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2017 report from strasbourg

Mary Liling and Karmela Belinki, both accredited representatives of ICJW to the Council of Europe, report on its winter session in Strasbourg.

In these troubling and uncertain times we felt that the winter session of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (January 23-27, 2017) as well as the COE itself, Europe, the EU (with Brexit), also the INGO meetings of the COE, are all at crossroads. This seems obvious with the unpredictability of today’s world and the beginning of a post-truth era with more fake news than ever. The NGO session on emerging dangers concerning the internet (private property, cybercrimes, online hatred) was a scary eye-opener of bad days ahead.

We attended the INGO Conference, which is the governing body of the 300+ International NGOs with participative status at the COE. Introducing this year’s INGO Conference which is celebrating 40 years of its existence, Anna Rurka, President the Conference, stated that “history is being written” and that NGOs, which represent the power of civil society, are in the forefront of present-day challenges. 

The conference of INGO headed by its dynamic president is actively fighting the reduction of civil society space, while the presidents of the 3 INGO Committees (Education and Culture, Human Rights, Democracy, Democracy, Social Cohesion and Global Challenges) are doing their utmost to raise awareness, to bring to discussion, exchange ideas and best practices, and to possibly act on urgent matters facing Europe today.

Some of the issues addressed at this January 2017 NGO session: ageing population, the integration of migrants, the terrible plight of Yazidi women, the backlash of acquired women’s rights (proposed legislation of the Russian Federation to decriminalize domestic violence) as well as Climate Change and Human Rights.

For the Gender Equality Informal group, collecting information on different issues, ICJW was asked to contribute by presenting a small report on child, early and forced marriages and FGM at the June COE session. A small yearly ceremony commemorating Holocaust Remembrance day was held during the winter session. We participated in the NGO dinner where we continue to make new contacts.

The general impression is that NGOs do not always face today’s realities. “Diversity”, “pluralism” and “living together” are priorities that are being dealt with since 9/11 and after several European countries have recognized that different forms of multiculturalism have failed to integrate a percentage of mainly Muslim minorities. 

Left-wing intellectuals, journalists, observers and NGOs speak of “terrorism” “extremism” and “radicalism” but never mention “Islamic terrorism” or “radical Islam” for fear of spillovers towards Islam. In other words Islamic terrorism is either ignored or underestimated.

A striking example: Ahmed El Khannouss (First Alderman or assistant to the mayor of Molenbeek St. Jean in Belgium) was invited twice: by the NGO working group of Intercultural Dialogue and by the NGO Education and Culture Committee. (FYI Molenbeek, a mainly Muslim immigrant suburb of Brussels, is presently known for the home and hiding place of the murderers responsible for several terrorist attacks in France and in Belgium). 

For Ahmed El Khannous, Molenbeek’s bad reputation is due to the wide media coverage it received: 258 interviews were given to journalists, mostly French. It is a neglected area. Unemployment rates are high (28%) even higher among the youth. One in two young people are out of work; the big majority has poor school records. They are often frail psychologically and become delinquents. It is no wonder some have “strayed” although very few. To the question, what is to be done? El Khannouss answered “We are against all forms of extremism. The situation can only be tackled by education. And of course through intercultural dialogue”. What upset us particularly was the wide applause he received from the NGOs.

Besides the debate on the need to reform European migration policies, the Parliamentary Assembly of Parliamentarians from the 47 member-states of the COE examined the Crisis in Gaza, as it “considers that a rapid solution to the Gaza humanitarian crisis is essential in ensuring stability in the Middle East”.

We’ll be witnessing several changes at the June session. With the forthcoming elections for the presidency of the 3 above-mentioned NGO Committees, the 3 newly elected presidents will deeply influence the future NGO activities. A new head of the Civil Society Division of the COE has been appointed.