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Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the Occasion of Greece Passing the Chairmanship in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to Germany

18.11.2020 - Speech

When the Council of Europe was founded 70 years ago, Europe still lay in ruins.

The war unleashed by Germany had turned our cities and fields into graveyards.

In the eyes of the world, “Europe” had become a synonym for war, genocide and the violation of human dignity.

70 years later, the contrast could hardly be any greater.

  • Today, Europe is a beacon of hope for oppressed people across the globe.
  • Men, women and children from countries all around the world seek shelter here.
  • And our commitment to human rights, the rule of law and free and fair elections is setting global standards.

We owe this to the women and men who, 70 years ago, dared to imagine a future in which all Europeans could live in dignity.

Who dared to dream of European reconciliation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Their dream largely came true.

And it bears a name – the Council of Europe.

But this dream of a more peaceful, just and tolerant Europe is by no means a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It challenges us every day.

War has still not disappeared from European soil.

The illegal annexation of Crimea and the unresolved conflicts in Georgia and Moldova serve as stark reminders in this regard.

And the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan reminds us of the immense suffering that war inflicts on civilians and soldiers alike.

We welcome the ceasefire, of course. But the underlying conflict is not yet solved.

We therefore call on the parties to work towards a lasting political settlement within the framework of the OSCE’s Minsk Group.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The COVID-19 pandemic is another reminder that our achievements cannot be taken for granted.

To protect our health and prosperity, governments all over Europe and the world have restricted personal freedoms and individual rights. But such restrictions must be proportionate and limited - in scope and in time.

  • The Secretary General’s “toolbox” provides valuable guidance in this regard.  
  • We also support the relief programme set up by the Council of Europe Development Bank to support national healthcare systems.
  • And I would like to thank the Secretariat and all institutions in Strasbourg, as well as in the external offices, for keeping up their excellent work under extremely difficult conditions. Thank you very much for that!

The “Athens Declaration” put forward by the preceding Greek Chairmanship sends a strong and timely signal of support. Thank you very much!

We will build on this during our upcoming Presidency.

There are three priorities that we will focus on in our work:

First of all, our goal is more coherent protection of human rights throughout Europe.

All Member States have the duty to abide by the final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Too often, however, the execution of these judgements remains incomplete or does not happen at all.

This needs to change.

We are strongly committed to the quick accession of the European Union to the Convention.

And we will also focus on those whose rights are most under threat during the pandemic. Women and children, for example, are suffering from staggering levels of domestic violence.

And I call on all Member States that have not yet done so to join the Istanbul Convention against domestic violence and violence against women.

The pandemic has shown us that our work to protect human rights must adapt to changing circumstances.

And this leads me to my second point:

We must prepare our European human rights architecture for the challenges of the future. 

  • Artificial Intelligence offers tremendous opportunities, of course. But at the same time, it raises serious questions regarding privacy and human dignity.
    A high-level conference in January of next year will address these challenges. And it will help us pave the way towards a binding legal instrument, which we urgently need.
  • In the digital age, the fight for human rights cannot end when we go online. Hate speech aggravates discrimination and all too often leads to violence. We will therefore use our Presidency to raise awareness, address gaps in our existing regulations and develop anti-discrimination strategies for the most affected groups.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Bringing the Council of Europe closer to its owners, our citizens, is our third priority.

  • We will work closely with the Advisory Council on Youth and the European Youth Foundation to get more young people involved in the Council’s activities. At the “3rd European Youth Work Convention” in December, for example, we will provide a platform for their voices to be heard. Because the future we talk about will be their future.
  • And we will also involve minorities in our discussions to promote equal rights. This includes, in particular, Europe’s largest minority – Roma and travellers. And we have a strong partner on which we can rely - the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the past 70 years, Europe has changed for the better.

The continent of war and genocide has become an exporter of peace, a safe haven for refugees, and a standard bearer for human rights.

But progress is not linear.

And the current pandemic has raised questions that concern the very foundations of our societies – our prosperity, our rights and freedoms, and our ability to stand together in solidarity.

Europe has always been at its best when we give joint answers to these questions.

That is the purpose of the Council of Europe.

That is its greatest strength.

And I am looking forward to working with all of you to bring this strength to bear in the coming months.

Thank you for your attention - and stay healthy!

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