Parliamentary Assembly session : 21-25 June 2004 

(To be checked against delivered speech)

Address by Kjell Magne Bondevik, Prime Minister of Norway

Strasbourg, 23 June

Mr. President,
Distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be back in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In the past I have served as a member of this assembly, and I still have many good friends among the representatives. I have many happy memories from my years in the Assembly, and I follow your work with keen interest.

When many people talk about Europe, they are usually only thinking about the European Union. But the Council of Europe and the OSCE are extremely important because they focus on areas of policy that the EU does not give so much weight to – areas that deepen the understanding between countries and peoples in our continent. These two bodies also include a number of countries that are not at the moment members of the EU. As regards the Council of Europe this applies to twenty countries. This makes the Council of Europe an important meeting place between established and new democracies and a vital arena for fostering a common understanding of the values that are essential for the development of democracy and respect for human rights.

As a founding member of the Council of Europe, Norway is a firm believer in the organisation, and strongly supports its activities. During our chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers we will do our utmost to further strengthen this organisation and help it adapt to new and changing realities. I believe that the Council of Europe needs to be open to reform and change, so that it can perform its tasks as effectively as possible. And we should focus on the organisation’s core values and areas of expertise.

First of all, we must focus on the European Court of Human Rights. This body has been and is the key institution in European efforts to advance human rights. Reform is vital to guaranteeing the effectiveness of the court. We must now take immediate action to ensure that the necessary reforms are carried out. The Court’s long-term effectiveness can only be guaranteed if we, the member states, make substantial efforts to reduce its workload. I therefore also encourage you, the Parliamentarians, to initiate the relevant changes at national level.

Secondly, the Council of Europe must seek to renew and strengthen its relations with other organisations. We have a lot to gain from improving the co-ordination of activities with the OSCE and the EU. We need effective co-operation and co-ordination, not unnecessary competition. Only through a constructive dialogue with the other organisations will we be able to succeed. At the same time this will ensure more visibility for the Council of Europe and its activities, and will attract more attention to it.

Thirdly, and it is one that is close to my heart – the need for dialogue and in particular dialogue between cultures and between religions.

History has shown us that nations and cultures are interdependent. A uniform society cannot endure. Tolerance and the exchange of ideas, goods and people are key factors for change, development – and peace.

We should not let differences in culture or beliefs take a negative direction, and develop into conflict.

Extremists and populist movements are exploiting people’s fear of “those who are not like us”. We can see the consequences in the form of terrorism and racially motivated violence. To fight terrorism more effectively we need to know about its root causes. In my opinion, fanaticism and hatered are root causes. These are often the result of humiliation and fear, which come from ignorance, frustration and an insecure identity. Extremists are often trying to spread the message of hate in the name of God. Yet nothing is further from true faith than hatred. On the contrary, those who have a strong faith, are often better able understand and respect the beliefs of others. This is tolerance.

I am convinced that by discussing the similarities and differences between the various religions we will be able to identify common values such as respect for what is sacred, for human dignity and for reconciliation.

In some of my travels abroad I have had meetings with the leaders of a number of different religions. I have done this in Sarajevo, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Cairo, New York and Geneva. In many conflicts religion is regarded as part of the problem. In my view, it should be the other way around. Religion must become part of the solution. A harmonious relationship between religions does not in itself resolve conflicts, but in some conflict-ridden areas it can pave the way for lasting, peaceful political solutions. Not only in the Middle East and the Balkans, but also in Africa and on other continents.

The Council of Europe promotes democracy, human rights and good governance in our part of the world. We have a unique set of common values – human dignity, rule of law, mutual respect and reconciliation. These values are vital in supporting reconciliation and preventing conflicts.

Dear fellow politicians - as political leaders we must do our utmost to promote and protect these fundamental values.

As political leaders we should use a humanistic approach to break down religious and cultural barriers that have been erected between peoples, societies and individuals. We should take responsibility for helping to build bridges between the different faiths and cultures. We should promote dialogue and tolerance.

There has always been cultural diversity in Europe, but in our time – in the era of globalisation – changes are occurring faster than ever before. Even countries with traditionally homogeneous populations, like my own country, have become increasingly multicultural. This development has great possibilities, but it also challenges us to take the initiative to promote understanding.

Fourthly, countless children in the world are being raised in an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance. Countless children are being denied their basic human rights.
Let us make sure that our children know their rights. Let us teach our children that Europe stands for harmony and not conflict. For co-operation and coexistence and not alienation and hostility.

Children are our future. We must promote sound values in our schools. Our schools must foster tolerance and understanding, they must be a means of combating hatred and fear of those who are different. At school pupils must learn compassion and consideration for others.

The English clergyman and writer Dean Inge put it this way: “The aim of education is in the knowledge not of facts, but of values”.

Education has a great potential to achieve concrete improvements in our societies. As the American writer James Baldwin put it, and I quote: “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”

It is important to promote systematic information on how knowledge of different cultures and religions can contribute to the development of mutual understanding and respect. The Council of Europe has an important role to play in these efforts.
Two weeks ago, we hosted a Council of Europe conference in Oslo on the religious dimension in intercultural education. By discussing similarities and differences between the various religions, we will be able to identify common values such as respect for human dignity and reconciliation.

In 1997 we introduced the subject “Christianity and General Religious and Moral Education” in Norwegian schools. This subject aims at giving the pupils knowledge and understanding of different religions and faiths. It shall pass on traditions and preserve religious identity, as well as build bridges that lead to insight, tolerance and dialogue. The objective is to contribute to mutual tolerance and respect for different views and beliefs.

Every society must work continuously to ensure that mutual respect and trust are the defining values in every aspect of society – cultural, social, ethnic and religious. At the international level this objective must be achieved through discussions, agreements and the exchange of information.
Through education we can build bridges between different faiths and cultures. Through education we can build understanding and respect for different religions and cultures. Let us today give the Council of Europe a leading role in these efforts.

Mr. President,

My fifth and last point is the need to work together and build networks.
Since the last time Norway held the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers – that was in 1989, and I was Foreign Minister at the time – the number of member countries of the Council of Europe has doubled. A comprehensive network of co-operation has been established, which is based on almost 200 Council of Europe conventions. These deal with a large number of areas, such as legal co-operation, social cohesion, human rights, the media, education, health, culture, youth, local co-operation and the environment.

In other words, this broad network is assuring the fundamental rights of 800 million citizens.

The strength of this co-operation is that we can contribute to improving norms and standards through the exchange of views, consultations and negotiations. In these efforts, the Council of Europe is able to draw on a large number of ministries and experts in the member countries.

It is reassuring that we have strong elected bodies to support the work of the Council of Europe. Both the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress for Local and Regional Authorities are, in Norway’s opinion, driving forces in our organisation. Let me mention improving guidelines for the intergovernmental sectors of the Council of Europe and the important initiatives that have been taken on new conventions and major topical issues. Also, the Parliamentary Assembly’s monitoring activities are widely respected and appreciated.

Mr. President,

I firmly believe that the Council of Europe has a unique role to play in preventing conflict and creating stability.

In summing up - let us strengthen the European Court of Human Rights, while also making substantial efforts to reduce the Court’s workload. Let us renew and strengthen the co-operation with other international organisations such as the OSCE and the European Union. Let us take new and bold initiatives for dialogue between different cultures and religions. And let us have a focus on education. And finally, let us build strong and effective networks.

You can count on our support. During our chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers we will do our utmost to help strengthen this organisation, and the values and norms it represents.