The aims of the visit were to get to know better the workings of the INGOs in the Council of Europe, to find out how our organisation can contribute more to these workings, and to underline that we as humanists find the structure and workings important.
During our visit we were guided by Silvia Geise who was replacing the IHEU representative Alexander Marius-Dees De Sterio. She is also the Liaison Committee’s representative to the COE youth advisory Council, although she is not formally a member of the committee.
Structure of Council of Europe
The Council of Europe is structured around four pillars. The Parliamentarian Assembly, the Committee of Ministers and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. The INGO grouping see themselves as the fourth pilar. They have in previous years obtained participatory status – it was at first consultative – and are now working to be more recognised as partners. There are 400 INGO members of the Council of Europe’s INGO grouping.
INGO conferences are held two to three times a year, with several working group meetings. The working groups, or as they are called: ‘groupings’ are clustered around different topics. The INGOs are coordinated by the Liaison Committee. This committee consists of more than 20 members, with people who are directly elected for the committee combined with the chairs and vice-chairs of the groupings.
During our visit, the Parlementary Assembly was held next to the INGO meetings. We listened to the parliamentary assembly on 4 October.
The issues discussed in the Parliamentary Assembly vary from themes such as economics, human rights, agriculture, education and religion to country reports. On 4 October, they discussed among others, two recommendations that are of interest to the humanist community: a) women and religion in Europe and b) education and religion. Recommendations contain proposals addressed to the Committee of Ministers, the implementation of which is within the competence of governments.
Women and Religion
Part of the humanist activity is devoted to the fight for equal rights for belief systems and on being critical of religions. The draft on women and religion in Europe should please humanists because it states that the human rights of women may not be infringed by religious practises. The document also recognised the negative role religions play for women. Second article of the document:
“..women’s rights are often curtailed or violated in the name of religion. While most religions teach equality of women and men before God, they attribute different roles to women and men on earth. Religiously motivated gender stereotypes have conferred upon men a sense of superiority which has led to discriminatory treatment of women by men and even violence at their hands”.
The resolution was amended by some Italian parliamentarians who wanted to make the wording less critical. All their attempts to change the draft were rejected by a majority of votes. But almost all their more then 20 amendments had to be treated and voted on. For the full resolution: http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/AdoptedText/ta05/ERES1464.htm.
Education and Religion
In the afternoon there was another resolution around religion discussed in the Assembly. This was for the most part a good resolution, but with a few serious drawbacks. It recommends that in formal education, objective knowledge on religions should be taught, but only on an objective level and on all religions. This document was also adopted.
The drawbacks are that:
“1 . The Parliamentary Assembly forcefully reaffirms that each person’s religion, including the option of having no religion, is a strictly personal matter. However, this is not inconsistent with the view that a good general knowledge of religions, and as a result a sense of tolerance, are essential to the exercise of democratic citizenship.
5. Politics and religion should be kept apart. However, democracy and religion should not be incompatible. In fact they should be valid partners in efforts for the common good. By tackling societal problems, the public authorities can eliminate many of the situations which can lead to religious extremism.
12. The Assembly observes moreover that the three monotheistic religions of the Book have common origins (Abraham) and share many values with other religions and that the values upheld by the Council of Europe stem from these values.”
Article one acknowledges the option of having no religion, but the life view of having no religion should be included in the teachings. This is a serious point for the whole document. Article 5 is very unclear to me and seems to give religion a special or important role. Article 12, well a false article and way forgetting the influence of other philosophies.
In preparation of this recommendation, the committee responsible for drafting it asked a few ‘experts’, well only some more extremist religious leaders: it seemed unclear why they were invited and not other ones. It seems that this committee has a lot of Christian Democratic politicians involved. Some critical follow up wouldn’t hurt with this resolution.
For the full resolution, go to: http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/AdoptedText/ta05/EREC1720.htm.
Report by Gea Meijers president IHEYO, 21 October 2005