PACE Secretary General Despina Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis on Ukraine and European political challenges

Τhe initiatives taken by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to address the consequences of the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine were discussed by Dr.  Despina Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA). Dr. Despina Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis is the first woman to be elected secretary general in the history of PACE. 

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Photo: Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate



Specifically, in an interview to journalist Katia Tsimplaki, Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis emphasized that shortly after the attack on Ukraine, Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers followed the Assembly’s recommendation and expelled Russia, ending the country’s 26-year participation in the organization. She highlighted that the Assembly was the first international body to call for the establishment of an ad hoc international criminal court to investigate and prosecute the crime of Russia’s aggression, the creation of a registry of damages, and an international compensation mechanism so that the Ukrainian people can receive reparations.

Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis pointed out to ANA-MPA that particular emphasis was placed on the missing children of Ukraine. She mentioned the informal group Women@PACE, which was established on her initiative, which for the first time heard Ukrainian women parliamentarians describe the horrors of the war just a few days after it broke out.

PACE’s secretary general emphasized that Russia’s war of aggression and its ramifications “have geopolitical as well as religious roots, and the religious dimension is part of the ‘propaganda’ around them.” She also announced that the Assembly will discuss a report in June focusing on the destruction of religious heritage and the looting of religious artefacts in Ukraine (and other countries), and on promoting cultural resilience during and after armed conflicts.

She also spoke about President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Theodoros Roussopoulos, their collaboration, and the achievements of the Assembly over its 75 years of operation. Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis described the increase in women’s participation as ‘a red thread’ underlying the priorities of her term, emphasizing that their representation in PACE that since her election in 2021 has approached parity for the first time in its history.

Regarding the lack of female representation in leadership positions both in international organizations and in the EU, the PACE official emphasized: “Women are just as capable as men. When women take their place in society, they are not taking anything ‘from men’.”

For the upcoming European elections, she expressed the hope that European citizens would not show political apathy and that they would participate actively. She explained, “A lot is at stake, and we need Europe and its institutions more than ever.” Regarding the polls predicting the rise of parties that do not fully believe in the benefits of the European Union, she noted: “Such a European Parliament and such a European Commission are likely to set entirely new priorities and lead us into a new phase of European politics.”

Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis referred to the actions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as well as to the unanimous resolution in June 2008, according to which the intercultural character of Imvros and Tenedos is maintained. She spoke about the measures taken to counteract the departure of the Greek population from the islands and the reopening of a Greek community school on Imvros.

The interview was conducted on the sidelines of Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis’s participation at the 4th Congress of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Athens, which focused on the protection of religious freedom, democracy, and human rights.

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Photo: Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

-Ms Chatzivassileiou-Tsovilis, in your recent address at the Assembly of Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Athens, you eloquently connected the concept of Freedom of Religion and Beliefs with humanitarian needs and contemporary global trends. Given these insights, do you believe that religious freedom is currently in crisis in Europe?

“ What I believe is that there may be a perception that religious freedom is in crisis today, but this is not necessarily true. The question is how you look at things, and how you portray them.



Contrary to how today’s European diversity is sometimes portrayed by those who would wish to create divisions or mistrust, the intermingling of populations, cultures and beliefs is absolutely nothing new in Europe. On the contrary, the Europe we know today is the result of past and continuing interactions between populations whose cultures (in the general sense, including religious, philosophical and secular beliefs) have met, clashed, mixed and bonded throughout our continent’s history. Having my origins in Asia Minor, in Sinope, I feel this very strongly under my skin.

But unfortunately, cultural and religious diversity has also become a source of anxiety, fear and tension in Europe, and even more outside the continent.  We are confronted almost daily with instances of intolerance, rejection, hatred and violence.  These destroy individual lives, social cohesion, and ultimately, stability and peace.”

-How can we stop this? 

“ Instead of emphasizing what separates us and running the risk of creating societies living more and more in parallel, we must build on what unites us. Our common aim must be an open and tolerant society based on an ethic of respect for others – a society in which every individual will not only be entitled but also able to practice his or her faith and live according to his or her beliefs  as long as he or she respects the rule of law and people who take another approach, whether religious or secular.

Building resilience includes drawing clear red lines as to what a multicultural, multireligious, democratic society will and will not tolerate. In this respect, I believe that the fundamental values of  46 member State Council of Europe, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights, can be – and must be – the glue that binds us together.

This freedom of each person should not infringe on the freedom of religion and belief of others, nor can it undermine other fundamental values.  The equation is not always easy, but with mutual respect and by listening to each other, we can avoid and circumvent the perceived crisis of religious freedom in Europe and avoid its instrumentalisation for political purposes.”
 
-The Ecumenical Patriarchate has over the years faced many challenges. Can you please tell us if the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has undertaken any initiatives or actions in this respect?

“ Yes! In November 2008, the then Chair of our Monitoring Committee, Mr Serhyi Holovaty from Ukraine, visited the Ecumenical  Parriarchate and met with His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bαrtholomew, as part of the process of controlling compliance by Türkiye of its statutory obligations as a member State of the Council of Europe.

Following a request by Mr Holovaty and further meetings at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, our body of constitutional law experts, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as «Venice Commission», stressed, in an Opinion adopted in 2010, that the fundamental right of freedom of religion as protected by Article 9, read together with Article 11, of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) includes the possibility for religious communities as such to obtain legal personality.

This is important to ensure access to court and the protection of property rights. The Venice Commission could thus see no justification, which would be in conformity with the strict requirements of these provisions, for not granting such rights to the non-Muslim religious communities in Türkiye. Pending legislation in this respect, the existing rules, including the laws on foundations and associations, had to be interpreted in such a way as to minimise the restrictions on freedom of religion following from the fact that the religious communities do not themselves have legal personality.

As regards the right of the Orthodox Patriarchate to use the title “ ecumenical”, the Commission held that any interference with this right would constitute a violation of the autonomy of the Orthodox Church under Article 9 ECHR. While the Turkish authorities were under no positive obligation to themselves use this title, the Venice Commission failed to see any reason, factual or legal, for them not to address the Ecumenical Patriarchate by its historical and generally recognised title.

Let me also recall a resolution, adopted unanimously by our Assembly in June 2008, on « Gökçeada (Imbros) and Bozcaada (Tenedos): preserving the bicultural character of the two Turkish islands as a model for co-operation between Turkey and Greece in the interest of the people concerned », following a historical visit to the two islands by the former heads of the Greek and Turkish delegations to the Assembly, Elsa Papademetriou and Murat Mercan, in 2005.

Our Assembly called for positive measures in order to stem or at least partly reverse the departure of the ethnic Greek population from the islands so that their bicultural character can be sustainably preserved. This included amongst others permission to re-open at least one Greek community school on Gökçeada (Imbros), as soon as a sufficient number of ethnic

Greek families with school-age children have committed themselves to resettling on the island. The new school should promote biculturalism and offer Greek language and culture classes. The fact that such a school was reopened following this joint initiative by Greek and Turkish parliamentarians is one of the best examples of parliamentary diplomacy I could think. It was with great pleasure and a lot of emotion that I met the director of the Greek community school at the Archons’ Conference these days.”

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Photo: Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

-The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe upholds human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. With the war in Ukraine causing significant human losses, human rights violations, what specific initiatives are being pursued to address this crisis at the EU borders?
 
“ The Russian Federation’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine has constantly been on our agenda since its launching in 2022. The Assembly reacted immediately and, at an extraordinary plenary session on 14 and 15 March 2022, unanimously adopted an historic Opinion recommending the governments of the other 46 member states to ask Russia to “ immediately withdraw from the Council of Europe”.

A day later, on 16 March, the Committee of Ministers, following the Assembly’s recommendation, decided to expel Russia from the Organisation, ending its 26-year membership. PACE was then the first international body  to call for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to “investigate and prosecute the crime of aggression allegedly committed by the political and military leadership of the Russian Federation” and the establishment of a Register of Damage to allow Ukrainian people receive reparation. Particular focus has been placed on the children of Ukraine. 

Thus, after also hearing Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska, the Assembly has called on the international community to collaborate “ to identify, locate and return children to Ukraine”. More recently, in April 2024, PACE called for the use of seized Russian state assets to fund efforts for the reconstruction of Ukraine and supported the establishment of “ an international compensation mechanism” under Council of Europe auspices.

The Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its ramifications have geopolitical but also religious roots, and the religious dimension is part of the “ propaganda” around them. Denial and erasure of cultural and religious diversity in the war in Ukraine form a tragic part of an attempt to subdue Ukrainian people. Our Assembly will debate this June a report focusing in particular on the destruction of religious heritage and looting of religious artefacts in Ukraine and elsewhere and promoting cultural resilience during and after war situations.”

-You are the first woman to be elected Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. While we observe the European Union and the Council of Europe efforts to promote equal opportunities for both men and women at all levels, it remains challenging to find female representation, even at the highest levels of European organizations. What do you believe is the reason for this?

“ Why? Simply because women and men do not enjoy the same empowerment, participation, visibility and access to resources. And as long as this is not the case, we cannot consider human rights to be respected, or democracy and the rule of law to be achieved. Women are as capable as men. When women take their place in society, they are not taking anything “ from men”. 

The responsibility of enhancing women participation at the highest levels should not be borne only by them, but by society as a whole. Institutions and political parties need to make space for women to engage and commit. It is also the responsibility of men to allow and promote change, and to show themselves as allies for gender equality. Profound structural changes are needed.

These begin with small infrastructural adaptations, such as family rooms and childcare facilities in parliaments, allowing MPs and parliamentary staff to achieve work-life balance by reconciling their legislative work and family responsibilities. They continue with alterations to participatory procedures through facilitation of voting in various ways. 

Real and lasting change comes also with day-to-day examples. One cannot teach a child to behave and act according to principles if one doesn’t apply the same rules to him or herself. I believe in the power of example to change the world and to make children understand that another power model is possible and that yes, you can be a woman, a mother, – or not if you don’t want to -, a successful politician and an intellectual, that above all, you have the right to be respected.

At PACE, we can be proud of our achievements over the last three years: 46,02% of our members are women. Not only the Secretary General of PACE is a woman but also 5 out of 9 Chairpersons of Committee and 9 out of 14 senior managers among the staff are women.”

-Looking back over the history of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, what stands out to you as its most impactful accomplishment?

“ Bringing together national parliamentarians from 46 member States, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – not to be confused with the European Parliament – acts as the democratic conscience of Europe, speaking on behalf of Europe’s 700 million citizens and the “ driving force” of the Organisation taking initiatives and recommending action to the other statutory body, the Committee of Ministers, raising questions to Ministers and Heads of government or State, monitoring members States legislation and practice and observing parliamentary or presidential elections in member States.

One of its major achievements has been the proposal it made, at the very first session it held 75 years ago, in August 1950, to elaborate a European Convention on Human Rights, providing also for a judicial mechanism which would guarantee effective respect of these rights to each individual. Since then, it has contributed to the development of the human rights protection system for the benefit of European citizens by demanding new protocols to face fresh human rights challenges, pressing states to implement rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, and electing its judges to guarantee their independence and legitimacy.

The adoption of other  conventions and charters – the European Social Charter, the Istanbul Convention for preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence, and the Bern Convention – as well as the abolition of the death penalty in the continent, the promotion of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right and the proposal to elaborate an international convention on Artificial Intelligence putting at its centre human rights, democracy and the rule of law, are some more of the Parliamentary Assembly’s achievements ensuring the protection of our citizens’ rights.

The Parliamentary Assembly also promoted and proposed the enlargement of the Organisation to embrace the countries of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while it had itself proposed the expulsion of our country Greece, after the installation of the colonels’ junta, and then its solemn return, after the restoration of democracy 50 years earlier.


All the actions and initiatives it took in response to the Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine are also very important achievements of our Assembly. I believe that, in general, the main achievement of our Assembly – and of the Council of Europe in general – goes beyond pure standard-setting and monitoring. It has notably replaced conflict and mistrust with dialogue and cooperation, but it has not hesitated to show its “teeth” when dialogue and cooperation have failed.”

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Photo: Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate


 
-In which areas do you focus your tenure, and what are your next plans?

“ Since my election in January 2021, the priorities for my mandate have focused on enhancing the impact of PACE across the member States by strengthening synergies with national parliaments, deepening relations with government representatives to the Council of Europe, working with other parts of the Organisation to maximise effectiveness, and modernising working methods within the Assembly, especially, today, through the use of artificial intelligence.

I intend to continue this work in the months to come in close cooperation with the President of the Parliamentary Assembly who, as of January 2024, is also Greek and indeed a well-known politician with vast experience both as a parliamentarian and as a member of government, Mr Theodoros Roussopoulos. The aim is to uphold and strengthen PACE’s essential role as a platform for dialogue in an ever more complex political environment. Increasing women’s participation and promoting women’s empowerment will also continue to be a red thread running through all my priorities. 



During my tenure, women’s representation in the Parliamentary Assembly has approached parity for the first time in its history, in part thanks to procedural changes I have championed. I have also initiated an informal Women@PACE group, which brings together all women in the Assembly across national and party lines. It was this group that first heard the voice of Ukrainian women parliamentarians describing the horror of the war only days after its outbreak in March 2022.

It has also held vibrant exchanges with many other women who are powerful symbols of the struggle for women’s empowerment, including Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, leader of Belarus democratic forces; Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia’s first female President; and Vigdis Finnbogadottir, from Iceland, the world’s first ever elected female President who inspired us to  create a prize named after her, the Vigdis Prize for Women’s Empowerment. In June, we will choose the first ever winner among three candidatures from Mexico, Poland and Greece following a screening of more than hundred candidates. We will also celebrate 75 women who marked the history of the Organisation during its 75 years of existence.



In general, as one of the women leaders within the Council of Europe Secretariat, I also feel a special responsibility towards its staff, and I am pleased to see the progress that has been made towards reducing the glass ceiling and towards a growing appreciation of the value of different leadership and management styles which this brings to the workplace.”


 
-Given the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, rising inflation, the war in Ukraine, and migration, what reforms do you believe are necessary to address these specific challenges within EU member states? 

“ The Council of Europe with its 46 member states goes beyond the EU countries. With the European Convention on Human Rights and more than 220 legal instruments, as well as an array of independent monitoring mechanisms and advisory bodies, the Council of Europe has established a solid ground upholding democracy, rule of law and human rights. In order to safeguard this extraordinary achievement, all the 46 Council of Europe member States should now enhance democratic resilience.



Democracy and human rights are in fact symbiotic, interdependent, and mutually reinforcing. A functional democracy not only should protect human rights and freedoms and ensure their full enjoyment by all. It must also be attentive to its citizens’ needs and provide valid responses to most pressing human rights challenges.

The covid19 crisis has left another harsh legacy on society, that of increasing inequalities and poverty. Council of Europe’s tools, and in particular the European Social Charter and the (revised) Social Charter, protecting socioeconomic rights, should be fully used and implemented. At the same time, new challenges for human rights have emerged in recent years. European citizens have also become more dependent on new technologies, as well as better aware of the negative impact of human behaviour on the environment, to give you two examples.

Reducing the digital divide, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by artificial intelligence, as well as improving the human-nature relation, have grown as common key concerns for society. As such, they must be fully integrated in any strategy towards a more democratic, equal and sustainable future.



A truly healthy democracy fosters a vibrant civil society and provides citizens with proper spaces and tools to have a meaningful say in the decisions affecting society. Member States should aim at widening opportunities for civil participation. Thus, citizens’ trust will be increased to improve the legitimacy of the decision-making process. Democracy will be strengthened from the inside.



When addressing civil participation, engaging with young people must be a top priority in this process. Today’s youth is much more disillusioned and unsatisfied with the performance of democracy compared to older generations at the same stage of life. State institutions must come closer to youth, including by integrating democratic education in school curricula and increasing public institutions’ digital presence. Providing platforms for dialogue with youth and taking their views seriously into account in a meaningful way are essential to restore young people’s confidence in democracy and avoid the risk of the emergence of a “ lost generation”.



Our Assembly is also working towards this direction and in June we will adopt new Rules on the involvement of young people in our work. However, any strategy aiming at rebuilding trust in public institutions will only be successful if public officials act as role models of integrity and responsible behavior. Impartiality, transparency, and a strong moral compass are a precondition for a solid, long-standing relationship of trust.”


-What do you believe is at stake in the elections scheduled for June 9th in Europe, and what potential impact do you foresee these elections having on the region?

“ The polls predict a rise in parties that do not fully believe in the benefits of the European Union. Such a European Parliament and a European Commission would likely set completely new priorities and lead us into a new phase of European politics. While I cannot enter a detailed discussion based on the prediction of the results of the vote, I hope more than anything else that European citizens will not show political apathy and participate in big numbers in these elections as much is at stake and we need Europe more than ever before.”

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