Chairman, Secretary General, Your Excellencies, distinguished guests and colleagues. The Council of Europe was set up nearly fifty years ago as a reminder to all Governments that they have a duty to protect their citizens' rights and freedoms. It was part of a growing movement towards post-War reconciliation.
The end of the cold War has allowed democracy to spread across the continent. The Council had 23 members in 1989. It now has 40 and represents some 765 million people from democratic European countries.
Let us not forget what an astonishing transformation this is, and how the work of this Council, and other bodies like the CSCE, has been so triumphantly vindicated.
Having been in Moscow at the beginning of this week, I am particularly delighted that Russia is now a member and that Boris Yeltsin - a champion of democracy in his own country - is here with us.
The Council can now operate as it was always meant to - setting standards across Europe. It has provided a yardstick for the former Communist countries as they develop modern, pluralistic, free and open societies. It has helped to reduce tensions between communities and has demonstrated how the rights of ethnic minorities should be protected.
The Council must continue its help and encouragement to those countries present here as observers. I hope they will meet the Council's standards and become full members as soon as possible. Ten years ago, to be honest, people would have scoffed at the suggestion that one day membership of the Council would be so highly prized across Europe. But it is now seen as final confirmation of a country's democratic vocation.
Despite this enormous progress, we cannot be complacent. Individuals' rights are still abused in Europe. The Council has not been so successful that it no longer has a role. Our task is to make it even more effective.
When individuals' rights have been abused, they should not have to wait years before they can obtain redress. We must streamline the Council's procedures and ensure that judgements are reached more quickly. This means pressing on with the establishment of the permanent Single Court of Human Rights. And it means ensuring the Court has the best possible judges, chosen on the basis of merit rather than politics. People will only have confidence in the Court, if it is seen as fair and responsive to their grievances and concerns.
We also need to respond to the new challenges that confront us. Human cloning is a classic example. Until very recently it was the stuff of science fiction fantasies. Now it is an all too real possibility. I therefore particularly welcome the measures to ban human cloning in the Council's Plan of Action. Respect for human rights cannot be static. We must develop new instruments to deal with new problems.
At the same time, we all need to look at our own countries and see what more we can do. The new Labour Government in Britain is committed to putting the rights and freedoms of its citizens at the centre of its policies, to go along with their responsibilities.
One of our first acts was to pledge to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law. We are making progress in fulfilling this pledge. I can tell you that we intend to publish a White Paper on this in the week beginning 20 October, and publish the Bill soon afterwards.
It was the Labour Government under Clement Attlee that promoted the Convention immediately after the Second World War. It was a Labour Government that announced in 1965 that the United Kingdom had decided to accept the right of individuals to petition the Human Rights Commission and the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court. And it is the Labour Government I lead which will incorporate the Convention into the United Kingdom's domestic law.
I want the British people to be able to secure their human rights at home from their own judges. They should not have to go through the lengthy and often expensive process of appealing direct to the Commission and Court here in Strasbourg. I also want British judges to make their own distinctive contribution to the development of human rights in Europe.
Incorporation, I have to confess, is a case of Britain catching up with its partners in Europe. I hope we can also lead the way. The new Labour Government is committed to a major decentralisation and devolution of power across the United Kingdom, as well as to a Freedom of Information Act. I believe that by bringing decision-making closer to the people, we will be better able to protect their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Remote, centralised Governments, cut off from their citizens, are much more likely to infringe these rights than local administrations responsive to people's needs. And, as we devolve power and protect people's rights, we also help them to develop their sense of citizenship and to meet the responsibilities that accompany these rights.
The Council of Europe has room for congratulations and scope for improvement. We must take every opportunity to make it more effective and to ensure that it has the means to respond to new challenges. At the same time, we should all consider afresh, and fundamentally, how we govern ourselves and redouble our efforts to protect the rights and freedoms of our citizens.