Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the German Bundestag to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

13.12.2018 - Speech

At the beginning of October, just under a quarter of a million people took to the streets in Berlin. They were sending a signal against racism and isolation and for tolerance and open-mindedness, for indivisible human rights. What a fantastic day it was in Berlin!
And in the end we owe it to the international community which agreed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago. Just three years after the end of the Second World War, the states invoked the dignity and the inalienable rights of each and every individual – thus at once making a pledge and assuring obligations. We have, I believe, achieved a great deal since then.

Today we can rely on a stable system for the protection of human rights: the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the various supervisory bodies and the many UN mandate holders. In the meantime, however, we have come to realise that this system is by no means fixed. None less than the United States, traditionally one of the strongest partners in human rights policy, has left the Human Rights Council. Proof that we live in a time when nothing can be taken for granted. On the contrary: we need to resolutely defend all that we have achieved.

We are concerned about the dramatic human rights problems we are seeing all around the world – in China and Myanmar, in Saudi Arabia, and many other places besides. We are using the channels available to us – including the Human Rights Council, of course – to address injustices. But this is not a one-way street. We Germans were confronted with strong international criticism under the UPR process following the events in Chemnitz, for example. Yes, that, too, shows that the existing bodies do indeed function. If we want to stand up for human rights around the world, we have to keep our own house in order. Only then will we retain real credibility.
That is why – to give just one example – the Federal Government wrote last week to 7000 German companies urging them to implement their human rights due diligence worldwide. For one thing is clear: if human rights are not implemented, peace and security will remain fragile, and development and prosperity cannot be secured for the long term. To that end, we need not only governments which take their obligations seriously, and an independent judiciary: what we need above all else is an engaged civil society.

In many parts of the world, however – and this is something which needs to be said openly – we are seeing the space for civil society shrinking. In many parts of the world, human rights defenders, journalists and NGOs are being intimidated and harassed. If we are serious about our commitment to human rights, then we need to work for their protection.

And so, esteemed colleagues, I ask you this: why doesn't the European Union have an instrument for sanctions to address human rights violations worldwide? That’s right, we have no such instrument! We are going to be talking with our European partners about exactly that in the next few weeks, because the Netherlands has come up with an initiative which we will be supporting.

We also support the initiative for a peer review, a mechanism in which all participating EU member states review each other’s adherence to the rule of law. Because the rule of law should, as a fundamental value, unite the EU, not cause division.

Esteemed colleagues,
The challenges facing us are changing, too. Today we are confronted by challenges which didn’t exist 70 years ago. Globalisation, digitalisation, migration, climate change – they all know no borders. The global climate is changing at a tremendous rate, even if there are some who still confuse climate with weather.

This has long ceased to be solely an environmental problem: if sea levels rise and extreme weather hampers access to clean water, it is also a human rights problem. This goes to show that human rights are about far more than what we might call traditional human rights protection. There are a host of new issues. The link between climate and security is one of them, and we have said this will be a focus of our UN Security Council membership.

Esteemed colleagues,
This development, the link between climate and security, inevitably means that there will be more migration. This makes our achievement in the Global Compact for Migration all the more important. You see, the Global Compact is a way to respond to this global development.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
So says Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Esteemed colleagues,
This means everyone – here, but also all across the world. The commitment to inviolable and inalienable human rights is at the heart of everything that holds our society together.
— Did I hear someone call out “no”?
The commitment to inviolable and inalienable human rights is at the heart of everything that holds our society together. Anyone who does not recognise that and anyone who does not believe that is right and proper is rejecting our society, ladies and gentlemen.

And so it doesn’t matter where one comes from. It doesn’t matter what one believes. It doesn’t matter whom one loves. If we are committed to human rights worldwide, then it is out of our firm conviction of this. I ask you: who is supposed to do it, if not us, the liberal democracies?

I know that the Bundestag is making an important contribution, not only in the debates and in the decisions we take. I am thinking of the “Parliamentarians Protect Parliamentarians” campaign, under which some of you have “adopted” fellow parliamentarians at risk in other countries. That, too, has something to do with freedom and human rights.

We have to stand up for human rights everywhere: in Berlin, in Beijing, in Chemnitz and in Moscow. In the end it is up to us to breathe life into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thank you.


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