My experience leading the Estonian delegation to PACE
The establishment of the Council of Europe (CoE) in 1949 didn’t register in occupied Estonia. The USSR was never part of a human rights organisation. How could it have been, when human rights were ignored there in the most outrageous way? But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Singing Revolution, the CoE expanded to the new states in Eastern Europe. Today, the CoE—an international organisation standing for democracy, the rule of law and human rights—consists of 47 member states with 830 million citizens.
Becoming a member of the CoE was one of the greatest international breakthroughs of the newly independent Republic of Estonia in the mid-1990s. Today, in the second decade of the new century, we have almost forgotten about it. The CoE is not talked or written about very often. If there is any news about the CoE or its parliamentary body, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), it is more often because of a scandal rather than an important report on human rights or democracy.
As a member of the XIII formation of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu), I led the Estonian delegation to PACE for four years—not that I really wanted to, but I was talked into it. I was more familiar with national security issues than human rights, and the former were definitely closer to my heart. Women’s rights are part of human rights, of course, but just that—a part. Here I write about my experience in PACE, at times citing my book Koridorides libedal jääl (On Slippery Ice in the Hallways), to be published soon.
Estonia Holds the Presidency Once Every 23 Years
The government coalition of the time expected me to conduct the Estonian presidency in exemplary fashion. Two women had to carry the weight of the presidency on their frail shoulders. Katrin Kivi, the Estonian Permanent Representative to the CoE, led the Committee of Ministers as a representative of the executive power, and I, as the Head of Delegation of the presiding member state, participated in the work of the presidential committee of PACE. I was later elected the Vice President of the parliamentary assembly.
The presidency lasted six months, from May to November 2016. We took over from Bulgaria and passed it on to Cyprus. My responsibility, together with officials from the Riigikogu, was to ensure that the PACE meeting in Tallinn went smoothly. The main goal in organising such events is not to guarantee deep discussions or heated debates, but rather to create a pleasant atmosphere.
We Estonians know the secret that guests must be always invited to our country in the summer. Our miracle of nature—white nights—do half the work for us. The Riigikogu and I decided to play this card. After the plenary meeting in the Riigikogu’s expressionist Session Hall, buses took the PACE delegation heads to the seaside restaurant Tuljak at Pirita. The member states’ representatives waxed nostalgic for months and years after the event on how the sun set almost at midnight, how professional the musicians were, and how delicious the food had been.
During our presidency, Estonia’s six-member delegation to PACE kept their fingers crossed for the country’s foreign ministers at the two plenary sessions in Strasbourg. Marina Kaljurand started our term and Jürgen Ligi concluded it. The charismatic Marina easily won over the politicians at the PACE general assembly, but unfortunately the same cannot be said about Jürgen, who struggled with public speaking.
The feeling of patriotism and pride in being Estonian that rose after Marina’s talk in Strasbourg in the spring was replaced by a sour mood, if not depression, in the autumn. After the below-par presentation by Jürgen Ligi as the presiding state’s foreign minister, and his even more inadequate answers to questions by PACE members, the Estonian delegation tried hard to hide their shame. We collectively agreed not to criticise the minister, should the Estonian media ask any questions.
We felt bad for our country, ashamed for ourselves as Estonians. We couldn’t believe how one man’s careless presentation could ruin multiple women’s earlier achievements in an instant, be it the work of Marina, Katrin or me. The other members of the PACE delegation agreed. We were all devastated that day. Here I must note that, apart from me, the Estonian delegation consisted entirely of men: Andres Herkel, Eerik-Niiles Kross, Raivo Aeg, Jaak Madison and Andrei Novikov (later replaced by Tiit Terik).
They all supported me in their own way. For example, Raivo Aeg proposed that I run for the vice-presidency of PACE. I was very surprised that no one opposed this or put forward another candidate. Another example is television appearances. As Estonian journalists did not grace us with their presence at the PACE plenary meetings, meaning the editors did not send anyone to Strasbourg, I took the initiative and began to publish video content myself.
The hall of the Palais de l’Europe has a corner where members of PACE can make video clips with equipment made available. These are usually short statements about reports, but the clips may last for 20 minutes or more. Estonia used this opportunity at nearly every plenary meeting. I played the interviewer and gave the floor to some other member of the Estonian delegation. At least followers of the Riigikogu’s Facebook page could see what the Estonian members of PACE were doing during their visits to Strasbourg.
Emergence of the Sultanate
The head of the Estonian delegation was free to choose their committees in PACE. I chose the “hard” topics of monitoring, politics and social affairs. In social affairs, I was the substitute member, with Jaak Madison as the representative. But the most important committee in PACE was that of monitoring. Every self-respecting politician tried to sneak their way in there one way or the other. But I did not have to act sneakily—I used my Head of Delegation privileges.
The committee monitors the 47 member states on how their democracy is developing and how the principles of the rule of law and human rights are being followed. I would often speak up after becoming a member of this committee. And it did not take long for me to get an offer to work as a rapporteur for the report on Turkey, which was at the time one of the best ways to get heard.
PACE’s reports are put together by two rapporteurs, who usually belong to different political parties. In the case of Turkey, one social democrat and one conservative were involved. The Turkish representatives who supported the candidature of Norway’s Ingebjørg Godskesen in her faction might have made a mistake; her plump appearance didn’t mean she wasn’t a powerful Viking.
The visits to Istanbul and Ankara by me and Ingebjørg Godskesen brought dark clouds over the Turkish sky. The facts at our disposal, as well as what we saw, heard and experienced there, brought us to the only possible conclusion. We understood that the state of democracy in Turkey called for a strongly worded resolution by PACE. There could only be one solution: Turkey needed monitoring mechanisms and supervision by the CoE, which granted it rights to request Turkey to resolve all its issues over the state of democracy, the rule of law and human rights—to demand solutions, not just in words, but through action plans and by specific due dates.
We wrote a strongly worded report on the activities of Turkey’s democratic institutions. My heart trembled when I presented the report at the PACE plenary meeting in the summer of 2017. All delegations of member states and political factions apart from Azerbaijan and Turkey supported our conclusions. The voting results were a pleasant surprise—the overwhelming majority approved the report. This meant that the stubborn Turkey was put on a leash in the human rights department.
With our report, Ingebjørg Godskesen and I set a precedent in the history of the PACE. When a member of a human rights organisation is suspected of a breach, it usually tries everything to disprove the accusations. This guarantees that when a country intends to join the CoE, it promises to behave like a proper democratic state.
Before becoming a member, a candidate must be able to show it has a democratic constitution, a free and fair electoral system, and separation of powers, and that it respects human rights. Of course, not all aspiring members of the CoE are democratically impeccable. A country might be accepted with a post-monitoring clause, i.e. there are a few details in need of rapid rectification in order to be freed from this scrutiny.
For example, Estonia was accepted as a member of the CoE in 1995 with a post-monitoring clause, mainly due to the request to improve the situation of minorities. After a period, Estonia was no longer subject to post-monitoring and celebrated the improvement in the human rights situation. This has been the case with several other countries.
But Turkey was different. The post-monitoring dialogue, which had lasted for 11 years, changed dramatically after the voting at PACE. Something occurred that had never happened to a member state in the 70-year history of the CoE: it addressed not only a few democratic shortcomings, but demanded the rectification of all democratic issues in Turkey.
Ankara replaced the Turkish Head of Delegation to PACE, Talip Küçükcan, for not doing his job. The new head was Akif Kiliç, a confidant of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) he represented. He was something else. While apparently cooperating with the rapporteurs on their visit to Ankara, he delayed things by offering them a visiting opportunity any way he could. (PACE rapporteurs may not to fly anywhere on a whim, and need to have pre-agreed meetings.)
All the meetings in Turkey were especially tense. We had to meet dozens of people over three to four days and separate the wheat from the chaff. Apart from people from some non-profit organisations, only men sat across the table from us—men with pursed lips rather than welcoming smiles. Tension was created by the concentration of moustaches as well as the game of cat and mouse they constantly played with us.
The president was the main issue. The charismatic Erdoğan wanted to change Turkey’s leadership system from parliamentary to presidential before the centenary of modern Turkey in 2023. It must be said that the determined Erdoğan has succeeded in this, despite all obstacles. The CoE’s Venice Commission issued a negative assessment of accelerated changes to the Turkish constitution. This means that the CoE’s most important advisory body on constitutional matters, whose decisions are binding on member states, was sent packing. The weak Turkish opposition tried to fight against the fundamental amendment, but Erdoğan and the AKP acted like a force of nature.
The Grotesque Agramunt and the Bizarre Jagland
The work of PACE is guided by the presidential committee, which consists of the president and the chairmen of all committees, vice presidents of PACE, chairmen of political factions, and the heads of delegation of the past, current and next chairing member states. As I started work in autumn 2015, I ended up in the presidential committee right away as Estonia held the CoE presidency from May to November 2016. I stayed in PACE until the end of 2018, as I had been elected Vice President.
As a member of the PACE presidential committee for three years, I saw up close how Anne Brasseur, a liberal politician from Luxembourg, managed the assembly fairly and honestly. But we also had to endure the shame brought upon this human rights organisation with the leadership style of Pedro Agramunt, a Spanish People’s Party representative.
Concerns about Russia emerged before I arrived in the Palais de l’Europe. Soon after the annexation of the Crimea in the spring of 2014, PACE suspended the Russian delegation’s right to vote, as well as its right to be elected for leadership positions in the PACE structure. Russia then launched a clever counterattack and stopped transferring funds to the CoE. The lack of funding from a large member state like Russia really started to make a dent in the budget.
The CoE Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, began to persuade the political factions to restore Russia’s position in PACE. No matter the cost, the “CEO” of this human rights organisation tried to push the parliamentary forces in PACE to accept Russia back with open arms. In the assembly’s social democratic faction(SOC), Jagland admitted almost directly that PACE, which had caused the problem, also held the key to resolving it, that the hole in the CoE’s budget was getting bigger, and that he counted on the social democrats’ help in resolving the funding issue as quickly as possible. He almost demanded permission to plead for Russia to return.
But belittling human rights was not an option. Jagland’s performance left a bad impression on the social democrats of many countries. I do not know how the Secretary General explained why Russia needed to return in other factions, but this “heart-to-heart” in his own political family did not earn Jagland any respect in my book. On the contrary, I followed his actions with great scepticism after that.
The stuttering Pedro Agramunt often left the impression that he was reading the text he was presenting on stage for the first time. Seeing good in a man infamous for paying in cash and with large-denomination banknotes proved impossible for me. This Spaniard obtained a prominent position at PACE thanks to some deals, not by earning any respect from his peers. He also wanted to see Russia back in Strasbourg, and the sooner the better.
My first personal contact with Agramunt was when I asked him to explain to the presidential committee of PACE why it hadn’t been permitted to display in the building a photo exhibition by Norwegian human rights activists about their Azerbaijani counterparts. Every event in the Palais de l’Europe must obtain official approval from the president of PACE. This is a formality usually taken for granted, and there normally aren’t any drawbacks, but the photo display on Azerbaijani dissidents did not receive Agramunt’s signature. My question about this obviously annoyed him. He snapped that this was the decision of the president and he did not intend to discuss the matter any further.
All the longer-standing members of PACE know about the gross violation of human rights in Azerbaijan. The rich South Caucasian oil state grew tired of always being targeted by the PACE general assembly and being told off all the time. The political elite in Baku lost patience; the Azerbaijanis began to deal with matters in these European halls the Asian way.
At one point, one potentially corruptible politician or another would get an invitation to go to Baku. People were tempted with caviar, carpets and even cash. A few people who were known to have succumbed to “caviar diplomacy” started to make the rounds. There was a bunch of men who would secretly stick together and support each other. One of these was PACE’s “honourable” president, Pedro Agramunt, who was also close to the King of Spain. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
However, Russia became the final nail in Pedro Agramunt’s coffin. When Jordi Xuclà, leader of the liberal faction of PACE, Alain Destexhe, the Belgian head of the legal affairs and human rights committee from the same faction, and Pedro Agramunt were caught in March 2017 in Syria at an event organised by Moscow, travelling by Russian military aircraft and meeting [president Bashar al-]Assad just a day before a chemical weapons attack, it left very little wiggle room for these men.
The irreparable damage to the reputation of PACE called for all three to stand down. Only the flexible Xuclà quickly admitted to his mistakes, while the others were like puppies that had peed in the corner, eyes wide with sincerity, prepared to do anything not to take the blame. Agramunt delayed stepping down until the last minute and in the end, PACE was about to dismiss him anyway. Unfortunately, the Spanish delegation would not issue a public (disapproving) statement about the dismissed president.
The President of PACE in Tallinn on Human Rights Day
At the autumn session of 2018, members of the SOC faction sat together, and got talking about the future. We thought about the opportunity to make use of the new president of PACE, Liliane Maury Pasquier, a member of our faction and a champion of women’s rights. We had the idea of organising an international conference in Tallinn. I proposed the subject of women’s economic independence, one of the basic human rights. Everyone liked my idea. We put Tallinn down for 10 December in the calendars of Liliane and of Frank Schwabe, a Social Democratic Party member of the German Bundestag and a spokesman on human rights. The secretary general of our faction, Francesca Arbogast, coordinated the trilateral communication between Berlin, Geneva and Tallinn.
Francesca’s work was not just impeccable, it was exemplary. It takes determination to get elite foreign politicians to come to Tallinn. The end of the year was busy for everyone, and both Liliane and Frank received invitations to visit other European capitals as well. Francesca knew how important this conference on the gender pay gap was for me.
On the Estonian side I was assisted by Eva Verbiaš, PACE secretary, Katry Ahi, adviser to the Riigikogu’s European Union Affairs Committee, and Mihkel Liivo, adviser to the Speaker of the Riigikogu, as well as several of my peers. For a month we worked as if in a kitchen during rush hour with dishes flying everywhere. We had to keep an eye on everything: picking up keynote speakers from the airport, managing the conference guest list, attracting the media, broadcasting the conference online, dressing the coffee tables, organising dinners and lunches, inviting members for panel discussion, etc. I felt extremely grateful when all of my friends from PACE had arrived and reported that they were happy with their hotel rooms a day before Human Rights Day.
Before the conference, stabs were directed at me from several directions—why was I organising such an event on this day?; didn’t I know that the date was reserved for the annual conference of the Institute of Human Rights? But one does not rule out the other; celebrating Human Rights Day is not the privilege of just one institution. Women’s rights are human rights, a topic on which this institute does not seem to concentrate very much. To speak up about women’s rights on Human Rights Day seemed the only possible option for me as the vice president of PACE.
The presentation by Liliane Maury Pasquier can be summarised with one important message: by abolishing the gender pay gap, we ensure women’s economic independence, which in turn would give them the opportunity to leave abusive relationships. Equal pay is both a pre-emptive and a protective measure. Frank Schwabe called for women to be appointed to leadership positions.
Invitation to Russia to Return for the CoE’s 70th Anniversary
I wrote earlier about how I reluctantly accepted the position of head of the Estonian delegation to PACE. This was indeed my attitude at the beginning. But soon my face became familiar to people in the corridors of Strasbourg. I got used to the slightly aged, dark furniture. I got accustomed to the endless assembly days, when we had to be at the Palais de l’Europe at 8 am and only returned to our hotel rooms at 11 pm.
With all the responsibilities at PACE put together, the Estonian head of delegation had to work abroad for two months a year. The plenary meetings take place four times a year, a week at a time at the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg. But meanwhile work is done in committees, which means business trips to Paris. Twice a year, PACE assembly meetings are held in the capital of the member state holding the presidency, and the heads of delegation are obliged to attend.
The main strength of the Estonian delegation is in the hands of three of its six members. Only the three representative members have the right to vote. Estonia does not have enough power to make key changes in PACE on its own, but we can find allies. This is what our delegation attempted to do. Thus, the NB8 cooperation format of Nordic and Baltic states began meeting regularly in 2015. We tried to go over each other’s positions before every plenary meeting and usually agreed on matters, although Finland’s views on Russia differed from those of the others.
When an international organisation realises that a person is driven and determined, doors will soon start to open. The impossible may turn out to be possible. This is how the SOC faction, my political family, proposed that I become a member of the Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs. This innocent-sounding committee does not deal with housekeeping, but the fundamental principles that form the basis of the working procedures of PACE, an organisation bringing together 830 million citizens. Readmitting Russia to PACE was a topic of very heated discussion at the committee’s meetings.
Every leading politician in our faction knew about my critical position on Russia. I would often speak up against the Kremlin’s advances at our meetings and at the general assembly. This is what makes the decision of Frank Schwabe, head of the faction, to propose me as the SOC member on the PACE rules committee even more remarkable. (Members of PACE are nominated for this committee by their political faction, not their national delegation.)
Right up to the end of my term, I was the annoying member of the committee who demanded we stand our ground with Russia. But mine was a voice in the wilderness, as in June 2019 the status of Russia was voted upon at the summer session of PACE. The current presidency holder, France, got its wish: the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe will be celebrated in the Palais de l’Europe by all the 47 member states. Together.