Check against delivery
It is an honour and a real pleasure to take part in the opening of this Conference.
And it is to the great credit of the Kristiansand municipality and its five dedicated partners that they have shown the will, grit and determination to make it happen in this hybrid format.
There is no doubt that democracy and human rights have faced significant new challenges, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it is right to reflect on how effectively we have withstood these, and what lessons should be learned.
But it is equally important to acknowledge that the very purpose of democracy and human rights is to help us to respond to whatever circumstances come our way.
Our democracies are a reference framework, underpinned by values, and intended to bring out the best in us - even during the worst of times.
Their role is to help us navigate through the storm, not bend in the wind.
This is also the essence of the Council of Europe’s mandate on our continent today.
Founded seventy-two years ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was based on the principle of “never again”.
Instead of the horrors of war – including the terrible crimes of the Holocaust - European countries would come together starting to build unity, and ensure that human rights, democracy and the rule of law took precedence over the arbitrary use of state power.
From ten founding members in 1949, we have grown to 47 member states today. Every European country, except Belarus.
Each of these has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter.
Each of these has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. And along with the European Social Charter, these treaties – with more than 220 other conventions, monitoring mechanisms, and a human rights Court on top, form the basis of human rights protection across our Continent.
Among other things, the European Convention guarantees the right to life and outlaws the death penalty.
It bans torture and forced labour.
And it guarantees access to justice, freedom of expression and assembly, and freedom of religion too.
The Social Charter, meanwhile, outlines Europeans’ rights to housing, health care, and education, and to work and family life.
And it puts a particular emphasis on the protection of vulnerable people including children, migrants, the elderly and people with disabilities.
The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, interprets and upholds the European Convention.
Every one of the 840 million individuals in Europe has a final right of appeal to that Court. And there have indeed been cases brought against Norway over the years, although not so many compared to some other countries.
Every member state must implement and execute the Court’s judgments fully, quickly and without exception.
For national authorities, the execution of judgments is not a nice “à la carte” menu – from which you can pick and choose what you like and agree with. No, it’s an obligation – a must – to implement the judgments from the Strasbourg Court. And we all have a collective responsibility to make sure that this actually happens.
Over the years, the Council of Europe has developed a total of over 220 treaties and instruments. These draw from the basic and fundamental rights outlined in the European Convention and the European Social Charter, and focus on the more specific challenges that we have since come to face.
They cover everything from tackling violence against women, child sex abuse, and the trafficking of human organs and human beings;
To the protection of national minorities, minority language rights and personal data;
To the prevention of medical counterfeiting and cybercrime.
Today, we are working on new instruments that will address fresh and evolving challenges.
These include the impact of Artificial Intelligence on our societies;
And the need to ensure that human rights are protected against the impact of environmental degradation and climate change.
We also issue Recommendations to our member States, guiding their approach on specific issues:
On racism, hate speech and LGBTI rights for example, helping governments to prevent discrimination in line with their obligations under the European Convention.
All of this – the treaties, the Recommendations, the case law – has, in effect, led to a political and legal revolution in Europe, and the development of a sustainable system that protects the fundamental rights of each and every one of our citizens.
A system that is unique and unparalleled in history.
You will find nothing similar on any other continent.
But very few people know the value, scope and reach of this system that we have built together, step by step, over the past 70 years. That is because it seldom makes the media headlines, and remains somewhat invisible until, one day, you need it or are confronted with it.
But here in Kristiansand, you have made a difference.
And you, kjære ordfører, speak rightly and proudly about the way in which this city sees itself as truly European;
You believe in a Europe based on values and democratic principles. In a shared identity.
Your decision to host this annual Europe Day event is testament to that.
So too is the long-term co-operation agreement reached between you and five leading local institutions, pressing home this theme with a range of activities.
Together you are providing opportunities to debate and to highlight the issues in a fast-changing Norway and a fast-changing Europe.
But, more than that, you are showcasing for the public what we have built together on our Continent.
For me – what is most important – is how we benefit from it as individuals. And what role each one of us can play, in our own way, to reinforce the values that make us who we are.
Human rights must never be taken for granted.
Rather, they should be illuminated and celebrated by the very citizens they exist to protect.
The conventions, laws and standards belong to them, and should be known to everyone. This is why I believe the community in Kristiansand gains directly from these events, and I know that there is strong national interest elsewhere in Norway too.
So, I hope you will not mind if the Council of Europe draws its own lessons from what you have achieved.
I believe that it would be in the interests of every one of the Council of Europe’s member States to hold an annual event like this. That Kristiansand can be a role model to other cities and regions - not only Scandinavia, but in Europe as a whole.
Our aim should be to help bring the Council of Europe – and the way we protect the fundamental rights of our citizens - closer to ordinary people. As Deputy Secretary General, I am personally committed to making this happen, and work is already underway.
But at this particular Conference, you will look at the issues through the prism of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a particular focus on freedom of expression.
And there is a lot to discuss.
But here, I want to make a further and important point.
COVID-19 has seen a spike in violence and attacks on journalists;
Reduced access to information;
The spread and criminalisation of disinformation or “fake news”;
And a financial crisis within the traditional media industry, whose opinions the public have sought, but in whom they place worryingly low levels of trust.
This might not be so evident in Norway, but we see it in many European countries.
Of course, these troubles existed before the public health crisis. COVID-19 did not create them, but it did make them worse. And added urgency to the work that we are doing to address them.
This unfortunate trend can be stopped.
But we need greater awareness and political will.
Every individual should know that human rights, democracy and the rule of law exist to protect them:
That they belong to each of us in the interests of all, and that they are worth fighting for.
This Conference is a very good example of the way to get that message out.
May it be replicated and amplified – throughout Norway, Scandinavia and Europe!
I wish you all an informative and successful event and a wonderful Europe Day.
Alt godt og lykke til!