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Ladies and gentlemen,
Today we are marking the International day for the Eradication of Poverty and
I would have hoped to have more reasons to celebrate on this day.
Year after year, we repeat that poverty is unacceptable, yet it is still there, and it is rising. Social standards are slipping. Among the worst performers are the countries most afflicted by the sovereign debt crisis. In Greece, over 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. This percentage is higher than in Iran or in the West Bank! The jobless rate for young people in Spain is shocking – 56%. 44% of people in Bulgaria suffer from material deprivation.
Just imagine that behind each of these statistics there is an individual, there are real people, real families and real problems.
This is a disturbing picture.
And we don't need to go too far to look for examples.
I have been living in Strasbourg for the last 36 years now. There was a time when to see someone sleeping on the streets was unusual. Now it is impossible to ignore the number of people who have no other option but to huddle in a doorway. There may be plenty of explanations for that, and not all of them instantly fixable, but that is not an excuse to consider homelessness as a normal part of urban life. And Strasbourg is in a privileged situation, benefiting from the excellent work of many of you! On the other side, certain countries opted to criminalise homelessness, by imposing fines or jailing homeless persons. Banning the homeless only risks exasperating the problem, pushing the poor out of cities, hiding from the authorities and making it harder for social workers to connect with them.
Go to any ‘Resto du coeur' in France, and see for yourself that food handouts have also become a normal part of urban life for hundreds and thousands of families.
One NGO recently warned that in the UK, some food-bank recipients are so poor that they have returned produce that requires cooking because they cannot afford the electricity to heat it up.
We need to face the facts. Europe is still in the midst of an economic crisis and if history serves as any indication here, it will take several more years for strong economic growth to return. A growing part of our society has to make some very tough choices in tough economic conditions.
The governments and politicians can no longer dismiss the spreading poverty. Nor can they, in all conscience, treat it as business as usual. This is no longer a question of left versus right divide, or charity versus business approach.
A year ago the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and the Conference of INGOs endorsed the Declaration "Building Europe through Human Rights: Acting together against Extreme Poverty" and undertook to work together to eradicate poverty.
This commitment now requires concrete implementation. This is what I expect from your meeting today. We want to listen to you, those who are dedicated to overcoming poverty all year round. We want to hear from you what has to be done.
I am deeply convinced that the consequences of the crisis are a major and direct concern for the Council of Europe, because the denial of social and economic rights can ultimately be a denial of civil and political rights.
But our fight against poverty is also a legal obligation.
There is of course the European Convention on Human Rights, but there is also the revised European Social Charter. Article 30 of the revised charter states that "everyone has the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion". EVERYONE has the right to protection against poverty.
We have yet to prove that we are making strides in our mandate of poverty eradication. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has been at the forefront of this fight. His continued attention on the impact of austerity measures on human rights, and in particular on children, minorities and migrants has been delivering ample data and policy recommendations to the Council of Europe and member States.
Let me finish by paying tribute to Annelise Oeschger, Chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Conference of INGOs for her commitment and perseverance in the fight against poverty which, for those living it, is an endless struggle and an affront to their human dignity.
Thank you and I wish you a good day of discussions.