europe member states to withdraw troops from Iraq and to oppose gross human rights violations in Chechnya.

Established in the wake of World War Two, the Council of Europe is the continent's oldest political organisation. It currently groups 46 European countries and is primarily focussed on safeguarding human rights and fundamental democratic freedoms across the continent.