European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

 

EUROPEAN CONFERENCE AGAINST RACISM

Lord Russell-Johnston, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Intolerance is not only a denial but a rejection of freedom. It is a dark prison for those who are hated, and for those who hate. It grows out of ignorance and fear. It generates and it perpetuates injustice.
 
Europe, for all its many justifiably proclaimed values, is sadly not immune to intolerance and discrimination. We are here today to establish a diagnosis, to boost our resistance, and to seek ways of treatment. We are doing it to combat and uproot this phenomenon on our continent, but also, if we can, to help to contribute to a global effort against racism, under the auspices of the United Nations.
 
The Council of Europe was set up fifty years ago to defend democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Fighting discrimination, be it based on race, ethnic origin, religion, sex or sexual orientation, political convictions, or any other reason, is an essential part of our task. Where there is hatred, human rights are under threat, and where hatred becomes a policy, and this has happened on our continent, not only long ago but recently, democracy ceases to exist, and the rule of law becomes a travesty.
 
So what can we do?
 
We educate. We have to recognise that no stratum of society is inoculated against infection. We help people to learn about, to understand and to accept differences. When, in the Council of Europe, we ran a continent-wide campaign in 1994 our slogan was “All different, all equal”. It summed everything up beautifully - Mary Robinson we offer it to you, as a slogan for the world. We try to help people to see diversity as an aspiration, and not as a threat. We are paying special attention to the education of children and young people.

It isn’t easy. Telling young people that to hate is wrong is not enough. They need to know why it is wrong. Tolerance must be embraced, it cannot be imposed.
 
Secondly, we do the very best we can to inspire better attitudes in people.
 
In fighting racism, xenophobia and all other forms of intolerance, we politicians have an important, sometimes even a decisive, role to play. Because of our position and influence we can make a difference, for the better, or, in some cases, for the worse. There is a majority I know who, regardless of their political affiliation, seek to inspire humanity, decency and respect. On the other hand, there are also others catering to prejudice, hatred and fear.

Just a few days ago a party on whose agenda there are repulsive, outright racist proposals for measures against immigration, gained ground in local elections in Belgium. A little more than a week ago, in Austria an already notorious regional politician dipped again into his seemingly bottomless pit of brown-coloured nostalgia.
 
Democratic Europe is still in search of how to respond to the message of these politicians, and to their limited but real electoral gains.

It is clear that their proclaimed political objectives are incompatible with what we wish Europe’s values to be, and that they represent a threat that should neither be ignored, nor minimised. And, all our democratic political parties must ask themselves repeatedly: why? Why is this happening? What reasons lie behind? And what needs to be done to remove them?

However, we should think twice before undertaking measures which, in the long-term, risk reinforcing rather than undermining their political strength. Fighting racism and intolerance requires strong action, but when we act, this strength must not be used arbitrarily. We need objective, consistent and democratic rules, applied equally to all. We need laws. But they must be fair beyond reproach.
 
If we cannot force people to change their minds, we can force them to change their published attitudes and actions, when these go beyond what is acceptable. If tolerance cannot be imposed, intolerance can and indeed, has to be combated.

Not all countries have yet made use of all the possibilities to fight racism and intolerance by legal means, and they should examine these urgently. Inciting racial hatred is a crime, and it should be punished as a crime.

As a person of Liberal conviction, who is committed to an open, uncensorious society and freedom of expression, I am deeply sensitive to the moral dilemmas this creates and the need, somehow, to bring, into an area of rigid prejudice, the balm of gentleness. And the challenge of contributing to this by legal means. But that it must be done I am in no doubt.
 
Finally, there is no freedom from hate and intolerance, where there is no truth and where there is no justice. If wrong has been done, it has to be put right. If there is no justice for those who were victims in the past, there will be, inevitably, new victims in the future.
 
This is why the Assembly insists on a full investigation into all human rights allegations in Chechnya. Until all accusations of abuses, are properly examined and until those responsible are brought to justice, the past will continue to pollute the future, in Chechnya and in the rest of the Russian Federation. A denial of justice spawns hate, and hate spawns new injustices. A tragic vicious circle sets in. If nothing is done about it, it will continue for generations. We are watching it now in the Middle East / Palestine.
 
This is a message that the new President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will have to accept. What happened in Serbia in recent days was wonderful and historic, but it is not yet enough. The removal of an indicted war criminal from his post marks the end of Serbia’s descent into the black hole of ethnic hatred and violence. But if it wants to reconstitute itself as a genuinely free and tolerant and democratic society, Serbia needs to dismantle the legacy of Milosevic, patiently, completely and irreversibly. The transition from a dictatorship into a democracy requires more than the political retreat of one person.

As long as Milosevic’s acolytes remain in positions of power, or close to them, Serbia will not be totally free. In no way, do I underestimate how difficult this is.

So far, President Kostunica has done a remarkable job of consolidating his authority without bringing the country into chaos.

Priority must be given to the restoration of democracy, a civil society and the revival of the economy and we here warmly welcome the decisions of the European Union. But, sooner or later, the question of responsibility for the crimes committed will have to be faced. Those who suffered so much at the hands of the regime President Kostunica is trying to dismantle, cannot be denied justice. The Serbs will have to accept that the final decision on Milosevic’s fate cannot be theirs alone. For all the suffering he has caused to Serbia, he was not indicted for what he has done to them, but for the crimes committed against others. Srebrenica is unforgettable and unforgiveable.

We cannot expect miracles, and things will not, alas, change as quickly as the majority of Yugoslavia’s citizens would wish them to.

However, there are questions that need not wait an answer. I call on President Kostunica, and I ask all of you here to join me in my appeal, to liberate, immediately, the Kosovo Albanian writer, humanitarian worker and paediatrician Flora Brovina.

Moreover, as has already been demanded by Bernard Kouchner, hundreds of other Kosovo Albanians, who remain imprisoned in Serbia, I think about 700, often on fabricated charges, should also be released, or, where evidence warrants it, given a chance for an early new and fair trial.
 
This would be a great gesture of goodwill, and a profound sign of greater tolerance between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, a beginning of hope, perhaps, that a past, dominated by hatred, can give way to a future based on mutual acceptance and understanding, perhaps even co-operation.
 
It is a hope we share. If not, we would not be here today.