Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very honoured to welcome you here today at the Council of Europe, home and guardian of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Let me first say a few words about the Council of Europe.
[Presentation of the Council of Europe]
The Council of Europe was created in the aftermath of the Second World War, to establish a new system of international co-operation and governance based on common, agreed legal and political standards.
To this very day, the cornerstones of that new system — human rights, democracy, the rule of law — are the values which guide us in our daily work.
The most important of these common standards is the European Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force over 60 years ago. It closely echoes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, but adds an important element: the possibility to address an impartial international court to decide if human rights were violated or not, and to sanction violations. This is the European Court of Human Rights, which you may have seen before entering this building. In almost 17 000 judgements passed since 1959, the Court has interpreted all aspects of the Convention, and helped to adapt the Convention to the requirements of modern society.
However, the European Convention on Human Rights is only one of over 200 international treaties which have since 1949 been prepared and opened for signature by our member States. I cannot list all of these but let me give you a flavour: the European Cultural Convention; the European Social Charter; the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities; the Convention on Cybercrime; the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings; and the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
You can see only from this short list how widespread our field of activity is. Our programme reflects the simple insight that democracy, human rights and the rule of law must not just be protected in the courts; they must be protected and developed in the everyday practice of public authorities. And more than that: citizens must feel ownership of their society and of its fundamental values; they must have the competence to live in, and cultivate, a “culture” of democracy and human rights.
Together with our 47 member States we are pursuing these goals at three levels:
· The setting of common standards — including the international conventions as the most binding form; another, “softer” form is the formulation of recommendations to member States;
· Monitoring activities, to collect the evidence on the degree of standard compliance and to see what the problems really are;
· And advice and competence-building in the field, for instance with legal professionals for the application of human rights standards in everyday situations; or with administrators, teachers or civil society leaders.
[Relevance for religious communities]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is not the first time that representatives of the Bishops Conferences of Europe are holding a meeting in the Council of Europe. I already had the pleasure to address you in 2009, in my previous role as Director General of Education, Culture and Heritage, Youth and Sport.
It is very appropriate that you have again chosen the Council of Europe for your meeting today. The Council of Europe and the Holy See have worked together since 1962; the Holy See was accepted as an observer in 1970 and has so far ratified eight Council of Europe conventions. However, this is the Vatican State.
Because of the principle of separation between State and Church, or State and Religion, the Council of Europe as an intergovernmental organisation has avoided any discussion of religious matters for decades — with two exceptions.
One is the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes as one of its hallmarks the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This freedom is vital for every believer, but also for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned.
The other exception is the cultural aspect of the life of religious communities, including mainly the aspect of their cultural heritage.
It was in the context of our debate on a wider political issue that the Council of Europe has started to acknowledge the fact that religion is not a private matter only, but plays a significant role for our identity and culture.
This wider issue is the democratic management of diversity — or intercultural dialogue.
One could rightfully say that from its very beginning, indeed at the heart of its work, the Council of Europe has worked for intercultural dialogue. And it is true that closer co-operation between our member States in the field of culture has been a priority since the 1950s. This year, incidentally, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the European Cultural Convention, which has been the basis of co-operation in fields as important as education, languages, culture, cultural heritage and youth.
However, intercultural dialogue — in our understanding — is more than just co-operation between cultural or educational bureaucracies. It is a task for the whole society: public authorities certainly, but also civil society organisations, the media, the social partners — and religious communities.
This view is laid out in some detail in the “White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue”, which the Committee of Ministers launched in 2008. Its sub-title “Living together as equals in dignity” expresses in a few words the idea of a society which manages in a democratic manner its inner diversity, in full respect of the common human rights standards and with a view to co-operation and solidarity. Intercultural dialogue, therefore, does not mean that “anything goes”. It means that we have to be more careful than in the past to reconcile the legitimate interests of the cultural communities existing in our midst with the legitimate interest of society as a whole to secure a functional cohesion.
The “White Paper” exists in more than 20 different languages. I invite you to take a look at this text, which still today is the only attempt by an international organisation to formulate a consensus view of what we mean by “intercultural dialogue”. When drafting it we benefited from very substantial input not only from our member States, but also from civil society organisations — and from over 100 religious leaders and community representatives, who helped us to sharpen our perception.
In this text you will find an interesting section on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue. At the end of the long debate all member States were ready to accept that dialogue between public authorities and all religious communities was important for the management of diversity, just as important as interreligious dialogue in a narrow sense.
It was a defining moment for a more open attitude of the Council of Europe in our co-operation with the whole range of religious communities existing in Europe.
This chapter of the “White Paper” was also the birth certificate of the annual “Exchanges on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue”.
The Council of Europe organises these “Exchanges” every year, in order to stimulate the dialogue between public authorities, religious communities and groups of non-religious convictions on the one hand, and the exchange of views between the various religious communities on the other. Some of you may have participated in one or several of these “Exchanges”.
Every year the Committee of Ministers proposes a different topic for the debate, ranging from the freedom of religion to the role of young people, the role of the media for dialogue, and the teaching of religious and convictional facts in the education system. In September this year, under the Chairmanship of Azerbaijan of the Committee of Ministers, we will meet in Baku to look at the interaction between culture and religion, and their respective roles for intercultural dialogue.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy that with today’s meeting of the General Secretaries of the Bishops Conferences of Europe on the premises of the Council of Europe we have reached a new milestone on the way towards a structured co-operation.
Please be assured that you are very welcome indeed in this “Home of Human Rights”, on this occasion and I hope in our future work together.
I wish you very fruitful discussions during your meeting, and thank you for your attention.