Opening statement by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during his digital participation in the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
In his opening speech to the first Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 10 August 1949, the then President of the Council, Édouard Herriot, touched on an “extremely delicate” question, as he put it: that of the future of Germany in Europe.
As the former French Prime Minister, Herriot emphasised the unease felt by Germany’s neighbours, their memory of “torture, executions, deportations” perpetrated by Germans only a few years previously during the Second World War.
And despite this, Herriot made an offer of reconciliation and cooperation to the newly established Federal Republic of Germany. For the common goal of, in his words, a “liberal Europe”.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I think Édouard Herriot would be satisfied if he were to take a look at our Europe today – a largely united continent founded on justice and human dignity. With a democratic Germany living in peace and friendship with its neighbours.
We owe this to strong institutions like the Council of Europe. Almost 72 years after it was founded, it is now an institutional pillar of our united continent. With the European Convention on Human Rights it sets global standards for human rights protection.
Nonetheless, in the past few years we have also had to realise that our peaceful and tolerant Europe is not something to be taken for granted.
Sadly, violence and war have erupted once again, most recently in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also still in eastern Ukraine.
And democracy, the rule of law and human rights are under strain.
Images such as those that reached us at the weekend from numerous Russian cities – depicting peaceful protesters being beaten up, dragged away and arrested by police officers – all this stands in stark contrast to the obligations we have committed ourselves to upholding as members of the Council of Europe. We therefore call upon Russia to release the imprisoned protesters without delay. And we also expect it to immediately release Alexei Navalny, whose rights have been infringed by Russia before in previous proceedings, as the European Court of Human Rights unequivocally established.
Incidents like these undermine the rule-of-law achievements in which we as members of the Council of Europe rightly take pride.
We all need to take a decisive stand against the erosion of our European human rights architecture.
In the context of our chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, we have therefore defined three priorities:
First, we are working to achieve uniform standards for human rights protection throughout Europe.
In other words, all Council of Europe member states are obliged to implement legally binding decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. National regulations provide no excuse for failure to implement these decisions or to do so only partially in contravention of international law.
We are urgently working to bring about the rapid accession of the European Union to the Istanbul Convention. In the run-up to our meeting of the Committee of Ministers in May we want to promote the accession agreement with all available means.
We are speaking out on behalf of people whose rights are particularly under threat during the pandemic. Women and children especially are suffering from increased levels of domestic violence, for example. We therefore call upon all member states to accede to the Istanbul Convention.
And finally, we all need to join forces to work to ensure that restrictions to personal freedoms to protect our health during the pandemic remain proportionate and above all are temporary. The Secretary General’s toolkit on respecting human rights and the rule of law during the pandemic provides valuable recommendations on this issue. But we also have to apply them!
Second, we want to make the European human rights architecture fit for the digital age.
Artificial intelligence is a double-edged sword – it harbours new opportunities, but also many risks. If we want to ensure that the internet does not become a human rights vacuum, the Council of Europe needs to set standards in this area, through a new framework convention, for example.
The responsible committee of the Committee of Ministers adopted an important feasibility study on this issue in December. And last week, we discussed the topic during our digital conference on artificial intelligence.
During our meeting in May we should adopt further decisions on the basis of this discussion.
Not only in the United States we are witnessing how hate speech on the internet fuels discrimination and unleashes violence. That is why we need better regulations to tackle hate speech online as well as anti-discrimination strategies for the digital domain, which are long overdue.
How we should proceed will be the subject of our discussion in February at a conference on dealing with hate speech on the internet.
Ladies and gentlemen,
the third major priority of our chairmanship is to bring the Council of Europe closer to Europe’s citizens.
We are working closely with the European Steering Committee for Youth and the European Youth Foundation to convince more young people in particular to take an interest in the work of the Council. The Third European Youth Work Convention in December provided some insight into their expectations for the future of our continent.
We also need to involve minorities in our discussions to an even greater extent. We are focusing particularly on Europe’s largest minority – Roma and travellers. To this end we are cooperating closely with the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture.
Following a concert in Berlin in December, the Institute plans to organise a youth conference in Strasbourg in April to mark International Roma Day.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In his inaugural address just a few days ago, the new US President appealed to his compatriots to see not only what divides them but also what unites them. And to regard diversity as an opportunity.
How much more should that apply to Europe and to the Council of Europe, which brings together the diversity of 47 nations! Of course there will always be differences of opinion between us. But you as parliamentarians, all of us as democrats ultimately have an obligation to resolve these differences between us – first and foremost with respect, humanity and a willingness to compromise.
I say this quite deliberately also against the backdrop of the debate about the participation today of several Russian parliamentarians. The Council of Europe has always stood for exchange also across ideological divides. That also means openly expressing criticism – and tolerating it. But in my view, cutting off communications is always the worst option.
Only if we maintain frank exchange with one another will we be able to preserve what Édouard Herriot in 1949 viewed at best as a faraway goal: a Europe of peace, cooperation and human rights.
Thank you. And now I’m looking forward to your questions.