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Speech by Christoph Strässer, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid, at the award ceremony for the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma at the Federal Foreign Office on 27 March 2014

27.03.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Dr Peritore,
Mr Zülch,
Members of Amaro Drom,
Mr Rose,
Mr Lautenschläger,
Vice-President of the German Bundestag,
Colleagues from the German Bundestag.
Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Ladies and gentlemen, guests,

This is one of my first speeches in my new role as Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid. I am very moved and proud to be able to welcome you to the Federal Foreign Office today. In my home town of Münster they say that if an event takes place for the second time in the same place and with the same objective, a tradition is born. This is now the fourth time that we have been privileged to host the award ceremony for the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma. This beautiful and honourable tradition fills me with joy, and we must be sure to uphold it. For in my view, this civil rights prize is one of the most important awards and honours that German society and of course the Roma and Sinti themselves have to recognise commitment to their minority. Many thanks to you, Mr Rose, and to the Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation, for making it possible for this award to be presented here today.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere greetings to the prizewinners, Mr Tilman Zülch and the members of the youth organisation Amaro Drom e.V., and to congratulate them on this prestigious award. I would also like to pass on the congratulations of Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who is unfortunately unable to be with us today. What we are seeing at the moment is “the return of foreign policy to public debate”, as many people describe it. As you can imagine, the Foreign Minister is therefore away a great deal, working on finding solutions to the current conflicts and crises in Europe. In this day and age we need an active foreign policy, that is why I am here to congratulate you on behalf of Dr Steinmeier.

Human rights, democracy and the protection of minorities are key components of German foreign policy. In the Basic Law the German people pledge their commitment to inviolable and inalienable human rights. The Federal Republic of Germany has signed almost all important international human rights agreements and treaties at United Nations level, as well as in Europe and within the context of the Council of Europe, as is only right and proper. I regard this as our duty. For human rights are the fertile soil and spring from which every human society emerges, which allow peace and justice to take root in the world.

The aim of German human rights policy is worldwide implementation and protection of civic, political, economic, social and cultural human rights. In this context we as the Federal Government, parliament and civil society are committed to promoting respect and protection for minorities – nationally and internationally. It is our joint obligation to take a decisive stand against all forms of discrimination, whether for reasons of ethnic origin, gender, religion or sexual identity. This applies not only internationally and within Europe, but also here at home.

The European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma is awarded in awareness of their tragic history. Deprivation of rights, persecution and systematic destruction were the terrible fate of this minority in Nazi Europe.

But even today the situation of the Sinti and Roma in many European countries gives cause for great concern. The consequences of societal and social exclusion, discrimination and stigmatisation are dramatic: Social disadvantage is widespread and reduces the chances of equal access to education, employment, medical care and accommodation.

The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma is constantly working to alleviate these problems and is playing a key role in improving the situation of Sinti and Roma. At this point I would like to thank the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma and its Chairman, Romani Rose, for its considerable dedication and important commitment to equal opportunities, integration and tolerance.

Dear Mr Zülch, since the founding of the Society for Threatened Peoples you have worked to promote the rights of minorities throughout the world. Humanity and the energetic defence of human rights have always been at the heart of your activity. It is in no small part down to you that Sinti and Roma are now one of the four recognised national minorities in Germany. Allow me to make a personal observation. I have been active for 35 years now in the area of human rights policy. I cannot imagine what German human rights activity would look like without you, Mr Zülch. The fact that opinions differ in one or two areas can only be a good thing. I would therefore like to express my personal thanks to you.

The Special Award of the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma, which is being presented again this year, goes to the intercultural youth association Amaro Drom e.V. The Association’s work helps children and young people grow into critical, responsible citizens equipped to lead a life fully integrated into society. Your organisation does not stand on the fringes but is active within society promoting intercultural exchange between young people in Germany with different backgrounds. In my view that is the right way to encourage mutual understanding and promote equal opportunities. Many thanks, therefore, to you, too, and congratulations on this award.

Unfortunately, mutual understanding and equal opportunities are not something we can take for granted. For in many countries in Europe Roma continue to live in very difficult conditions on the margins of society. Yet as long as EU citizens live without prospects in the poorest conditions and excluded from the majority society, the European Union is not respecting the values it claims to represent. The European institutions, the member states and their societies all have a joint responsibility to change this.

For several years the European institutions, especially the EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, have focused particular attention on the situation of the Roma in Europe. I can well remember a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in which former prizewinner Thomas Hammerberg appealed very urgently to national responsibilities with regard to the situation of the Roma and Sinti. Many of the consequences which Mr Hammerberg called for then have still not been implemented. There is still much to do, and further political effort is needed. In June 2013 the European Commission, in its communication on steps forward in implementing national integration strategies, came to the conclusion that the measures and changes implemented in the member states so far were insufficient. It stated that racism towards and discrimination against Roma, particularly in their countries of origin, were still prevalent in all member states.

The reasons for this are manifold: a lack of national – political and financial – commitment, failure to utilise available EU funds, failure to dovetail local, regional, national and international projects, the lack of an integrated approach to reducing poverty and illiteracy and to health care, as well as greatly fragmented representation of interests among the Roma and failure to reach the most important target groups – mothers and children.

On 4 April 2014 the European Commission will hold a European Roma summit for the third time. Representatives of governments, parliaments and civil societies will consider the question of how to integrate Roma socially and economically at a local level and how to optimise use of the EU funds available for these purposes. I hope that this summit will give crucial impetus to our future work. We all need to strive to achieve this goal.

In a series of Council of Europe programmes implemented in cooperation with the EU, Germany is working consistently to dovetail the efforts of EU and the Council of Europe even more effectively and to make the most of the synergies this generates to further improve integration of Sinti and Roma in Europe.

International protection of human rights is not only an integral part of international law, it has also been largely codified. However, that is not enough. Day after day we see how states trample on human rights and human dignity. These are not isolated incidents. On the contrary, we are observing systematic abuse of international human rights standards. We must therefore repeat our calls for the observance of human rights daily and take concrete steps to implement them.

Many people are still regularly victims of racism and xenophobia, both at home and abroad. It is therefore all the more important that we keep the issue of human rights in the public eye and frequently spark new debates – that is the task of national and international policymakers. And that is another reason why the importance of the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma cannot be overestimated.

Dear prizewinners,

I would like to thank you once again for your commitment to promoting the rights of minorities. You are playing an instrumental role in improving our co-existence in a modern society, making it more tolerant and just. You are also injecting vital momentum into shaping German policy both domestically and internationally.

Congratulations on your achievement!

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