Ireland assumes presidency of organisation which is ‘conscience of Europe’, Coveney says

Work of Council of Europe will be dominated by continuing war in Ukraine, says Minister

Ireland took over the presidency of the Council of Europe on Friday in what was described as one of the most challenging moments in history for the human rights organisation.

For the next six months, Ireland will set the agenda for the organisation which has 46 member states and was founded in the wake of the second World War to uphold democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Russia announced it was leaving the organisation on the eve of a decision by the body’s council of ministers to expel it in March, because members found its actions in Ukraine to be incompatible with the organisation’s aims and purpose.

It was the “gravest crisis for the organisation since its foundation”, Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio told journalists as he passed on the presidency from Italy to Ireland in a joint press conference in Turin on Friday.

“It was a difficult, unprecedented situation,” he said, adding that “there was no alternative” and the measure was necessary “to retain the credibility of the organisation”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the purpose of the organisation was to be the “conscience of Europe”.

“Everything we do will be dominated by the continuing war in Ukraine,” he said.

Due to Russia’s expulsion, Ireland is taking over “at a time of some controversy, but also an increased profile” for the organisation, he said.

In a statement, Council of Europe secretary general Marija Pejcinovic Buric said Ireland was taking over “at a difficult moment for our continent: a time in which our values are under attack”.

A retreat from the rule of law is a growing problem in Europe, including among members of the organisation. It has the role of pressuring member states to implement rulings from its court, the European Court of Human Rights, which in some cases has been increasingly challenging.

In February, its Committee of Ministers voted to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey due to its failure to comply with a ruling that found it should free Osman Kavala, a detained human rights activist.

Britain was a founding member of the organisation and heavily influenced how the court was established and its human rights law, but more recently the British government has challenged its role and threatened to pass legislation to override its jurisdiction.

The court and Council of Europe have frequently been confused with the European Union since the Brexit referendum, though they are entirely separate.

An announcement by the British government that it would block future prosecutions related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland is a potential source of tension. The move has already drawn criticism from the Council of Europe, which last year reopened a case on the murdered Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane after the British government decided not to open a public inquiry.

As the Council of Europe members gathered in Turin on Friday, they were joined remotely by Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who appealed to its members to maintain support for the country, and said accountability was needed for atrocities by Russian forces.

Ireland has chosen the priorities of reinforcing human rights and the protection of civilians in Europe, the promotion of participatory democracy and youth engagement taking inspiration from the citizens’ assemblies, and fostering a welcoming and inclusive continent. It will pursue the themes in a series of events over the next six months.