Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the presentation of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights

01.12.2016 - Speech

Jean‑Marc Ayrault,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Honoured prizewinners,

I know you have just taken your places here in the Weltsaal at the Federal Foreign Office, but please allow me to take you straight out again, at least in spirit, to two places that Jean-Marc Ayrault and myself have visited in the past months.

The first place is Niamey, the capital of the Niger. When Jean-Marc and I were there in May, we met people whose journeys there had been horrific. They had set off from Senegal, the Gambia, Nigeria and Mali to get to Europe – in the hope of a better future. But they soon found themselves living a nightmare. Traffickers stole their last remaining possessions, many were brutally abused. They were left with nothing – long before they had got anywhere near Europe.

Theirs were tragic stories – and these are just a few examples of the fate of countless people who abandon everything, who leave their homes, in the hope of a better life. Many are expelled, persecuted, exploited.

The second place I want to talk about is Slavyansk. It is in eastern Ukraine. In September, Jean-Marc and I were there, at the heart of the contested region. We saw a bridge. It had been destroyed in the fighting. One remaining pillar reached to the skies – a symbol of the power of destruction and violence. And perhaps also a symbol of what has happened to the everyday lives of the people in the region who still live in fear and hardship and have done for far too long.

Slavyansk and Niamey. Two places, two insights into what it means when people in this world are without protection, when they are deprived of their elementary rights. By violence, oppression, persecution or hardship. I could add countless other places to the list – places such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. But even outside the major crises that we see and hear about in the media in Europe, people’s rights are being violated on a daily basis.

You, ladies and gentlemen, honoured award-winners, you see this every day. But you do not look away. You look at what is going on! All of you work tirelessly, day in and day out, to protect and promote the rights of your fellow human beings. Your dedication is impressive. I would like to take this opportunity to express my great respect for what you do and to thank you sincerely for your efforts.


For both France and Germany, one thing is clear: protecting and promoting human rights is at the heart of our foreign policy endeavours. We act worldwide to further this cause. It is the compass that guides us in all policy areas – from crisis prevention and acute conflict management to the vital field of stabilisation.

It is true that calling for human rights is one thing – but making sure that words are followed by deeds, standing up in the face of injustice, these are things that require real courage. This courage is evinced every day by dedicated men and women all over the world. Many are active in precisely those places where such activities can cause them difficulties or even physical danger, where they themselves have to struggle against restrictions or state repression.

Jean-Marc Ayrault and I therefore decided to honour the impressive commitment of these people around the world with the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, which we are awarding today for the first time ever. I am delighted that you, our honoured prizewinners, are here with us today. You have travelled from widely different parts of the world. Your activities are just as varied as your countries of origin. They include fighting for women’s rights in Brazil and India, campaigning for the rule of law in Southeast Asia and Central America, and working for the White Helmets in Syria, a volunteer organisation that helps to rescue people after air strikes and to rebuild infrastructure. Bakers and teachers work as fire fighters and paramedics in the White Helmets and together help save lives.

We will soon hear more about your work. But as varied as your activities are, ladies and gentlemen, you all have one thing in common: the courage, compassion and determination with which you help others! You encourage us to see that we must fight for the rights of our fellow human beings, that turning a blind eye is not a viable option.

Your work moreover shows the breadth of the fields of human rights work in which we in the world of politics also have to take action.

It was the French and German embassies and consulates around the world who put forward your names for this prize on the basis of your amazing work. We want to select the prizewinners in this way in the future, too.

This Prize is thus also a manifest of our Franco-German friendship – this firm and solid bridge that we have built across the divides of the past over the last few decades. We are looking together to the future. A fact that makes me particularly glad that so many young people from both of our countries are here today. A big thank you to the musicians of the Franco-German youth philharmonic orchestra, whom we just had the pleasure of hearing. The friendship between Germany and France rests on unshakeable pillars – our shared values of humanity, solidarity and democracy.

These are the values represented by the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. And they are the values for which you, the distinguished prizewinners we are honouring today, work to defend!

Thank you very much, and many congratulations!

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