European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

 

EUROPEAN CONFERENCE AGAINST RACISM

Introductory remarks by Mr Walter Schwimmer, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here today to the Council of Europe - governmental and non-governmental communities, European and United Nations bodies - to participate in the European preparatory conference for the World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

But even while welcoming you all, I have to say that I would prefer this conference did not have to take place, that we lived in a world in which such phenomena held no sway.

Sadly, today, racism, racial discrimination, antisemitism, xenophobia and all related intolerance continue to poison our continent. That rallying call of the fathers of Europe - "Never again" - all too often meets, from all corners of Europe, with the response of aggressive nationalism, ethnocentrism, ethnic cleansing, and daily discrimination.

But equally today, more than ever, we are determined not to give any ground to such responses. The fact that you are all gathered here at this conference, representing such a broad range of backgrounds and organisations, is the proof of your firm engagement to defend at all costs the principles on which the concept of Europe - that great humanistic project - was founded.

This Organisation is well-placed to host the European regional conference to prepare for the World Conference. Not only does the Council of Europe cover practically all the European continent, it has a particular and unique expertise in the subject with which you will be dealing over the next few days. Let us remember that the Council of Europe was born of the end of the Second World War, and thus of the fight against nazism, fascism and totalitarianism.

The message upon which our Organisation bases its work in this field takes as its starting point the simple fact that we live in multicultural societies in today's Europe. This statement can no longer be open to debate: it is merely the reality of the situation.

The message therefore is that we must ensure that this multicultural society benefits all those who live within it - it should include on an equal basis all of its inhabitants, especially those who live on its margins, such as Roma/Gypsies or refugees. It goes of course without saying that discrimination should no longer be the daily burden of wide segments of this society, particularly migrants and people of migrant origin.

The other side of the message concerns the sort of society that we must reject: a society in which a climate of hostility reigns, fuelled by xenophobic political discourse. We must firmly reject such extremism, which threatens the very foundations of our democracies.

But I regret to have to say that extremism, particularly as practised by political parties, is not sufficiently challenged at the present time. The risks of not reacting energetically against such discourse are immense: there is first and foremost the risk that racism will become commonplace and accepted, but also the very real risk that politicians of all sides of the political spectrum may be tempted to adopt similar discourse, which may then, little by little, end in a climate of indifference, become part of mainstream political life. All in the hope of winning votes since public opinion is perceived to be against the “other”, the foreigner, the immigrant. How can such politicians see fit to judge our societies and our citizens as being by nature xenophobic? How can they decide on our behalf that we need scapegoats in order to survive ourselves during difficult times? Not only are such errors of judgment plainly unintelligent, they drag us all down to a similar level. Politics is not a game in which racism and xenophobia can be used as a bargaining chip. This is not a "normal" way to conduct political life, and we must firmly reject the hostile climate and consequences it entails.

Here I feel that I must also emphasise my strong personal anxiety and disgust, and that of this Organisation, in the face of the evidence of a resurgence of antisemitism, in its various forms, across our continent. Have we then learned nothing from the past, from the recent or more distant history of Europe? Words fail me; I am reduced to borrowing the words of another: "Il est encore fťcond, le ventre de la bÍte immonde". The "bÍte immonde", the foul beast, is now spreading its evil on the internet. It hides under the guise of "revisionism" to erase our collective memory. Thus antisemitism has learned to take on new and insidious forms, hiding its real face and identity through the use of allusions and veiled statements.

These then are the messages of the Council of Europe. But we do not only deal in messages; we are also proud of our achievements, which are very concrete in this area. For the fight against racism is a cornerstone of one of our proudest pillars: the protection and promotion of human rights.

Since the first Summit of the Heads of State and Government of our member States, held in Vienna in 1993, the fight against racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance has become one of our Organisation's highest priorities. As you will know, this led in particular to the creation of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). ECRI, a body of independent members, has been at the forefront of pushing the agenda for recognition of discrimination based on factors such as race, ethnic or national origin, nationality, religious, linguistic or cultural background, as a clear violation of human rights rather than difficulties in a social or economic context.

And, indeed, protection against racial discrimination is a fundamental human right. It is now also recognised and protected as such, under the European Convention on Human Rights, thanks to the recently-adopted Protocol No 12 which contains a general prohibition of discrimination. We are proud that Europe has thus moved forward and filled a gap through a legally-binding provision to outlaw discrimination. I fervently hope that the largest number of member States will adhere to this protocol when it is opened for signature in less than a month's time, on the symbolic date of the 50th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the coming days, I hope we shall discuss openly, constructively and in a spirit of tolerance, the situation that confronts us in different parts of Europe. For, in the words of that venerable sage Karl Popper "If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance with them".

Let me now underline how I see the importance of our gathering here. The World Conference, and our regional preparations, provide us with a very timely opportunity. Not only to take stock of what is happening in Europe, and reaffirm our political will to meet the challenges, but to map out a way forward.

Throughout the process leading to this preparatory conference we have endeavoured to provide a forum for groups or persons vulnerable to racism, racial discrimination, antisemitism, xenophobia and related intolerance. I have in mind the strong input there has been from non-governmental organisations. Their efforts are vital in exposing this unseemly side to our societies which others might tacitly avoid, aiding victims and seeking action and accountability from those in authority. NGOs should necessarily also be associated with the future action determined at European level.

Our preparatory conference needs to anticipate emerging issues, to be forward-looking, practical and action-orientated in our outcome. We should aim to contribute our experiences, in Europe and beyond, to the World Conference with a view both to sharing our own good practice and learning from others.

The Ministers of our member States will also adopt a Political Declaration. Our General Rapporteur, Mr Gil-Robles, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, will then pick up the main themes of the various reports in a General Report. These three texts, representing the European contribution, will thus be sent to the coming World Conference against Racism.

And I would like to assure you that speaking on behalf of the Council of Europe, our contribution will not end there. For us, this contribution is not an end in itself, but rather the beginning of an on-going presence in the fight against racism at a national, European and international level.