Speech by Minister Steinmeier at the ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

10.12.2008 - Speech

Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights organized by amnesty international and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin on 10 December 2008

Federal Chancellor,

Anke Fuchs,

Barbara Lochbihler,

Herta Däubler-Gmelin,

Ladies and gentlemen,

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sixty years ago was a signal of hope. It was a signal of hope for a world which lay in ruins following the Second World War and faced great uncertainty in the light of the Cold War.

Freedom from want and the arbitrary use of power, safety from exploitation and persecution, freedom to believe what and whom one wants, without fear of speaking out publicly, freedom and scope to make one's own decisions and to pursue one's own happiness: after the deaths of between 50 and 60 million people in the war, that sounded like a distant promise 60 years ago.

But even today, sixty years later, human rights are an unfulfilled promise for many millions of people.

Wars and civil strife are tearing societies apart. There are a quarter of a million child soldiers, mostly in Africa – in Chad, Uganda, the Congo – children who are abducted and forced by armed bandits to enter a world of horrific violence.

In the Congo, in Kivu province, the civil war is taking the form of a war against women and children at present. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Günter Nooke, the Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner, as well as our diplomats in Geneva. We called upon the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to condemn this violence. At least that finally happened at the Council's special session last Tuesday.

We can only hope that the progress which UN mediator Obasanjo spoke of last night, following two days of talks between rebels and the Government in the Congo, isn't reversed. Although all of these steps in the regions mentioned are so difficult and despite the frequent setbacks we have experienced: Germany is working with the EU to implement action plans in the countries concerned, for example to combat the arming of children. This is about protecting them, above all about enabling them to return to their families, to their villages, to a civilized life and to learn a trade. UNICEF and local initiatives are playing their part. In Uganda, we are supporting the work of child psychologists. We are supporting the Workers' Samaritan Federation in that country to help young people find a way out and start afresh.

I've seen such young people and child soldiers for myself. Anyone who has looked into their empty faces, who knows something about their personalities – dehumanized by fear and experiences of archaic violence – also knows that it's no longer possible for the vast majority of them to leave this life behind without help.

Not only war but also ruthless economic exploitation break people. No-one knows the exact number of itinerant workers in China, but it is estimated to be up to 200 million people, almost all of whom have no contract, no security if they fall ill or have an accident at work, and many no income in the current crisis.

That, too, has to be stated loud and clear. And we have to ensure that China's leaders hear us. The Rule of Law Dialogue established with China in 1999 really has had a concrete impact already. The Chinese labour contract law – in which German experts played a role in drafting – has been in force since 1 January 2008. This law isn't yet the major breakthrough which will revolutionize the workplace, but it provides effective support for human rights advocates in China. We are now supporting its implementation on the ground. I would like to thank the German Trade Union Confederation and its Chairman, Michael Sommer, who are helping to provide this assistance.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We must not remain silent. We have to express our concerns to China, especially in the light of the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, who was arrested two days ago in China for trying to distribute the Charter 2008 initiative. An incident which demonstrates once again the country's unsatisfactory human rights situation.

Nevertheless, countries such as China, or Russia, are no longer monolithic blocs. We have to try and strengthen the forces in these states which are seeking to improve the human rights situation – and they do exist: certainly in society, but also within the political elites. We have to seek to support them, too. Anyone active in politics experiences disappointments and setbacks. Aggravating obstacles have to be overcome time and again – not only in China. It's important to remain steadfast, clear and reliable. That's often difficult, but it's not only the right way, it's the only way. I saw this for myself just a few months ago in Beijing when a meeting with human rights activists, parents of the victims of Tiananmen Square, was cancelled at the last minute. With a mixture of toughness and persuasion we managed to ensure that the meeting took place after all. That was a small, unspectacular success – but, unfortunately, that's what the day-to-day business of human rights policy is like sometimes.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have cause for hope – I venture to say – because many countries have leapt into the modern world. Today, knowledge is available at all times and almost everywhere. That doesn't guarantee an individual rights, but it does change societies. For even where censorship and oppression haven't disappeared, people are aware of their potential and press for the rights denied them. Mobility, information and political action are no longer the preserve of Europeans and North Americans. That is what is changing our world so fundamentally – I share your hope that it will change for the better!

Not only the world's markets are growing closer together. The social fate of people is also merging. We are concerned about many problems which wouldn't have been on our radar screen sixty years ago. Regional crises are receiving global attention. For the risks affect us all. And the conclusion to be drawn from this can only be that globalization of the markets must be followed by political globalization!

I believe that human rights will play a central new role in this. We need a common political language which provides orientation as we work to create the global responsibility partnership. We need a normative compass. The universal rights of physical integrity, freedom, equality, good health and education are the compass which will help us steer a course.

It shows us which direction to take. But it doesn't spare us the daily effort of gradually moving closer to the goal of equal rights for everyone.

For declaring our aspirations is not our most difficult task. Rather, closing or at least narrowing the gap between aspiration and reality is the hard part.

More than anything else, the candles in the window for the world's disenfranchised make us feel good about ourselves – or so I read recently. It's true, good wishes are not enough. We also have to go out and engage in politics: courageously, on a long-term basis and in awareness of all the risks and side effects!

Ladies and gentlemen,

You know as well as I do that much can go wrong in real life. Sincerity and credibility are the prerequisites for any success! Those who instrumentalize human rights to enforce political hegemony cause serious damage at the heart of the matter. And those whose only responses to human rights violations are isolation and sanctions will soon realize that it'll get them nowhere. Here lies a field of tension which worries me, too, and to which there are no easy answers.

In our country, too, the moral rigorists often clash with political pragmatists in the human rights debate. Here's my request to you: let's try to break the deadlock. Let's take each other seriously and stop challenging each other's credibility. Believe me, that can only further our common cause!

Human rights have always been the precursor of what hasn't yet been achieved. They said what should be, not what was. Politics, on the other hand, always has to work with what is. We have to endure the tension between aspiration and the reality of human rights all too often. But we can build a bridge from one to the other. And this bridge can only be a strong manifestation of the political responsibility which I have witnessed in the policies of German governments during the last decades. Or, to repeat a comment by Egon Bahr which I'm sure you all know: “Addressing the conditions that we find does not mean resigning ourselves to them.”

And another thing is important: civil liberties can only be enjoyed by everyone if they are accompanied by social participatory rights.

Political globalization must find answers to the problem of social inequality. At a time of divided societies, failing states and ethnic civil wars, at a time of unresolved development problems and job insecurity, we have to focus on the lessons we Europeans have learned from our own history.

Poverty reduction and peace policy are concrete means of protecting human rights. Of course, they cannot protect human rights on their own – but they are vital factors. They form the foundations for many other things. Naturally, that's not enough. We firmly believe it's inexcusable to arrest people for expressing political views, to intimidate journalists or to terrorize their families. We have to speak up for those who no longer have their own voice, for example trade unionists, journalists or human rights activists. They show us that social and political rights must not be played off against each other in any part of the world. They strengthen and sustain each other. And where one set of rights is violated, the others perish, too, as we have seen in many regions. Social and political rights always belong together – they are, as it were, inextricably linked.

Good and credible human rights policies must create scope for practical decisions time and again. Nowhere is this clearer that in the difficult question as to whether we should intervene with troops. It's not enough to want to do good: we have to translate our good intentions into practical action. For this we need legitimacy under international law. Especially here, therefore, there is no one-fits-all solution to every conceivable international crisis. It is almost always unclear how crises emerge and develop, and our responses are usually decided responsibly on a case-by-case basis!

Ladies and gentlemen,

Anchoring human rights in international relations: this goal has always been dismissed as an illusion. That must not, indeed should not, dishearten us. For it was already the case during the Cold War, which began even before the signatures on the Universal Declaration had dried.

The fact is that we wouldn't have been able to make many advances without the drive of individuals, the drive of NGOs and political foundations. There would never have been a Universal Declaration of Human Rights without the great, the resolute Eleanor Roosevelt. Or take women such as the Cologne doctor Monika Hauser and her organization Medica Mondiale. She helps women who were raped in war zones. On Monday she was very rightly awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize.

But I'm not only talking about the individuals and organizations working here in our own country protected by the rule of law. I'm also talking about the men and women in many other countries who face greater difficulties and who risk their lives. I'm talking about the courageous journalists, doctors, lawyers, trade unionists and environmental groups who live in fear of persecution. Their passion and their courage lend the concept of human rights lustre and conviction.


Here at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, I want to remind you that the history of Social Democracy is also partly a history of persecution. Social Democrats were persecuted in the Third Reich because they fought for freedom and democracy at a time when this meant imprisonment or exile! Today we have a democratic state. Today we are not only morally right but also have the law on our side. But we haven't forgotten what this cost the generations before us. We therefore feel solidarity with every man and woman, wherever they are, who stands up for equal rights for all.

Today we are the guests of amnesty international and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. That's good. For it allows me as Foreign Minister to commend your work: you are helping to build a network beyond national borders. You keep communication channels open where governments can sometimes achieve little. You often realize at an earlier stage, often more clearly where and how conflicts develop, where people are being oppressed. Your contacts and ties are enabling an international civil society to grow.

For that, Barbara Lochbihler, Anke Fuchs, I want to thank you! You are working on the global network we need. You are the avant-garde of political globalization.

Today is also your special day. Let's not forget that.

Thank you very much!

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