Something for the weekend (31)

Empty chairs, steely glares, righteous prayers and NGO scares – this week, the parliamentary assembly took all of our fears, multiplied them by a thousand and left us wondering whether we could ever again trust our government, menfolk or mammograms.

Russia’s vote strip penalty

Unsurprisingly, events in Ukraine dominated the week’s proceedings. Yesterday, the assembly voted decisively to suspend the voting rights of its Russian delegation, following the country’s annexation of Crimea.

The move to strip the 18 member delegation of voting privileges had been touted in the run-up to this Spring session, giving both sides time to refine arguments and hone soundbites.

Indeed, as the Council of Europe’s minorities rights experts worried aloud about the treatment of Crimean Tartars and political heavyweights urged circumspection in relations with Russia, sections of the country’s media reacted as if, once suspended, the Russians might not be so willing to return.

The Moscow Times reported the thoughts of Russian presidential advisor Vladimir Tolstoi, who signalled the cultural distance Russia could take from the European family. According to Tolstoi, “Russia should be examined as a unique and distinctive civilization, belonging neither to the ‘West’ nor the ‘East.”

RiaNovosti raised the spectre of the Cold War, in an article last Monday, which quoted Russian lawmaker Ruslan Gattarov.

“Gattarov called the potential Russian withdrawal from the organisation a ‘political spectacle’ forced by the US Department of State and a number of European countries,” the news outlet thundered.

“‘I get the feeling there is a never-ending Cold War on the part of the West,’ was Gattarov’s final summation.

When ‘Decision-Day’ arrived, as the British Guardian newspaper noted, “the Russian members stormed out of the chamber before the vote took place.”

Readers learned that this meant that there were no Russians present in the chamber to answer the assembly’s condemnation of “Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its military occupation of Ukrainian territory, and Moscow’s illegal so-called referendum on the peninsula,” which, the assembly recorded, constituted “beyond any doubt, a grave violation of international law.”

After the vote was taken, Parliamentary Assembly President Anne Brasseur was emollient, regretting in a tweet, that dialogue with the Russians had not been possible.

The mood among the Russians was equally sombre. The Moscow Times carried a statement from Alexi Pushkov. It read: “We are now leaving this session in a sign of protest and reserve the right to consider the issue of our further participation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.”


The Snowden frightener

The assembly might have said goodbye to its Russian members until January 2015 but saying “hello” live from Moscow, was celebrity whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Staring down at his audience like a 21st century Orwellian Winston Smith, Snowden appeared by video link, to contribute to a Parliamentary Assembly hearing on mass state surveillance. By the end of his testimony, the ex-CIA contractor had us all chowing down on our fingernails.

Snowden, attended by off-camera lawyers, started by admitting he would offer nothing new to his already substantial canon of public revelations, disappointing those who might have hoped for fresh evidence of spy-agency malpractice. Then, for approximately 45 minutes, he polished what was already on the record. Snowden’s commentary was devastating and precise, the controlled indignation and timing of his words and the frequent video signal shortages only adding to the political theatre.

Snowden confirmed that government intrusion extends to uploading images from your webcam, as part of a techno-fishing exercise which allows it to target “individuals and “classes of individuals.”

Trillions of communications are caught up in the government’s spying net. The sites you browse regularly, leave a trail easy enough for government to find and quickly assemble your online profile. Those cheeky ‘off the reservation’ webfiles, with their incessant pop-up images and come-hither invitations, which you visit when no-one is looking – yep, a government spy analyst can type in your favourite two vowels and four consonants faster than you can!

According to Snowden, just about everything you do with your computers and smartphones has the potential to be surpervised and recorded, to be used against you, should you prove disobedient. And in this nightmare sceneraio – which the former CIA contractor insisted, has not yet come to pass, no-one will be safe. Politicians, religious leaders and even saintly human rights organisations have already come within the crosshairs of the intelligence services. Snowden name-checked Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch but from his argument, might there be others?

Dancing in the pews

Despite Snowden’s frightners, there may be some religious figures sleeping more soundly these days, having seen-off the threat of ‘sect observatories’ proposed in an assembly report authored by Rudy Salles.

Scientologists, Quakers and other religious groups had gone on the media offensive in recent weeks, to complain loudly that Salles proposals threatened religious freedoms.

Dr. Aaron Rhodes, co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project, President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and former Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, came to Strasbourg to raise his concerns directly with parliamentarians.

“The resolution would itself constitute a threat to children, as well as adults, who are members of minority religions,” Rhodes declared. “It would stigmatize them and increase the chances of them being exposed to prejudice, discriminated against, and even subjected to violence.

“The Council of Europe is respected around the world for upholding human rights standards. But if the Council of Europe itself embraces religious discrimination and interference by state authorities in the form of the Resolution under consideration here, it will not only degrade its own standards, but also diminish its value as a model for others.”

After the assembly vote, the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom & The All Faiths Network was in triumphant mood.

To the sound of high-fives, it reported that: “The recommendations of French MP Rudy Salles which would have had the effect of exporting French anti-religious policies to the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe has not been adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

“All Salles´ recommendations – identified by former International Helsinki Federation Director Dr. Aaron Rhodes as “a recipe for discrimination and intolerance” and something that would “provide cover for arbitrary interference in religious life” – were cancelled. Instead, a completely different proposal was proposed and adopted.

“Over 80 dedicated human rights organization and experts in criminal law, religious freedom and human rights from throughout the world, as well as a petition signed by more than 10,000 signatories, addressed the President Ms Anne Brasseur and key political figures of the Parliamentary Assembly asking for the proposed antireligious recommendations to be rejected.”

The fire next time

Rudko Kawczynski, President of the European Roma and Travellers Forum, summoned the zeal of an old-school evangelist and injected it into his International Roma Day message. Whilst, in his statement, Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland lauded the positive action of local authorities towards Roma communities, Kawczynski fulminated against serial policy failures at national and European level. This was, he said, the result of decades-long treatment of Roma people not as citizens but as objects of derision and warned of the fire to come should Europeans not mend their ways.

Sounding like a cross between John the Baptist and Chuck D, as he discussed the pandemics of Roma-phobia, poverty and joblessness, Kawczynski stated: “I’m worried about the situation. I’ve been saying this for more than 30 years. We need to sit together. People will not stand it forever.”

Fear and loathing

A reboot in policy-approach was also suggested by Vicky Claeys, the regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), who informed an assembly committee about her fears of a swing against long-established abortion rights across Europe.

Much attention is focussed on the draft bill now making its way through Spain’s parliament but Claeys says abortion rights are also threatened in Norway, Ireland, Turkey, Russia, Poland and Lithuania.

In a podcast interview, Claeys attributed this trend to increasing conservatism, the financial crisis, creeping nationalism and latent fears about Europe’s low birth-rate, resulting in the simple equation that more babies wil result from policies that make contraception and abortion more difficult.

“It’s a war on women,” she added. “Women’s rights are being undermined. Things need to be connected again. Women’s organisations need to change gear.

“I’m from a generation who have worked hard for a long time to get what we have now. This is recent history. The improvement in abortion legislation has been a fight for a long time.

“You need to realise that these things can be taken away. It needs more action from the younger generation of women and men, to say that this is something we need to protect.’

Breast cancer care

There was gender consensus later in the day however, when an assembly committee considered the importance of providing optimum care for women with breast cancer.

Cypriot parliamentarian Stella Kyriakides, twice diagnosed with the illness, led the amen chorus, urging minimum standards for screening. She was joined by two eminent medical specialists from Italy, who discussed the pros and cons of regular mamograms. Kyriakides’ compelling back-story and the current uncertainty over cancer testing procedures made it a difficult afternoon for everyone present.

And so to next week

If this assembly session was a cracker, the next one scheduled for June, when members will select the organisation’s 14th Secretary General, promises to be a humdinger.

More immediately, attention will turn to some interesting cases at the European Court of Human Rights.

A Moldovan police lecturer will find out next week if judges accept that a state-owned hospital was wrong to disclose her preganancy to her employer, whilst a Polish father hopes the court will vindicate his protest against authorities who, he claims, failed to enforce his child access rights.

Click here for more information about the organisation’s activities over he next seven days.

Bon weekend

Something for the weekend (30)

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