On my way here from the Federal Foreign Office I just passed the Gendarmenmarkt, which is hosting one of the most attractive Christmas markets in Berlin. As it does every Advent. Without a doubt: Christmas is in the air. And the sense of anticipation is growing.
Through all the commercial surrounding this festival, I think it is wonderful that you have gathered here today for the Ambassadors Club’s Angel Tree party. I would like to thank you for allowing me the privilege of assuming the patronage of this event.
My godchildren are already counting the days until Christmas Eve and opening a new door of their Advent calendar each day. A tradition with which we are very familiar.
Christmas is celebrated on different days in different countries.
Other religions celebrate different festivals. But they all have one thing in common.
For most people, their best childhood memories are those of family celebrations.
Perhaps we will have the opportunity today to share those memories with one another, about how it was when our families, whether large or small, came together. Every family develops its own rituals.
We were just a normal working class family in the Ruhr area in the 1980s. My father getting the big roasting tin out of the cellar and standing in the kitchen for the day cooking, that was a sure sign that Christmas was special.
My grandma did my hair, sang Christmas carols with us, and joked that if we didn’t sing along, the tree could be taken back to the shop as “unsung”.
And my grandad would give the children from the neighbourhood who visited us over Christmas holidays chocolate and 5 Deutschmarks. As you can imagine, the next year it wasn’t long before our doorbell started ringing again.
At school, Christmas was one of the highlights of the year. We had a big Christmas bazaar, where a separate little Christmas world was created in each classroom; the windows were full of colourful decorations and the teachers performed a nativity play for the pupils; and we made stars out of paper.
Those are my small childhood memories, and when I look back, I’m grateful for them. I feel a little ashamed when I think of how much we take for granted.
Every child should have the same chance to make good memories like this at Christmas. But not all children have that opportunity.
Children who grow up without parents or in extreme poverty.
Children who have no secure home because they are exposed to violence or war.
Children who are so ill that they cannot spend Christmas at home.
Children who may not be going to get well or who do not know whether they will see another Christmas coming.
With this event today, we want to remember all these children and put a smile on their faces with our gifts.
Of course, presents can’t replace a family. Presents cannot take away the pain.
But they can show these children that they are in our thoughts and that they are not alone.
We want to give them a little memento of Christmas happiness.
That is the idea that has brought us all together today. And you have brought me here today as well.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for this invitation, quite heartfully.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The first profession I learned was that of kindergarten worker, and during my vocational training I worked in a kindergarten for two years.
And that was more than 20 years ago. Yet children’s rights and interests are still as important to me now in my role as a politician.
And that is why I actively support the introduction of a guaranteed child allowance here in Germany. All children need opportunities and support – and they ought to have the good fortune, as I did, to attend a decent school which provides them with a sound education and happy memories.
Every child should have the opportunity to make something out of their life.
Regardless of their parents’ educational background.
Yet even here, in one of the richest countries in the world, we have not yet achieved that goal.
And that applies all the more to children in many other parts of the world, whose living conditions are much more difficult.
2019 is a special year for the rights of the child.
The organisation Kindernothilfe was founded 60 years ago.
Foreign Minister Maas paid tribute last month to the engagement of this German NGO, which promotes the implementation of the rights of children and young people throughout the world.
Moreover, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
But we need to ask ourselves: what have we achieved?
Much has happened to improve the protection of children. For example, the United Nations Security Council has embraced the situation of children in armed conflicts as a priority.
Since 1996, a system to document the serious violation of children’s rights in armed conflict has been set up so that perpetrators can be denounced.
And children and their families now have the option of lodging a complaint with the Committee on the Rights of the Child if they consider their rights to have been violated. Germany was involved in launching the additional protocol that makes this possible.
We have been able to increase the number of children enrolled in school over the past 20 years. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of boys and girls of primary school age unable to attend school fell by 40 million and now totals around 60 million.
And infant mortality among under-fives has halved. Over the last two decades it has fallen from 12.5 million to just over five million.
Furthermore, fewer girls are being forced into marriage at a young age. Around 25 million child marriages were prevented as a result of the efforts made in the past decade.
This shows that progress is possible. And this is an important message. Investment and development measures are worthwhile. That is encouraging.
Yet we realize: even more progress is needed. Where human rights come under pressure, children’s rights also suffer.
The decisions of the international community have still not been fully implemented.
Far too many children in this world are still being robbed of their childhood, have to serve as child soldiers or perform hard labour instead of attending school. Girls are excluded from education simply because they are girls.
Around 420 million children are affected by conflict. They are denied a childhood in safety and security. Their memories often consist of trauma and nightmares which blight their lives and hamper their development.
That is one reason why we strive for peace, whether in Libya, Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan. It is always the most vulnerable members of society who suffer the most from wars and conflicts and whose voices are heard the least:
women and children.
We firmly believe that we need strong partners in the world, not weak ones.
On my travels I have frequently met children who were full of expectation despite the adverse circumstances in which they live:
Children in a refugee camp in Jordan, where we still do not know when and to what homeland they can ultimately return.
Children in rural Eritrea who are growing up in mud huts without electricity and who are nonetheless curious about the world out there.
Disabled children in Ethiopia who are happy because they can attend school.
As an international community, we bear responsibility for one another.
So, ladies and gentlemen, education is the cornerstone of a self-determined life – and one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda. By the way: 2030 is not far off. We still have a lot to do.
In this day and age the priority must be to recognise how crucial human rights are for our co-existence and for peace.
Our engagement in the area of children’s rights is therefore a key component of our human rights policy.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Many children and young people have long been aware that much more needs to be done so that children throughout the world can enjoy their rights without restriction.
They are getting involved – and with Fridays for Future are loudly calling for a sustainable world.
In my home city they play an active role in politics – we have one of the oldest children’s and youth parliaments.
My home region is also the home of Herbert Grönemeyer, who sang: “Kinder an die Macht” (Power to the children).
“Their armies are gummy bears and their tanks marzipan.
Wars are simply eaten up. A simple plan. Ingeniously childlike.”
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. We adults are needed.
But Grönemeyer’s song reminds us to see the world with children’s eyes. To take into account the interests of future generations. To make policies not only focused on the current legislative term or the preservation of power. But policies for a better tomorrow.
The message of Christmas, ladies and gentlemen, is a message of peace. A message of hope. What better to remind us of that than a new-born baby.
I wish all of you all the very best for the festive season and a Happy New Year.