Speech by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

04.10.2010 - Speech

-- Translation of advanced text --

Mr President,

Members of the Assembly,


Thank you very much for this invitation to Strasbourg.

Five years after the end of the Second World War and one year after the establishment of the Council of Europe, the Federal Republic of Germany became an associate member of the Council of Europe 60 years ago. That required the courage to seek reconciliation and it was a gesture of good faith for the new beginning.

In the Basic Law, the Germans pledged that the Federal Republic of Germany would be committed to world peace and respect human dignity and fundamental rights. When the Federal Republic became one of the first signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights 60 years ago, we also gave this pledge to our European neighbours.

The Convention represents the mutual pledge of the peoples of Europe to champion freedom and human rights. We all have to continue proving time and again that we have honoured this pledge.

Yesterday we celebrated the 20th anniversary of German unity. In 1989, courageous GDR citizens took to the streets of Leipzig and other cities to express their longing for freedom. The peaceful revolution against the GDR authorities changed our entire fatherland by bringing unity.

However, we owe thanks to many for our reunification.

The courage of people clamouring for freedom in eastern Germany, in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia and in the Baltic states marked the beginning of a truly united Europe.

I would like to thank your citizens, your governments and members of parliament for the support you gave us.

People often talk about the “fall of the Berlin Wall”. In reality, the Wall was torn down by people in the East.

Freedom is seldom simply handed over. People in eastern Germany had to fight hard to gain their freedom.

In Europe, a system of cooperation has replaced the confrontation that divided our continent for centuries.

I would caution against any attempt to renationalize policies. That applies to the member states of both the European Union and the Council of Europe. The attempt to evade cooperation may be applauded at home sometimes, but we can’t live up to our historical responsibility towards our citizens if we adopt such a course of action.

Human rights are inalienable and universally valid. But that in itself is not enough. Every day we have to demand anew that human rights be respected.

Technological progress and innovation are always presenting us with new tasks. For that reason, too, the commitment to human rights can never be regarded as over. It remains for ever a work in progress.

The changes in communications are a good example of this. Germany’s Basic Law and the European Convention on Human Rights were drawn up in 1949 and 1950.

The rules on the privacy of posts and telecommunications protected the forms of communication usual at that time. Thirty years later, we no longer only had to deal with telephone tapping but also computer-aided profiling and searches. Today we’re dealing with privacy in the Internet age.

Citizens are not only afraid of the omnipotence of the state today but also of the threat posed by non-state actors, from credit card fraudsters to terror groups which plan their attacks on other continents via the Internet.

Although the state must effectively protect us from these threats, it should not overstep the mark and invade our privacy unduly.

The Council of Europe’s system of human rights has achieved a level of protection on our continent which is second to none. The transition from state control to the democratic state based on the rule of law was often made possible by the standards set by the Strasbourg institutions. A resolute human rights policy lies at the core of Germany’s value-oriented and interest-led foreign policy throughout the world. The members of the Council of Europe include states which are countries of origin, transit or destination for human trafficking. The number of victims is rising all over the world. The Council of Europe will be stronger if it chucks overboard excess weight and concentrates on its strengths.

However, that is no reason for complacency and no excuse to take human rights protection less seriously.

Citizens from many European countries turn to the Court in Strasbourg because they believe their rights have been violated.

The German Government doesn’t win every case in Strasbourg.

But it would be wrong to say that judgements have been passed against Germany or that Germany has been defeated in Strasbourg.

In truth, citizens in Germany win when the Strasbourg Court interprets human rights protection more broadly than the courts in Germany have done.

In many countries which have undergone fundamental social transformation, the judicial system first of all had to grow into its new role as an independent power.

For us, there’s no alternative to the rule of law or to effective legal protection for the individual. That’s why Germany supports our partners as they strive to gain more rule of law.

Our commitment to human rights lies in our own vital interest.

We can count on reliable political and economic cooperation with countries that respect human rights and are governed by the rule of law.

Interests and values do not stand in contrast to one another but, rather, are part and parcel of responsible foreign policy.

Europe is no exception when it comes to the idea of human rights as an unfinished project. Even though we’ve come far, the idea of an unfinished human rights project also applies to Europe.

Take, for example, the death penalty.

With the exception of Belarus, the death penalty has been largely abolished in Europe. There’s no place for the death penalty in a modern European legal culture. Every signature or ratification of the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights strengthens our common stand against the death penalty.

Take, for example, human trafficking.

Germany and the Philippines have joined forces in the UN Human Rights Council to push for greater protection for victims and for human trafficking to be outlawed.

Children’s rights, especially the rights of children in armed conflicts, freedom of religion and the right to sexual identity and orientation are other priorities of our human rights policy.

I very much welcome the fact that you addressed the Roma this week here in the Parliamentary Assembly. To some this debate may appear tiresome but it’s necessary nevertheless.

The European Commission, too, not only has the right but also the duty to ensure that EU law is complied with.

This issue is not about condemning anyone.

A purely judicial review of what’s already happened may be important. However, what lies ahead is much more important. We have to offer the Roma a future.

Their children have been outside the school system for far too long. For the Roma, just like for any other group, education is the key to integration and to a self-determined life. Only if these children can go to school will they find their place in society. We all have an obligation to act.

It’s the state’s duty to offer integration. However, parents also have a duty to accept this offer for the benefit of their children.

The international human rights debate has developed since the establishment of the Council of Europe.

In the United Nations, the economic, social and cultural rights rather than the traditional civil and political liberties are the focus of attention.

Europe can also contribute much to the debate and must square up to these new challenges. Both our development and foreign policies have a role in this.

For us, civil and political rights aren’t incompatible with economic, social and cultural rights. They are of equal importance.

Together with Spain, Germany is working to promote recognition of the right to clean water. I’m delighted that we were successful in the General Assembly in July and in the Human Rights Council last week.

However, it’s important to restrict social and economic fundamental rights to commodities which people really need.

Those who claim that every social benefit – desirable though they may be – is a human right run the risk of devaluing the term human rights.

The more strong partners join the human rights system, the stronger the Council of Europe will be.

The Lisbon Treaty provides for the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights.

That’s not an indication of any mistrust of the Commission, the Council or the European Court of Justice but, rather, an indication of confidence that all citizens in Europe will benefit from universal human rights standards.

If until now a citizen of a Council of Europe member state wanted to fight against a law or regulation, he often ended up at the Court of Human Rights here in Strasbourg.

But that didn’t apply if the law or regulation originated in Brussels.

The European Union therefore had a privileged position compared to Council of Europe member states, even though all European Union member states are also members of the Council of Europe. Although that can be explained by history, it’s outdated.

The accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights strengthens the legitimacy of the European Union and, at the same time, the Court of Human Rights here in Strasbourg.

However, more partners often also means more complaints before the Court.

For a long time, the Court was in danger of failing due to its great success and of drowning in the flood of complaints. I’m confident that the change of procedure in June will channel the flood of proceedings, thus making the large number of applications easier to deal with.

We don’t want to have to explain to our citizens one day that a judgement was passed against a state because domestic legal proceedings took too long but that the Court of Justice in Strasbourg needed just as long for this judgement as the domestic court.

I agree with Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland that the Council of Europe must rethink its tasks.

Protection from human rights violations is the hallmark of the Council of Europe, and here more than anywhere else lies its future.

There is always a great temptation to grow as an organization and to address an increasing number of new issues. But we have to resist this temptation.

It’s just as important at the multilateral level that we use the money our citizens have placed at our disposal responsibly.

Becoming ever bigger and having ever more to do doesn’t always make an international organization stronger. Organizations usually become weaker when they blur their profiles.

But we need a strong Council of Europe in order to ensure that human rights remain strong in Europe.

Germany will be a strong and reliable partner in the fight for human rights. For the German Government, human rights provide a clear compass for our policies.

In human rights policy, we perhaps sometimes obtain the best results if we try to get across our message away from the spotlight.

Quiet diplomacy can achieve much.

Sometimes, however, taking our message into the public arena helps to give courage to those whose rights have been violated and shows them that they’re not alone and that we won’t forget them.

That’s why it’s so important that we address human rights publicly time and again, thus ensuring that attention remains focused on them.

That’s why it was important to me to come to Strasbourg today to address you on the anniversary of Germany’s accession to the Council of Europe.

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