Do you remember Brigitte Heinisch? Ms Heinisch worked in a care home in Berlin. She drew attention to abuses in the home, and was subsequently dismissed. She submitted an appeal – on the basis that she had been fired for whistleblowing. German courts rejected this appeal. Ms Heinisch took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in her favour in 2011, stating that her dismissal breached the right to freedom of expression.
The European Convention on Human Rights protects the freedom of expression – including that of Brigitte Heinisch. It has protected us all for 70 years. For 70 years, it has established the highest standard for the protection of human rights worldwide.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We must not take these achievements for granted. We owe them to people who, 70 years ago, were courageous enough to believe in a future where all Europeans could live in dignity. And this a mere five years after the Second World War. Germany had not even begun to grapple with the legacy of National Socialism – and yet our neighbours invited us to be part of the Council of Europe.
Germany became part of a community guided by the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This gesture of good faith continues to have a major influence on our foreign policy today.
However, 70 years on, it is not enough to keep telling the story of our past. We must recognise the duty this story entails for the present and for the future.
This is what makes today’s conference, our first with the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection and the German Institute for Human Rights, so significant. I am very familiar with both institutions.
And so I am all the more delighted by the breakthrough we achieved two days ago, which thoroughly deserves to be mentioned here. At the Foreign Affairs Council meeting earlier this week in Brussels, we finally introduced an EU human rights sanctions regime. This has been one of the core aims of our Presidency of the Council of the EU, not least as we work to continue making our foreign policy more European.
With this instrument, we can now impose joint sanctions on people and entities in third countries. Because the perpetrators of severe human rights violations cannot and must not be permitted to spend their weekends shopping in Paris or Berlin or to stash their money in our countries.
The duty to continue strengthening human rights in Europe also falls to us as part of our Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which we assumed on the eighteenth of November. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a great deal planned for the coming months.
Firstly, we will be working to ensure that digitalisation and artificial intelligence safeguard human rights rather than jeopardising them. Ethical issues must continue to be resolved by people, not algorithms.
We will also be campaigning against online hate speech, because social networks are changing our information culture and the way in which we form opinions within our democratic societies. In this connection, the Council of Europe can offer essential solutions for safeguarding human rights and democratic integrity – in Europe, but also further afield.
Secondly, all Council of Europe member states are obliged to respect the Convention and to implement the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. We have all made a binding commitment to do so.
But in too many cases, this commitment is not upheld.
About a year ago, for example, the European Court of Human Rights ruled unequivocally that the detention of Osman Kavala is a clear violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And yet he remains in pretrial detention, where he has now been for over a thousand days. Last week at the Council of Europe, we issued an interim resolution demanding the immediate release of Mr Kavala.
And to amplify the EU’s voice within the Council of Europe, too, we are campaigning vigorously for the Union’s rapid accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. It has been encouraging to see the accession negotiations finally resume in recent months, after years at a damaging standstill.
Thirdly, young Europeans are at the heart of our efforts. We will encourage dialogue among young people and facilitate this dialogue across borders.
In times of social distancing, we must be creative – both governments and civil society – in order to bring Europe closer to its citizens.
And this Europe, ladies and gentlemen, is, above all other things, diverse and multifaceted. The litmus test for human rights thus remains our treatment of minorities. And that is why we also want to focus our Presidency on the protection of the largest minority in Europe: Roma and travellers.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Tomorrow, the tenth of December, is international Human Rights Day. Each year on this day, we are reminded of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We are reminded that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity”. But also that what we have achieved must not be taken for granted. That it is our duty to keep fighting for the human rights of each and every individual, every Brigitte Heinisch and every Osman Kavala.
Without your support, your voice, your eyes and ears on the ground, this would be impossible. And so I offer you my sincerest thanks – and hope that you enjoy inspiring discussions here today!
Thank you very much!