Address by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth, Special Representative of the Federal Government for the German Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, to the Parliamentary Assembly
Good morning, Mr President,
Good morning, Members,
Thank you for inviting me. I consider it a great honour and I would very much have liked to have been with you in Strasbourg, but the pandemic has, unfortunately, had an impact on all of us, whatever our responsibility, and it has, of course, had a particular impact on our Presidency, but thanks to your support, we have succeeded in working on various issues which held particular relevance for us.
I was also very moved yesterday by the statement by the Commissioner for Human Rights, who made it clear that the past year was a tragedy for human rights worldwide, but also in Europe. This is one of the reasons why it was important for the German Presidency to strengthen the Council of Europe in precisely those areas where it has its core competences. In the defence of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. That is precisely what we must now focus on. At a time when democracy is coming under pressure and nationalism, populism and authoritarianism are rising sharply, the Council of Europe is more important than ever. We must all play our part in ensuring that this forum is also strengthened in these central principles.
I could not have imagined that our Presidency would be dominated by preventing the worst from happening. We had indeed set out to strengthen and promote the Council of Europe's legal instruments, and I would particularly like to remind you of the Istanbul Convention, which will be celebrating its tenth birthday in a few days' time. We indeed wanted to convince other States to finally accede to the Istanbul Convention, to finally ratify it, but with Turkey's withdrawal by the presidential decree of Mr Erdoğan, we have lost an important partner. That is a tragedy for us all.
It is a tragedy above all because the pandemic has shown how dramatically domestic violence against women and children has once again increased, and it is precisely during this pandemic that it would be much more important to put up a firewall, and the Istanbul Convention continues to be a very central instrument in this respect. I have heard a lot of nonsense; this is not about ideology. Protecting women from violence and protecting children from violence is a human right, it is indisputably linked to the defence of human dignity.
I would therefore ask you all to use the coming days, weeks, and months to remind people of the Istanbul Convention as an instrument of protection. We must strengthen it and not weaken it and I am also very grateful to you, Mr President, to my colleagues in the Parliamentary Assembly and to the Secretary General, for the fact that we have issued a joint opinion to remind ourselves once again that the institutions of the Council of Europe are standing together closely and unwaveringly.
What is the rule of law really about? The rule of law comprises many elements. I would like to allude to the most important ones. Protection and independence of the judiciary, this is the alpha and omega of the rule of law. One of the great privileges of membership of the Council of Europe is that millions of people in Europe are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and by the European Court of Human Rights. It is more than worrying that we have a growing number of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that are not being implemented. This is a matter of substance, of the substance of the Council of Europe.
We can discuss and argue about everything, but membership of the Council of Europe always presupposes that the judgments are implemented and that monitoring missions have access to wherever the monitoring missions want to go to wherever human rights are being violated, to wherever there is danger and to wherever light needs to be shed on a situation.
I would like to appeal to all of us once again to make a concrete contribution to ensuring that the Council of Europe gains credibility in this area. Above all, it is the duty of all member States to contribute to this. We have tried to make our contribution over the past few weeks and we have repeatedly kept those prominent cases - but not only those cases – at the forefront of our public engagement.
Let me remind you of the two most prominent Turkish cases, Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala. There is now an official letter from the Presidency to the Turkish Foreign Minister. The Kavala case is now regularly raised in the Committee of Ministers and we will not rest until Kavala is freed, is released. This also applies, incidentally, to Mr Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been held in pre-trial detention for three and a half years now despite his innocence. This also applies, of course, to Mr Alexei Navalny, whose health we are very concerned about.
This is not about a generous gesture; it is about the fact that it is imperative that obligations are met, and we are making this an issue and the Committee of Ministers is also taking its responsibility most seriously.
But what else is the rule of law about? It is also about treating minorities with respect. We all want to be different in Europe, without fear. It must not matter who you believe in, where you come from, who you love, and here too the Council of Europe must play its part. I would like to thank you, honourable members, for your personal commitment.
During our Presidency, we have focused in particular on Europe's largest ethnic minority, the Roma, by also making it clear through a wide range of events: the Roma do not belong in the margins of our society, they enrich us. We need an end to stigmatisation, exclusion, and discrimination. We need more participation, more inclusion, everywhere in Europe and above all, we have tried to make the cultural enrichment of the Roma clear, because far too many people, when they hear Roma, first think only of problems. No, it is also about inspiration. It is about the cultural dimension of what an ethnic minority can contribute to Europe.
I would also like to remind you about the situation of LGTBI people. In too many Council of Europe States, they are the first victims of authoritarianism, of intolerance. We must not allow this to happen.
When we talk about a forward-looking Council of Europe, it is particularly important that we win over young people, who are, after all, everywhere trying to stand up for the very values that are also the subject of our joint deliberations. In all our formats, we have repeatedly extended a very direct invitation to young people from all Council of Europe member States, and I am very grateful that so many young people have accepted these invitations, which should continue in the months and years to come.
There is something else I want to promote, and for that we also need your support, honourable members. That is the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Union has been obliged to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, we have experienced a virtual standstill in recent years, and we have managed to revive the negotiations. It is not only the EU and its member States that benefit from European Union membership, from accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, but also the Council of Europe, because it makes clear once again what a great gift the European Convention on Human Rights is for citizens throughout Europe in terms of human rights. I would ask you to play your part in bringing these negotiations to a successful conclusion.
What else is the rule of law about? I would like to emphasise a third aspect. The rule of law includes an effective and determined fight against corruption. The Council of Europe in particular, but also my own country, has been involved in various allegations of corruption, and I would like to start by thanking you for your contribution to making it clear that corruption is a fundamental sin in a society governed by the rule of law and that corruption has no place, especially in politics. These accusations must be dealt with in a constitutional State, they must be brought to justice. I would also like to assure you once again that my own country is trying to contribute to ensuring that light is shed on these accusations, because they undermine the credibility of institutions, bodies, and communities. I believe that the Council of Europe must also be protected from these serious accusations and you can rightly expect the member States to make their own contribution here too.
I started with the Istanbul Convention and made it clear, once again, that the Council of Europe must now discuss the instruments at its disposal to enforce what the Council of Europe has been advocating for during so many decades. But we also know that the world and Europe have changed dramatically. That is why we, as the Presidency, have also ventured to look to the future to better cope with the trials and tribulations of the present. We have done so above all in relation to two major issues.
The first issue is a problem that you all probably have to deal with, which challenges us all – but also and above all which is sucking in many people who are not at all politically engaged: that is, hate speech, that is the increase of lies, hate, denial and of threats online. Now, we all suffer a little from these technologies; everything is digital, but I also want to emphasise this point.
We organised a major conference on the subject of hate speech, in which 20,000 people from all over Europe participated. This also made it clear how much people are concerned about this issue, and here, too, we have taken a major step forward in terms of which legal instruments we can use and implement.
I would also like to mention the second major challenge we are confronted with, that is artificial intelligence. The main issue here is to develop an ethical foundation. We all long for progress, for innovation. It is about the freedom of science, but it is also about setting limits in this sensitive area. Both hate speech and artificial intelligence are issues that cannot be dealt with at a national level but must be discussed at a global level. I see the Council of Europe playing a central role here, as an institution that provides guidance, encourages people, sets limits, and stands up for freedom time and again.
Without you, we would not have been able to do any of this. I would have loved to have had a much more direct and frequent exchange, but I would like to thank you once again from the bottom of my heart for the invitation. Also, for the very privileged opportunity today to engage in dialogue with you.
Now I look forward to your suggestions, your criticisms, and your ideas on how we can improve the work of the Council of Europe in these difficult times.