“When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”
These are the words of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner. His experience of the horrors of the Shoah and the Second World War made him a lifelong believer in the need to stand up for human rights, regardless of where violations occur and to whom. Wiesel was convinced that when human rights are violated, that is a warning signal for what there is to come.
The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 with exactly this in mind: As an early warning mechanism against human rights violations – to prevent new wars, human suffering and tyranny on the European continent.
And as a common European home for democracy, human rights and the rule of law for all Europeans, protected by strong walls formed by the Convention on Human Rights and the Court of Human Rights.
The Council comprises more than 220 conventions and treaties. And probably no one in this room, maybe except for the President and the Secretary General, would be able to name all of them. And feel free to do the maths on how many bilateral treaties it would need to replace them!
With these conventions, with the European Court of Human Rights and its monitoring mechanisms, the Council is setting the highest human rights standards through its rulings.
The Court has strengthened women in the fight against domestic violence. It has bolstered the freedom of the press, and it has obliged us as governments to build polling stations that are accessible to persons in wheelchairs and with other disabilities.
Moreover, the Court is currently pushing towards intergenerational justice in ground-breaking cases, for example, on the climate crisis.
This direct access that individuals have to an international human rights court is unparalleled in the world.
That is why Germany has made available additional means for the Court. And we call on others to step up their support as well, because if we want the Court to function in the future, it needs sufficient financial resources.
The Court of Human Rights is something we can be more than proud of. But we cannot expect that with more cases, fewer judges will do the same amount of work. So it’s up to us, the governments, to strengthen the court, our Court of Human Rights.
The Court reflects our convictions as Member States of the Council of Europe, that our governments must put their people’s fundamental rights first.
Still, if we are honest with ourselves, before we became parliamentarians and politicians, many of us might at some point have confused the Council of Europe with the European Council.
And did we actually all know that the anthem of Europe and the European flag, with its 12 stars, were first used by the Council of Europe? The President this morning reaffirmed to me that they do not really care about the copyright in this regard – as long as the EU finally ratifies the European Convention on Human Rights.
Joking aside, I believe that this is actually not a bad thing, even though journalists may write: “People confusing the Council of Europe and the European Council shows a neglect of the Council of Europe.”
I think this is not the true story. I believe that younger people and even people of my generation – I am 42 years old – have the incredible good fortune to have lived their whole life in peace and not under a dictatorship. Born in Western Germany, we took freedom and democracy for granted, not because we neglected freedom or democracy, but because our ancestors built this Council of Europe. And we all believed that we could live in this house of freedom and peace forever.
But the crucial point is what we do now. Now, when our European peace order, when the Council of Europe, the OSCE, are under attack. This is our responsibility as politicians of our generation. Because Russia’s war of aggression is not only a war against Ukraine, it is a war against the common European peace order.
So what we have done in the last months was crucial. And I would like to thank and applaud you here at the Council of Europe that you have shown Putin that he will never succeed in destroying Ukraine, and that he will also never succeed in destroying our common home of peace, the Council of Europe.
At the same time, we also have to be self-reflective because we have seen what we neglected in the past. The Council of Europe is an early warning system. Because when human rights are undermined or disregarded, we should be alert.
Ladies and gentlemen, such warnings have been there in the past:
when our friends and partners in Central and Eastern Europe and in particular in the Baltic countries pointed out Russia’s aggressiveness. My country in particular did not listen carefully enough when we saw the show trials against Alexei Navalny, when we saw Russia ignoring judgments by the European Court of Human Rights calling for his release, and when we saw Russia’s refusal to sign the Istanbul convention and it drastically curbing women’s rights.
These were all early warning signs. We didn’t see them. We didn’t take action. As early as 2017, Russia changed its laws on domestic violence so that men, husbands, partners who beat up their wives would no longer get into legal trouble for beating their wives. The law was changed so that, since 2017, you would have to beat your wife repeatedly, she would have to be sent to hospital in order for a criminal court to act.
That should have sent a loud and clear warning because women’s rights are a yardstick for the state of our democracies. When women aren’t safe in a society, no one is safe.
And when human rights are not respected in a country, then ultimately peace and freedom are at risk. President Putin has made this obvious. His repression at home goes hand in hand with his attempt to destroy Ukraine and our common European peace order.
That is why I am convinced that today, the Council of Europe, as an early warning mechanism, is more important than ever.
Its work for human rights makes a crucial difference to people across Europe. And to be clear, Europe is bigger than the EU. The Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe create a common European home for human rights and democracy for almost 700 million people.
700 million people who, thank God, do not look alike, do not dream alike. They have different traditions, different histories, and different plans for the future. But these 700 million people are all united in their firm belief in fundamental rights.
I had the privilege of seeing what this actually means when I spoke with teenagers in Kharkiv earlier this month. At different locations in Kharkiv, I saw the destruction. But what touched me most was my last stop at a heating point, set up with so much care and so much love.
We were sitting around a table. There was a warm stove and we were offered tea and cookies because it was -12 degrees outside. I was sitting there with teenagers. Their school had been destroyed at the beginning of the war. So I asked them: “Where do you go to school?” And they looked at me and said: “Our school has been destroyed.”
They haven’t been to school for almost an entire year because going to makeshift schools would be too dangerous. Kharkiv is located 35 kilometres from the Russian border. So if there is a rocket targeting a school, there is no air defence system which can prevent that. This rocket would hit their school. They have 45 seconds to hide, and of course, 45 seconds is way too little time to hide. You can only pray.
So I asked them: “What do you do if you’re not going to school?” And the impressive thing is that even in a partly destroyed town, they have online teaching and classrooms. And I said: “What do you do if you only have 45 seconds?” And one of the girls told me: “Well, I used to play volleyball, but obviously my pitch is also destroyed. I’m 16 years old. I normally hang around with friends. But this is also not possible anymore.”
So even though these school children, these teenagers survived, they are not living a normal teenage life. Every day they hide, praying that the next rocket will not hit them.
So when I asked them: “Why didn’t you leave ?” – the 16 year old said: “Well, I left with my parents to Italy. But we came back. Last year.” I said: “Why did you come back here, back to your neighbourhood, which was wiped out by bombs?” She simply said, with tears in her eyes: “Because this is my home. Even though my home is now a prison because I cannot go to school, I cannot play volleyball, I cannot go out with my friends anymore. This is my home. This is where I want to be. This is where I want to survive. If I’m not dying.”
So the only thing this girl and her friends are asking for is to live a simple, normal life again. An everyday life where as a teenager, you go out to meet your friends, to play volleyball and to go to school.
It is this girl’s simple wish for a life in freedom and in peace, with basic human rights, that brings home to me what our agenda here at the Council of Europe is all about. As German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer said here at the Council of Europe when it was founded: “The Council of Europe is the soul of Europe.”
It is our duty to keep this soul alive. That is why we are here. That is why I’m speaking here as German foreign minister. That is why you are here, and why you come back every month to work for our European soul, for every person in Europe – for the teenagers in Kharkiv – to make sure that we are not missing the warning signals of human rights violations that can lead to violence and war, and to ensure that the fundamental freedoms of women, men and children are better protected.
The rights to live, to live a life in dignity and freedom – I believe that today, we need the Council of Europe more than ever to put the power of those rights above the power of might.
As President Putin wants to drag Europe back into a past dominated by power politics, where states can trample on individual rights in the pursuit of imperial glory, where rulers dispose of their citizens like pawns in geopolitical chess games.
That is why, in the face of Russia’s war, neutrality was not an option. We had to make a choice between injustice and justice, freedom and oppression. Between standing on the side of the aggressor and standing on the side of the victims, like the teenagers in Kharkiv. And we did.
The Council of Europe, all of us together, adopted a clear and united stance against Russia’s war. We jointly voted to expel Russia from the Council. And we made clear that the Council stands with the brave women, men and children of Ukraine who are fighting for their country and their freedom, but also for democracy and human rights on the entire European continent.
Because this Council is not a geographical concept, because this Council unites us in the concept of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
But we have also to critically assess why we did not fully recognise the early warning signals.
This is why at the last meeting of the Committee of Ministers in Turin in summer, I called for a fourth summit of the Council of Europe that will now take place in Reykjavik under the Icelandic Presidency. At this upcoming summit, we will have an opportunity to set up the Council for a new era in European history.
We know that institutions are only as strong as the political and financial support they get, and that means we also have to give the Council the financial resources it needs.
As I said in the beginning, in this era marked by Russia’s war, we can no longer take the progress of liberty and human rights in Europe for granted. Fundamental rights and freedoms are under pressure on too many fronts.
Therefore, if we want to show that despite repression and war, the power of democracy and the soul of Europe remain unbroken on our continent, we have to stand up and fight for them.
Let us keep this in mind as we prepare for the Reykjavik summit. Building on all our valuable ideas and suggestions. And there are many floating around.
I would like to focus on three crucial points for this summit.
First, the summit should reaffirm our joint commitment to the core values of the Council of Europe. Or let me put it another way: If the Council is to remain our common home, our common soul of European democracy and human rights, we have to fix the cracks in its walls, stop the erosion of its foundations, and make sure that all residents abide by the house rules.
I’m aware of the fact that our 46 member countries have very different histories and cultures. I also know that no legal system and no democracy is perfect, because no human being is perfect. We are all different. But what we all wish for is to improve every day. Because there is no such thing as a perfect democracy.
But what binds us all in the Council is our commitment to the rule of law and to the division of power. Our pledge to protect our people’s fundamental rights and daily freedoms. That is what we have signed up to.
So let me say loud and clear: all member states have to respect the European Convention on Human Rights and implement the Court of Human Rights judgments based on it
It worries me deeply that for years, the Turkish authorities have been ignoring the Court’s demands to release Osman Kavala, whose detention the court considers to be politically motivated. And yes, it was good that there has finally been a visit, but this is nothing to applaud because Osman Kavala shouldn’t be in prison. It’s simply unacceptable for a member state of this Council to imprison someone for political reasons.
That is why the Committee of Ministers has initiated infringement proceedings against Turkey. Co-rapporteurs of the Council have recently underlined this by the visit, and I’m reiterating our call for the Turkish authorities to release Osman Kavala and also to release Selahattin Demirtas and others whom the court has also ruled to be unlawfully detained.
We all, as members of this Council, have to respect its basic rulebook. This is a legal obligation and no wish list, and that is what our citizens expect from us.
This also applies to every country in this room, also to my own country. And that is why Germany has been taking steps to fully adopt the Council of Europe’s legal instrument, protecting women and girls from violence.
Because if we call on others to ratify or to comply with conventions, then obviously our own reservations might be a bit biased. So therefore, when my Government entered office just over a year ago, we said we would lift Germany’s reservations on the Istanbul convention, and that is what we have done. We will apply the Convention without restrictions as of next month.
I invite all member states that have signed the Istanbul Convention to ratify it very soon. And I think if a country at war, like Ukraine, can do it, then every other country in peace can do it as well. This also continues our work as part of the EU.
At the same time, our ambition for the Reykjavik summit should not only be to preserve what the Council of Europe has achieved – as crucial at that might be. Together, we cannot only refurbish our common European home of human rights and democracy, but also expand it with new rooms and more inhabitants.
That is my second point: let us work together to adapt the Council and our democracies to a changing world.
That means finally making the European Union’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights a reality, creating a common European human rights protection standard.
Most importantly, however, the Council can help pave the way for a new generation of human rights. Democracy and human rights are based on universal values, but they are also a constant work in progress – because our societies evolve and new technologies obviously emerge.
Take the digital revolution that is transforming how we all shop, meet our friends or go on a date, how entire industries work, or how scientists predict storms and droughts.
The internet, social media and artificial intelligence have already made our lives so much better, but obviously, they also bring new challenges and risks. We have seen that AI facial recognition can have a racial bias, that it is used to target children with aggressive advertising and that autocratic regimes are exploiting it to track down dissidents.
That is why as democratic governments, we have to work together to protect human rights in the digital world. We cannot simply leave this to algorithms, to Tik Tok or to Elon Musk. This is a political task. This is a democratic task for us in the Council of Europe.
We are working on a Convention on the development, design and application of AI systems. This Convention can set a pan-European standard for human-centric and human-rights-based AI, making sure, for example, that companies and governments are not spying on people by running their social media posts through AI analyses.
Together, we can ensure that technology makes human rights stronger, not weaker. Because technologies are there for humans and not for industry or autocracies.
That is why the German Government is committed to working with you all to see this new Convention adopted this year.
Finally, there’s a third point we should keep in mind: the outreach to neighbours and friends of the Council of Europe.
When I travelled to Kazakhstan last year, I met a young woman in her mid-twenties who worked for an NGO and planned to set up a political party. She said: “You’re so lucky in Europe. You have the Council of Europe. You have an instrument to which your government has to relate. You have Conventions to which I, as an NGO, can refer and say: you are not applying the Istanbul Convention or the Human Rights Convention. You also have a court every citizen can go to.”
I think this is crucial. There are so many people around the world who would never consider democracy and human rights to belong to a certain region, but who are saying: we would like to benefit from your experience.
This morning, during my visit of the Court of Human Rights, I was shown what this actually means, what the young lady in Kazakhstan was talking about. When I entered the room of registers, I saw piles of mail and papers on the table and people going through all of them.
We also have this as politicians in our offices, where we sometimes think “Okay, this is a bit crazy.” But they are going through every letter – letters written on paper, some sent via the internet, but also letters written on tiny sheets of paper. Because when you are in a prison and when you’re a political prisoner, obviously you do not have the best access to this court, to our court.
So the fact that any individual can lodge a complaint – be it a simple handwritten request scribbled on a postcard or even on a piece of toilet paper sent from a prison – this is what this “soul of Europe” also stands for.
In many places around the world, people do not have this privilege. We should remind ourselves of this every day. That is why it’s up to us to stand by their side as they strive for human rights, peace and a better future for themselves and their children.
The work of the Venice Commission is a beautiful example of how the values of the Council of Europe can have an impact around the world. Even though some might say the Venice Commission does not have any real power.
But the influence of the Venice Commission might be bigger than that of a large institution with a lot of money, because with its advice on how to reform electoral laws and constitutions, the Commission is a compass for democracy, guiding us and member states from no less than five continents all around the world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We could go on about the powerful tools of this Council of Europe. It’s up to us whether we use them or whether we leave them aside. It’s our responsibility. We are the politicians of our times.
“When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” That is how Elie Wiesel put it, reminding us to be watchful whenever human rights are violated.
To us here in this plenary hall, these words might seem beautiful and aspirational. But to the boys and the girls in Kharkiv, to the 16-year-old who came back from Italy to her destroyed home – because it is her European soil – this is their future, their destiny.
For their sake and for the sake of so many others, these words must be a concrete call on us to stand up for what this Council stands for:
Human rights and the dignity of all.