EMBARGO UNTIL DELIVERY D 02(2021)
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany,
Chair of the Committee of Ministers
on the occasion of the
first part of the 2021 Ordinary Session
of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly
(Strasbourg, 25-28 January 2021)
President, Members of the Parliamentary Assembly, Ladies and Gentlemen,
In his opening speech to the first Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 10 August 1949, its president, Edouard Herriot, referred to what he called an “extremely delicate question”, namely the future of Germany in Europe.
As a former French prime minister, Herriot stressed the “unease” of Germany’s neighbours, given their memories of the “torture, executions and deportations” that had been committed by Germans only a few years earlier during the Second World War.
Yet Herriot nevertheless offered the then newly established Federal Republic of Germany reconciliation and co-operation: for the common goal of what he called a “liberal Europe”.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I believe Edouard Herriot would be satisfied if he could see our Europe of today – a largely united continent of law and human dignity. With a democratic Germany in its midst, living in freedom and friendship with its neighbours.
We owe this to strong institutions like the Council of Europe: almost 72 years after being founded, it is now an institutional pillar of our united continent and sets human rights protection standards worldwide with the European Convention on Human Rights.
At the same time, we have seen in recent years that our peaceful and tolerant Europe cannot be taken for granted. Violence and war have flared up again, most recently in Nagorno Karabakh, but also in eastern Ukraine. And democracy, the rule of law and human rights are under pressure.
Images like those we saw at the weekend from many Russian towns and cities – of police officers beating, dragging away and arresting peaceful demonstrators – are in blatant contradiction of the obligations which we all entered into as members of the Council of Europe. We therefore demand that Russia immediately release the arrested demonstrators. And we expect the release at once of Alexei Navalny, whose rights Russia already violated in previous proceedings, as has been found beyond doubt by the European Court of Human Rights.
Incidents like those in Russia in recent days undermine achievements in terms of rule of law, of which we as Council of Europe members are rightly proud.
We must be resolute in opposing the erosion of our European human rights architecture.
We have therefore set three main priorities for our presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe:
Firstly, we are working for uniform protection of human rights throughout Europe.
· All Council of Europe member States must abide by final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. National rules provide no justification for only implementing these judgments in part or not implementing them at all and thereby breaching international law.
· We are working hard to bring about the prompt accession of the European Union to the convention. We intend to push ahead with the accession agreement in the runup to our ministerial session in May.
· We are standing up for people whose rights are particularly under threat during the pandemic. Women and children in particular are suffering from increased domestic violence.
We therefore call on all member States to accede to the Istanbul Convention.
· And, lastly, we should all work together to ensure that the curbs on personal freedoms to protect our health during the pandemic remain proportionate and of limited duration. The Secretary General’s toolkit on respecting human rights and the rule of law during the pandemic provides valuable recommendations here. But we must also put them into practice!
Secondly, we intend to make the European human rights architecture fit for the digital era.
· Artificial intelligence is Janus-faced – it involves both new opportunities and also risks. If we do not want the internet to be a human rights-free zone, the Council of Europe must set standards in this area, for instance with a new framework convention.
The relevant ad hoc committee adopted a key feasibility study on the matter in December and we discussed the issues at our online conference on artificial intelligence last week.
On that basis, we should be able to adopt further decisions at our ministerial session in May.
· In the USA and also elsewhere, we are witnessing how hate speech on social media increases discrimination and unleashes violence. We need better rules against online hate campaigns, as well as antidiscrimination strategies for cyberspace.
We will be discussing ways to make progress here at a presidency conference on combating online hate speech in February.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The third key priority of our presidency is bringing the Council of Europe closer to Europe’s citizens.
· We are working closely with the Advisory Council on Youth and the European Youth Foundation with a view to getting more young people in particular involved in the Council of Europe’s work. The expectations they have for the future of our continent were shown at the “Third European Youth Work Convention” in December.
· We need to involve minorities still more closely in our discussions, too. We are focusing here on Europe’s largest minority – Roma and Travellers (*) – and are co-operating closely with the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture.
After a concert in Berlin in December, the institute will be organising a youth conference in Strasbourg in April for International Roma Day.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In his inauguration speech a few days ago, President Biden urged his fellow citizens not to focus only on their differences with other people but on what united them. And to see diversity as an opportunity.
That must apply even more to Europe and to the Council of Europe, which unites 47 nations in their diversity. Of course, differences of opinion will keep on coming up between us. But you, as parliamentarians, and we all as democrats have a duty to resolve these differences together – with respect, willingness to compromise and a human approach.
I also say so quite deliberately with reference to the debate about today’s participation of some Russian parliamentarians. The Council of Europe has always stood for exchanges that also transcend ideological boundaries. That also means voicing criticism openly – and putting up with it. In my view, however, burning bridges is the worst option.
Only if we keep up open dialogue with one another will we be able to preserve what for Edouard Herriot in 1949 was at most a far-off goal: a Europe of peace, co-operation and human rights.
I thank you for your attention and look forward to taking your questions.
(*) The term “Roma and Travellers” is used at the Council of Europe to encompass the wide diversity of the groups covered by the work of the Council of Europe in this field: on the one hand a) Roma, Sinti/Manush, Calé, Kaale, Romanichals, Boyash/Rudari; b) Balkan Egyptians (Egyptians and Ashkali); c) Eastern groups (Dom, Lom and Abdal); and, on the other hand, groups such as Travellers, Yenish, and the populations designated under the administrative term “Gens du voyage”, as well as persons who identify themselves as Gypsies. The present is an explanatory footnote, not a definition of Roma and/or Travellers.