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summer session of the council of europe

Karmela Belinki and Mary Liling, ICJW Representatives to the Council of Europe, report on its Summer Session (June 24-June 27, 2013).

The Parliamentary Session of the COE in June showed a slight, but still distinguishable change in atmosphere regarding Israel and the Middle East. The uprising in Istanbul and partly also the political turmoil in Syria were debated. For the first time in years, perhaps in decades, the Palestinian question was in the background and the complexity of the region acknowledged. In this respect the COE is an exception among international organisations, which more or less unanimously condemn Israel as the main culprit, as we all know. If this new trend is to last, remains to be seen.

The other question debated was violence against women, a world campaign this year. As a side event, a panel was organised by the Parliamentarian working group appointed for this issue. The panel consisted of Parliamentarians from mainly ex-Communist countries and countries with a strong Muslim population. It was interesting to listen to how Parliamentarians from countries traditionally not very distinguished as combatants of women’s issues assured that they would ratify the so called Istanbul Convention against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. Ratification as such does not necessarily lead to drastic improvements.

A very good French film on rape was shown without the usual dramatised horror stories. There were half a dozen women from very different backgrounds, who told their stories, all well chosen, in a dramaturgically and scenically functional atmosphere. It has been shown in several European TV networks.

The NGO session showed again the isolation of this entity from the main stream of events, both physically and mentally. As was mentioned in previous reports, the NGO meetings (Plenaries and Committees) do not take place in the main Palais de l’Europe, but in the Agora building, where we are not informed about what is going on elsewhere. And above all, the NGO sessions are so long and intense that there is no time to meet Parliamentarians or keep up necessary networks. This June, once more, the NGO Council and the Committee meetings were perfunctory gatherings with too many issues in too short a time. The concrete issue was the coming second World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg in November 2013, but not many details were given yet. It is supposed to give more space for local NGOs and concentrate in particular on youth.

Ironically the launch of the COE “No Hate Speech Movement” (Youth Campaign for Human Rights Online”) by a short film during the meeting of the NGO Education and Culture Committee showed, through interviews of young people, all types of hatreds and harassments, with one exception: anti-Semitism.

One lunch time event “A Heart for Peace” organized by the Bnai Brith, with the surprising co-sponsorship of Pax Christi International, attracted a large number of NGOs, especially Catholic NGOs, as well as officials of Strasbourg. Every week, Israeli doctors of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, operate Palestinian babies born with serious heart problems (most often due to consanguineous marriages). Since 2005, more than 450 Palestinian children, mainly under the age of one (always arriving with one parent) have been operated, free of charge. Palestinian doctors and technicians are trained to monitor the babies once they get back home, either in Gaza or the West Bank. With the help and a three-year medical and financial support of “A Heart for Peace”, a Center of Cardiology was opened in Ramallah, in October 2012. Another one is due to open in Bethlehem. The extremely naïve and ignorant questions that came from the floor made us realize once more to what extent Palestinian propaganda has been successful in blurring Israel’s image. And convinced us again of the importance of being present at NGO meetings.

Another welcoming initiative thanks to the dynamic Anje Wiersinga of the International  Alliance of Women (IAW) and her NGO: informing about the “ Wishes, Demands and Priorities of Women in the MENA (Middle East North Africa ) Region”. It started at the January session with an extremely interesting panel under the chair of Ms. Gabriela Battaini (Deputy Secretary-General of the COE) and a booklet IAW published on the subject. This has been an on-going event, and concern, ever since. Anja has created an informal gender-equality network (which meets at a restaurant every NGO COE session) that helps her/us push resolutions and projects. For the forthcoming November COE Forum for Democracy the IAW is campaigning to rectify an unacceptable situation:  at the 2012 Forum for Democracy women speakers were underrepresented at the opening session (15 men, 1 woman!). The 2013 Forum for Democracy does not even have ONE woman speaker at its opening session! And this, in spite of COE policy of gender integration. Needless to add that we are giving Anje our full support.