Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the event “50 Years of the Human Rights Covenants”

06.10.2016 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

People, sheltering in piles of rubble. Children, living in constant fear of the next bomb attack. Women who can no longer find food to feed their babies. The situation in Aleppo is horrendous, it is unbearable.

But Aleppo is only one striking example of the suffering and distress experienced by thousands upon thousands worldwide. At the current time, more than 60 million people in the world have fled their homes, their lives threatened by war, violence and persecution. Millions of children cannot go to school. People are dying because their most elementary needs ‑ food, healthcare, clean drinking water - are not being met. Elsewhere, people are imprisoned with no hope of a fair trial. They are abused, tortured, killed because of their opinions, religion or out of sheer tyranny.

Human rights are being trampled upon. Not everywhere, but much too often and in far too many places in this world. It seems almost ironic that we have come here today to celebrate human rights. We are marking the 50th anniversary of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations’ central human rights covenants.

There are two aspects which, for me, are to the fore here. Firstly, we are showing that we stand by our clear commitment to the principles contained in the covenants. And secondly, we are here because we know, as Egon Bahr put it, you have to take the world as you find it. But you mustn’t leave it that way! For this reason, this celebration is also an opportunity to be clear about our job of calling a spade a spade when violations come to light and standing up for human rights worldwide.

After all, there is no denying that our world is out of joint. We are witnessing a power struggle over the international order and this struggle is manifesting itself in crises and conflicts all over the world. Of course, we, the Western democracies, have to make our voice heard in the search for order. At the same time, we need to listen to other young players on the world stage and give them space to pursue their legitimate interests. But, ladies and gentlemen, there is one thing which is not up for negotiation. There is one thing which we simply must ensure: namely, that the huge achievement of human rights, which the international community bestowed upon itself after the horrific world wars of the 20th century, is not today called into question. I see the danger of human rights being eroded and it is a danger we need to avert. There can be no international order without human rights as its cornerstone!

That is why I would like to thank you for coming to the Federal Foreign Office in such large numbers. I extend a very warm welcome to this event which we are hosting together with the German Institute for Human Rights, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection and the Forum Menschenrechte (Human Rights Forum).


“Without peace there will be no justice; without justice there will be no sustainable peace.” This is how the so-called North-South Commission led by Willy Brandt put it. More than 35 years ago.

And today, a glance at the trouble spots of our world leave no doubt that there is no contradiction between security and human rights. Where distress and a lack of justice are the order of the day, conflicts escalate. Where human rights are being trampled upon, desperation takes root - desperation which gives rise to bitterness and more violence. Many states justify oppression citing the danger of terrorist attacks. Often, their repressive measures create an atmosphere in which conflicts cannot be resolved peacefully.

The truth is that development, security and human rights are mutually enhancing. Thus we need to be clear that if we want to shape a more peaceful and just world, we have to put the respect for human rights at its very heart.

For this very reason, we have, for example, built a vocational training centre in northern Sri Lanka. After years of bloodshed during the civil war, Tamil and Sinhalese young people are meeting to train together. I visited this project last year and anyone who sees the young people there understands that reconciliation can work if we give the young generation better prospects for the future, particularly in the post-conflict phase.

This project is just one of many in which we are putting the spotlight on work to promote both peace and justice.

In Ukraine, we are, for instance, helping the UN Monitoring Mission to look at the human rights situation in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea.

What is more, we want to encourage human rights activists to keep up the good work! That is why my French colleague Jean-Marc Ayrault and I agreed that our countries will this year for the first time award a Franco-German Prize for Human Rights to pay tribute to outstanding dedication. We also want to encourage more people to engage in this important sphere.


For our work, the United Nations and its principles and instruments, such as the covenants we are paying tribute to today, are our point of reference, our benchmark! It is an encouraging step that we have now finally firmly anchored our goal of a more peaceful and just world with Agenda 2030. The Agenda is based on rights. It is the focus of our shared action. Also during our G20 Presidency next year, we will put global justice on the agenda!

After all, it is clear that if we want to make progress on this enormous global challenge, we need to tackle it together. That is why we are coordinating closely with our long-standing partners in Europe and North America but also with new partners.

I am thinking here, for example, of Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. I am thinking of Brazil with which we have moved forward on the right to privacy. Or of Namibia which together with us, Brazil and Finland sponsored a resolution on the right to adequate housing in the Human Rights Council.

I am delighted that so many guests from the Diplomatic Corps have joined us today to celebrate this anniversary, as representatives of long-standing and new partners. A very warm welcome to you!


The need to stubbornly pursue work to promote human rights is one that also exists at home ‑ in Germany, in Europe.

In our democracies, too, we must guard against the disregard for essential rights, as the journalist Martin Klingst underscored in his new, thoughtful book “Human rights”.

As he points out, when governments violate basic human rights, they are mostly doing so out of fear ‑ the fear of losing security, power, identity or culture. And on a regular basis these fears are instrumentalised against those who think differently, are foreigners or belong to minorities. Nor is this scaremongering something alien to democracies, as Klingst continues. Yet without the rule of law and the respect for human rights, democracy is neither thinkable nor existent.

Klingst’s words sound a clear warning! And this is exactly what we discussed last month at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.

After all, also within the OSCE, we are seeing how states are trying to restrict the scope and validity of human rights and fundamental freedoms once more.

In some European countries and in many countries worldwide, civil society is struggling in the face of restrictions ‑ whether in the form of NGO laws or state repression.

In the midst of the refugee debate, we are seeing impressive examples of all-embracing civic engagement here in Germany. But we are also seeing a resurgence of populism, hatred and violence. We must not sit idly by. We need to take a clear stand against this development.

This is a call that goes out to each and every one of us. Governments, international partners, civil society!

One thing is for sure, only if we succeed in anchoring the ideals of the human rights covenants in people’s minds, will we be able to ensure they are implemented in the long term.

Key momentum in the struggle to preserve these rights has always come from civil society. I am talking here of committed initiatives and non-governmental organisations which today uncover injustices in many parts of the world ‑ often with great courage and at great risk.

This is impressive work! That is why I am so pleased that many representatives of civil society are here with us today. I would like to thank you for your important work! You also have the job of keeping an eye on what we are doing. So, I urge you to stay active. When you need to, don’t be afraid of speaking uncomfortable truths!

High Commissioner, we are particularly honoured that you are celebrating this anniversary with us. As the voice of the United Nations, you serve to remind us that noble words must be translated into action, that the promises contained in the covenants must be implemented.

That is what we must work together to achieve today and in the future!

Thank you very much.

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