Secretary-General of the Council of Europe: “Trial against Tymoshenko should not have been launched at all”
Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, spoke with The Ukrainian Week about his attitudes toward Ukraine’s new language law, the work of the Ukrainian judiciary and parliament, and the prospect of Strasbourg imposing sanctions against Ukraine.
U.W.: Mr. Jagland, upon arriving at your post, you initiated a major reform of the Council of Europe. Aside from reducing the permanent staff by almost a third, what other substantive changes have been made that would allow for more effective impact on countries that do not uphold democratic standards?
I’m not sure that exactly one third of the staff has been cut, but we are in the process of reducing the number of staff a little to make our work more efficient. The most important thing for us is to help member states implement their own reforms. The point is that member countries need to assume greater responsibility and diligently adhere to their own commitments.
U.W.: The Council’s latest resolution on Ukraine, adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly in January, was quite a firm and demanding text. Among other things, it referred to possible sanctions if the Ukrainian authorities continue to use the judiciary for political purposes. What do you think about the effectiveness of sanctions in general? Do you think that sanctions will be adopted against Ukraine?
In general, I cannot rule out the possibility of sanctions against any member country that does not comply with their membership obligations or refuses to receive assistance aimed at helping them comply. As for Ukraine, we are trying to provide assistance to make the necessary reforms. We will soon see whether the promised changes are possible or a political will to reform exists. That will determine our subsequent course of action.
U.W.: The Monitoring Committee had planned to discuss the Ukrainian situation at their September 4th meeting in Paris, but they did not get to this agenda item. This was partly due to the extra time spent discussing the Russian question, and the fact that there was a power outage at the Paris office. However, some members of the Monitoring Committee would like to hold special hearings on Ukraine during the October session. Are you in favour of such a proposal?
Actually, it is not my duty to shape the agenda of the Parliamentary Assembly; this matter will be determined by its Bureau. However, it should be noted that in all the Council of Europe bodies—from the Committee of Ministers to the Parliamentary Assembly—there is a lot of attention to the situation in Ukraine. In particular, Ukraine was discussed during every session of the Committee of Ministers last winter, spring and summer.
U.W.: Despite the recommendations of the Council of Europe, the Ukrainian parliament adopted two new articles of the Criminal Code that impose criminal penalties for political activity. What will the Council do about this?
First of all, you have to note that Ukraine recently adopted a new Code of Criminal Procedure that took into account nearly all of our recommendations, so productive dialogue is possible. Unfortunately, the two articles that you referred to still appear in the Criminal Code. The whole mess around the [Yulia – Ed.] Tymoshenko case stems from these two articles, which made it possible to launch a case against her based on political decisions. My view is that this trial should not have been launched at all because the gas deal with the Russian Federation was a purely political decision. Those who wanted to dispute it should have done so in the parliament and not brought it to court. If we look at the realities of the time, Tymoshenko was under heavy pressure because the Russians were threatening to stop gas delivery to the West. Now, there could have been an excellent opportunity to let the people judge this for themselves by letting Tymoshenko run in the parliamentary election. Unfortunately, the Central Election Committee had another view. The two articles to which we are referring here have allowed the authorities to act in an inadmissible way.
U.W.: So the Council of Europe will actually come back to these two articles, section 364 and section 365 of the Criminal Code?
Yes, absolutely. We believe that they should be changed.
U.W.: The Ukrainian parliament recently adopted a controversial new language law. The Venice Commission issued a nuanced and unfavourable evaluation of the initial bill, but their recommendations were not taken into account. Now that the law has been adopted, do you think that the Venice Commission might re-examine it? The law’s views on the state language and the implementation of the new law for minorities, for instance the Bulgarian minority in Izmail, are very controversial…
I have heard that Ukraine has set up a commission to look into this issue. So the authorities have agreed that further work on the law is required. I think this is positive. The Council of Europe has a Charter for minority languages, which is very important. This protects everyone’s right to speak their own language. But it has to be done in a balanced way and granted to everybody. So it’s good that they are looking into it, so that there is law that is fair to everybody. It should be noted that a large part of Ukraine’s population is Russian-speaking.
U.W.: As for the parliamentary elections in Ukraine, how should election observation by the Council of Europe be organized?
There will be election observation by the Parliamentary Assembly. And it will be coordinated with the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe]. There will also be pre-election observation headed by Andreas Gross, leader of the socialists group. The mission will include both co-rapporteursof the PACE Monitoring Committee. It is very important for us to anticipate the situation before the elections, to see how candidates and political parties organize their campaigns and make sure all the participants have equal access to media.
U.W.: Elmar Brok, who is the chairman of the Foreign Committee of the European Parliament, stated in an interview with The Ukrainian Week that he felt the elections were undemocratic from the start because Tymoshenko and Lutsenko were not able to take part in them. Tymoshenko has issued similar statements from her prison cell. Do you share this view?
This is a very unfortunate consequence of recent events in Ukraine. It is possible that the elections can be technically free and fair, but not respected politically, because of the fact that the main opposition leaders are excluded from the process. This is an unfortunate consequence of the situation that has been created by bringing Tymoshenko to court instead of having a real political debate in the parliament, so that the people could decide and give their judgment about the whole thing.
U.W.: Did you submit a request to see Yuliya Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko in prison during your stay?
No, I didn’t do that, because many other representatives have already been there. One of the bodies of the Council of Europe, namely the CPT [European Committee for the Prevention of Torture – Ed.] visited the prison and issued a report on that. And the court in Strasbourg [the European Court of Human Rights – Ed.] issued a statement that Tymoshenko should have the right to be treated in a hospital, while they declared the pre-trial imprisonment of Lutsenko to be illegal.
U.W.: Could you tell us a little bit more about your action plan for Ukraine?
I launched this action plan one year ago. Now I have come to take stock of how it’s going and make sure that it is implemented. This is a very broad reform program costing around EUR 22mn. So it is a huge undertaking from our side and from some of our member states. There has been a little progress, but there are also some controversies.
U.W.: Can you comment on some of the points that are controversial?
I can give you one example, since we have talked about the Criminal Procedure Code, in which they have taken more or less all our recommendations. But there has to be a follow up. For instance, by revising the law on the Prosecutor’s Office, which still has not been done. That is very important, because it has to do with the power of the Prosecutor, which as we see it has to be reduced. So the role of the Prosecutor’s Office has to be reformed and we are going to discuss the issue in Kyiv.
U.W.: Wasn’t that an obligation that Ukraine undertook when it joined the Council of Europe 17 years ago, when basically the Public Prosecutor’s Office was in charge of investigations, but also of supervising the investigations?
Exactly. So this has to be reformed in order to give Ukrainian citizens the right to a fair trial.
U.W.: When you communicate with Ukrainian authorities do you feel you’re being understood? Is your communication with them efficient? In many interviews, French politicians say that Ukrainian authorities are “autistic”.
I have a free and open dialogue with them. I think they understand me and I think I understand their opinions. There are different views, for instance on the points that I have talked about. But there is no problem of communication.
U.W.: You preside over the Council of Europe as well as the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. It might be too soon to talk about actual candidates, but what kind of person do you think would deserve the Nobel Peace Prize this year? What kind of human qualities you are looking for?
First of all it’s too early. Secondly, the process in the Committee is always totally secret. If you look at the history of the Nobel Prize, there have been many different types of people. We never look at one specific category of personalities or organizations. Our platform is the will of Alfred Nobel, who said that the Prize should go to the one that has done the most toward reducing armaments in today’s world and fostering brotherhood between people or resolving conflicts by peaceful means. These criteria are crucial for us.
U.W.: When the Prize was awarded to Barack Obama that was quite strongly criticized. Many claim that this politicized the prize unnecessarily, and that there were better candidates to choose from. Do you share this criticism?
There was a lot of criticism, but there were also people that understood the message of the Committee. He got the Prize simply because he rescued the world disarmament regime, and that is very much overlooked. Without him taking this initiative to re-launch negotiations with the Russians on the static arms and also discuss the European missile shield, we wouldn’t have a global disarmament regime today. I think it was unavoidable for us to give the Prize to Obama.
THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT’S WARNING
On September 12th, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the EU’s foreign and security policy drafted by EPP’s Elmar Brok. Under the resolution, the EU foreign policy should be based on the encouragement and protection of European values and focus on promoting the ideas of peace, security and prosperity. The EU should be guided by the principles that were crucial to the foundation of the EU itself with the principles of democracy and human rights being in the limelight of its policy. Provision 54 in the resolution is for Ukraine. Among other things, it says that the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU can only be signed if Kyiv ensures stable and efficient judiciary, stops political persecution and respects the key democratic values. The EU also views the upcoming parliamentary election in Ukraine as a test of democracy. Therefore, it will fund a mission of observers to the October election in Ukraine.
In his interview to Gazeta Wyborcza, First Vice Premier Valeriy Khoroshkovsky does not rule out a possibility that Ukraine’s relations with the EU may be frozen after the parliamentary election in Ukraine. He gives two scenarios. “The optimistic one is that the current government remains in power and Europe recognizes our efforts to hold a democratic election. If the Association Agreement is signed, we will make progress in other areas, too.” In his pessimistic scenario, “Based on provocations and privileges for the opposition decisions will be taken that will freeze our political and even economic relations with the EU.”
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration