Speech by Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Forum Global Issues event “60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, 14 October 2008

14.10.2008 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

High Commissioner,

Members of the Bundestag,


Ladies and gentlemen,

When I gave my speech last week in honour of Kofi Annan, this year's recipient of the Peace of Westphalia Prize, in the historic town hall in Münster, I talked about the emergence of modern international law following the Peace of Westphalia. International law is a relatively new development in the long history of the law. And within international law, the legally binding codification of human rights is one of the most recent branches.

“The Magna Charta for mankind” is what Eleanor Roosevelt – the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights – called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

She wasn't exaggerating. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a milestone.

Not because it re-invented human rights.

It didn't. The idea of human rights can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and to early Chinese philosophy. It is also rooted in the Enlightenment and in the major world religions. And it was a driving force behind the French revolution and the American Declaration of Independence.

But it was thanks to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that this tradition entered the international political stage.

From then on, international politics had a new field and a new task: to protect the inalienable rights of individual human beings. That was a revolutionary development in the middle of the last century.

Until then, the principle that had prevailed was that of absolute state sovereignty. The principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states applied with very few exceptions.

The principle of state sovereignty was of course not thrown out of the window with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But from then on, state sovereignty – which may in theory conflict with the principle of guaranteeing human dignity and in practice frequently does so – was no longer absolute. The players on the international stage were now concerned with people's living conditions and the state of human rights beyond their own borders.

Everyone familiar with German history will know that it was no coincidence that only five months after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the mothers and fathers of the Basic Law also put the inviolability of human dignity in pride of place at the beginning of the German constitution.

For the anchoring of human rights in international politics after World War II was a direct reaction to the barbarity of National Socialism and the failure of the League of Nations to respond appropriately.

The historical context is plain to see. And without basic rights, the Basic Law could not have been adopted – the Allies insisted on their inclusion.

I am convinced that this historical context is the reason why Germany has a special international responsibility for human rights. All German Governments have, since the founding of the Federal Republic, felt particularly bound to shoulder this responsibility. And next year the Basic Law will have governed our actions for 60 years!

Even today, this history makes it our responsibility to resolutely counter all attempts to consider basic human rights as anything but absolute, be it with reference to “distinct cultures” or “religious traditions”, or in exceptional states of emergency.

For these rights have diverse roots in a range of different cultural and religious traditions. And people from a variety of cultures, with different religious backgrounds, were involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Independently of that, even the sceptics have to admit that the fact we can agree internationally at least in principle on the universal application of basic human rights is a huge step forward, one which is often underestimated.

It is wrong and cynical to dismiss this international consensus as mere lip service.

For it is a vital point of reference for all those who experience unbearable conditions or who are concerned about the state of human rights around the world.

And it encourages and compels us to think about the interpretation of human rights and how they can reasonably be further developed in view of the changing international framework conditions.

I myself initiated a dialogue with the USA on the interpretation of human rights in the time of the war on terror – in order to strengthen awareness of the enduring validity of the idea of universal human rights, even in the age of Guantanamo.

Quite apart from such specific topical questions, the protection of human rights faces other more general issues and potential new challenges: the reach and validity of human rights in the age of globalization will lend a new dimension to the debate on the “responsibility to protect”. Just how far does the responsibility of the international community to prevent grievous violations of human rights extend? What does state sovereignty mean in our modern world? These are difficult questions, to which there are so far no generally accepted answers. It remains important for us not to evade these questions but to continue a process of dialogue, of seeking agreement.

All those present at the Bertelsmann Foundation event in Berlin this July – an event attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Javier Solana and Strobe Talbott among others – will have seen that it's a subject worth debating!

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is and remains an ideal that we should all seek to attain. But in order to protect human rights effectively, we also need the right instruments. Respect for human life and standing up to protect people's inalienable basic rights is and remains a key pillar of German foreign policy.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights commits us to work for the effective protection of human rights.

You, Ms Pillay, know what that means. In your youth, you yourself suffered racial discrimination. But you were able to make your mark in South Africa and, as a judge at the International Criminal Court and as President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, you have fought for human rights.

I wish you every success in your new post as High Commissioner for Human Rights. Germany will do its utmost to support you in the performance of your duties. The world needs a staunch advocate of human rights.

A whole system for the protection of human rights has grown up over the years around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This includes the human rights covenants, which have ensured that civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights are anchored in binding, applicable law, and are not mere declarations of intent. Further conventions codify the rights of women and children, as well as the prohibition of torture.

Regional pacts also exist, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been of immense value in individual cases on the protection of human rights in Europe. It has also made a key contribution to the emergence of a set of pan-European values.

The system of effective human rights protection also includes the special rapporteurs, through whom the international community can respond to new human rights crisis, such as that in the Sudan. The difficulties that currently exist in extending the mandates of some special rapporteurs must be eliminated quickly if this instrument is not to be blunted.

In this context, I would like to say a few words about the Human Rights Council. Of course we believe it could function better and more effectively. Germany actively campaigned for the establishment of a strong institution from early on. And we all knew when the Council was constituted what difficulties were to be reckoned with.

But notwithstanding the criticism of the Council's functioning, it is our responsibility to make the best of what we have. Refusing to cooperate or contribute is not going to help human rights. Suspending all work in despair is not the right answer.

Far from it.

Doing so would be to abandon the field without a struggle to those who have a different understanding of the international community's responsibility to protect and promote human rights – a view different to the one we have and propagate.

We must not allow that to happen!

This also means that we have to deal with real facts in the real world. Taking political action also means “bearing ... the irrationality of the world” as Max Weber put it. Or, as Egon Bahr has said: “Addressing the conditions that we find does not mean resigning ourselves to them.”

What form should a credible and sustainable human rights policy take? There are no simple answers – no blueprint and no guarantee of success. Sometimes public pressure helps, if the people on the receiving end let themselves be moved. Sometimes the ritualized issuing of statements doesn't do anything but salve our conscience. For this reason, other paths that are stonier and longer are sometimes more likely to achieve success. Sometimes tortuous routes must be taken, riddled with more uncertainties and contradictions than we would perhaps wish, and which are on occasion hard to justify.

In concrete terms, that means that we – and the High Commissioner – also have to work with states in which the human rights situation is far from perfect, since isolation does not help improve the situation.

We have, for example, indubitably achieved more for human rights by supporting China's process of opening up to the world than through the long-term isolation of North Korea and Myanmar.

The rule of law dialogue we started with China several years ago was a quantum leap in the right direction. At the beginning, it was not easy to refute the argument that this was just a public relations exercise to impress the man on the street. The rule of law dialogue took us away from the ritualized assertion of basic principles towards substantive talks, enabling us to choose to work together. Following a difficult year for bilateral relations, the dialogue is set to be resumed on 4 November.

Herta Däubler-Gmelin was the driving force behind this initiative, which has in the meantime become a pilot project for other rule of law dialogues. A totally new level and atmosphere is established when judges, lawyers and legal experts meet twice a year to discuss issues of professional interest.

A credible human rights policy requires a balance to be attained in our everyday politics between respect for others and our fundamental political interest in the transformation of repressive systems into open societies as defined by Karl Popper. There is no recipe, no blueprint to help us find this balance.

A brief word to conclude: I am convinced that the protection of human rights begins at home.

No country in the world can claim to have finished implementing human rights, that they are perfectly and fully upheld.

Germany can't either.

Of course, many examples of discrimination and exclusion can be found in the German legal system, too.

Of course we know that our education system systematically discriminates against children from certain groups – with all the consequences that the denial of educational opportunities may have on their chances in later life.

On the other hand, Germany is far from being governed by an oppressive regime.

But much would be gained if we were to see that even here in Germany we still have work to do.

Much remains to be done. I am as curious as you are to hear what tasks Ms Pillay, the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, has for us on her list.

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