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Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the opening of the conference “Time to react – Strengthening the scope of civil society to act”

01.06.2017

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

Barely any issue has been discussed so much in human rights circles as the diminishing space for civil society to act. That initially sounds harmless enough, almost technical. Diminishing space – our first thought is of NGOs which have to wrestle with day‑to‑day organisational problems: the cost of qualified staff is increasing, affordable office space is becoming more scarce, deadlines for project applications are becoming tighter, forms are becoming longer and more complicated.

Yet this phrase actually denotes much more. So much more that sometimes I wonder whether we ought to adapt our choice of words. It isn’t just about organisational problems. It is about oppression and persecution, about massive violations of the human rights of all those who work to promote the rule of law and tolerance, a vibrant democracy and a diverse society.

It is about activists who are being harassed and threatened, imprisoned and abused.

In many countries in the world we have seen in the past few years how new legislation is hindering and hampering the work of civil society. It is being made difficult for non‑governmental organisations to accept money from abroad, and in some cases they are being prohibited from doing so. That is despite that fact that they need these funds to continue their work on the ground.

NGOs are being denounced in law as “foreign agents”, they are even being mentioned in the same breath as high treason – and yet these organisations are actually fighting for quite the opposite: they don’t want to harm their country. They want to improve it and move it forward.

In far too many countries, freedom of opinion, of the press and of assembly is restricted, sometimes citing the public order or “a harmonious society” as a reason, sometimes under bizarre pretexts such as the protection of minors.

Likewise, the independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial are being curtailed in more and more countries. In addition, smear campaigns are being launched to defame and criminalise people who courageously stand up for human rights.

At times it seems like a competition: on the one hand we have civil societies throughout the world which are today stronger, more confident and better connected than ever before. At the same time, however, the attempts to silence them are growing ever more perfidious and sophisticated.

We are observing these developments in a large number of autocracies – today we will hear several examples of this – but we are also seeing them in democracies. Yes, even in some EU member states we are unfortunately seeing trends of this nature which continually breach our shared values. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this! We need to speak out against it! Those who are engaged in defending human rights need our protection, our solidarity and our support for their courageous, dedicated work.

Lasting stability cannot be achieved without a free civil society and respect for human rights. Unhampered dialogue with the various groups within civil society is in no way a threat to national security. On the contrary, freedom of expression strengthens a society and makes it more resistant.

All this applies to the most diverse representatives of civil society: environmentalists, women’s rights activists, artists, academics, journalists and lawyers.

However, in one area the situation is becoming increasingly dramatic: LGBTI. The concrete situation of lesbian, gay, bi‑, trans‑ and intersexual people is like a seismograph of the general human rights situation in a country. In countries in which the state discriminates against and persecutes people on the grounds of their sexual identity, this generally goes hand in hand with a broad attack on their people’s civil liberties. On the other hand, in states that take a decisive stand against discrimination against LGBTI, we regularly also see progress in the general human rights situation.

It is undoubtedly no coincidence that this discussion keeps flaring up especially with regard to the issue of LGBTI rights. The question of who they love affects a person particularly deeply. A state that has the audacity to encroach on the privacy of its citizens in this essential issue will not accept any limits on its intervention anywhere else.

What is the Federal Government doing specifically to strengthen civil society worldwide? We are working across the globe to counteract the diminishing space for civil society to act and are supporting human rights defenders under oppression through a wide range of projects.

For example, in Northern Russia we are supporting the construction of an LGBTI network by providing courses on legal issues. In Ukraine we are promoting an LGBTI organisation that is using creative approaches to foster tolerance and respect among the general public.

In Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, the Baltic region and South-Eastern Europe we are creating opportunities for meetings with LGBTI activists in the premises of our missions abroad and promoting local networks. We send observers into the courtrooms where questionable trials are being held.

And of course we address the issue regularly in dialogue with other governments. Sometimes with clear public words which criticise abuse in no uncertain terms – as was the case recently with respect to the shocking reports on severe breaches of human rights with regard to homosexuals in Chechnya.

In other cases we engage in direct talks behind closed doors. We always proceed as the specific situation requires and in the way that is best for those affected. Because our guiding principle is this: we don’t want to cause any harm to those we desire to protect from violations of human rights.

Shouting through a loudspeaker rarely helps victims of human rights violations in the long term; we are more likely to be effective by engaging in confidential talks. And to this end we need to talk to particularly difficult partners – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and also Turkey. Breaking off relations, cancelling trips and finger-wagging through our media –anyone who thinks that’s how foreign policy works has got it wrong.

We coordinate closely with representatives of civil society, for they often have a much better idea of what strategy would be most effective in the country concerned. For this we need partners who work persistently and courageously on the issues that concern them. Here in this room are representatives of some of our most important civil society partners in Germany and abroad. Thank you for our good cooperation and for your advice!

In our work for LGBTI rights we continually here pointed criticism. Don’t you have other problems? Is it really worthwhile, really necessary to work for “these minorities”? Why do we need special rights and privileges for minorities?

That is why it is all the more important that we emphasise again and again that we are not calling for minority rights, but for the effective protection of the human rights of everyone – regardless of their background, the colour of their skin, their religion, their gender or their sexual identity. That is not a luxury but the implementation of a principle that we agreed on almost 70 years ago: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” That is the wording of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It may be one of the most important sentences that has ever been written.

This is a high aim that is, unfortunately, still far from being a reality even today. However, we do have grounds for optimism. In the past few years we have also seen impressive progress. There are encouraging developments on all continents – whether in South Africa or in Uruguay, in Nepal or in Montenegro.

While it is important to delete discrimination from legal texts, it is even more important to banish it from people’s mindsets. It is gratifying that in many countries public support for LGBTI rights is growing. In recent years I have taken part in Pride Parades in Bucharest and Belgrade. On 8 July I will be in Budapest. Only a few years ago such events would have been inconceivable in these cities.

And where do we stand in Germany? Well, the Federal Foreign Office is not necessarily the place to shed light on German domestic policy.

But we need to view ourselves critically and ask ourselves how we are doing when it comes to implementing human rights. It is part of our self‑image as a globally minded and tolerant ministry that we work to promote greater understanding for and tolerance towards minorities of all kinds. Whether in Berlin and Bad Hersfeld or in Budapest, St Petersburg and Timbuktu.

In Germany, same‑sex couples have been able to enter into a civil partnership since 2001. Since then, much has been achieved. On various occasions courts had to put politicians under pressure. Marriage for all is not available. Not yet. More’s the pity. Now, I’m not giving away any secrets when I say that there are various views on this issue among the coalition parties.

But full equality by opening up marriage to all will also come to Germany very soon. I am confident about this, because although there is not yet a political majority, there is a stable majority in favour of it in society.

We want to use the momentum we can feel here in Germany and throughout the world to support those who are facing opposition in their home countries. Together let us work to make the high standards set down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality throughout the world. For everyone. Let us fight to ensure that the space for civil society’s courageous and important engagement does not shrink any further, but that it can grow. How we can do that most effectively is what we want to discuss with you today.

Thank you very much!

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