Back Lecture at Syracuse University: “Nationalism, Authoritarianism, and War: Are We Progressing into the Past?”

As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe


Thank you David.

Distinguished faculty and students,

It is a great pleasure to be here in Syracuse and to have the opportunity today to meet with so many of you.

This university has a distinguished record in the study and analysis of both politics and foreign affairs.

Your vantage point may be the United States –

But the resources and expertise here give you the opportunity to deepen your understanding of the political winds that affect your own country –

And others throughout the world –

And the interconnections that exist between them –

Where multilateral action often plays an essential role in defusing danger and finding solutions to challenges.

This is also the approach taken by the Council of Europe –

An organisation quite separate to the European Union.

Allow me to explain.

The Council of Europe was established 75 years ago –

As part of the post-Second World War rules-based international order –

And on the promise of “never again”.

Never again to war, death and destruction –

Never again to genocide that the world had witnessed in the terrible reality of the Holocaust.

And never again to the rise of aggressive nationalism which has haunted Europe for so many centuries.

Instead, European countries would come together and build peace based on unity –

And through respect for human rights, observing the principles of democracy and upholding the rule of law.

These have since been the essential and inter-connected pillars of the Council of Europe’s work.

From 10 founding states back in 1949, our Organisation has grown to 46 member states today –

All countries in Europe, except Russia and Belarus, for obvious reasons –

Plus, we have Observers who actively participate in our work including, I am pleased to say, the United States.

For nearly 30 years, the US has been an observer and a valuable partner to the Council of Europe.

For our member states, they have all ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the starting point –

And which draws heavily from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights –

And on top of all this we have the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg –

A Court whose judgments every government is obliged to fully implement.

This is not an option, or a request –

It is a legal requirement.

Among other things, the European Convention guarantees fundamental rights, including the right to life and privacy and family life –

And to liberty, security and a fair trial.

It also guarantees freedom of expression, assembly and association, and thought, conscience and religion –

And it prohibits discrimination, torture, and slavery and forced labour.

Building on this, the Council of Europe has developed over 200 additional legal treaties and instruments –

As our societies have developed and changed over time.

These include a special European Social Charter, which lays out rights, including to education and work and to healthcare, housing and social security.

There is also a wide variety of soft law tools that have identified specific problems, and then drawn from the European Convention’s principles to address these.

This approach is ground-breaking and remains unique.

No other continent has built a multilateral system like it.

Among its achievements, it has built a death penalty free zone –

It has made clear that same sex relationships must be legalised and recognised.

And it has transformed the situation for national minorities, linguistic minorities, and Roma and Travellers, along with countless other minorities in many countries.

In fact, it has been transformative for all of us.

And yet, it is under attack.

Over recent years, Europe – like so many parts of the world – has experienced a surge in extreme populism and nationalism.

This often goes hand-in-hand with anti-rights movements –

Whose clear intention is to turn back the clock, diffuse democratic gains, and undermine the national institutions, international organisations and civil society that have done so much to ensure open, diverse and inclusive societies in Europe.

This tendency has not only grown but at times entered the mainstream of national politics, and even the halls of government.

I believe that this amounts to moving backwards – to progressing into the past –

And I am sure that it would have horrified our founding fathers –

Statesmen like Sir Winston Churchill.

But what precisely do these negative trends look like?

How are we to recognise and call out this democratic backsliding?

In fact, we can measure it by the very standards that we have all agreed upon and committed ourselves to, and that go to the core of the mandate of the Council of Europe.

We can see it by the way in which freedom of expression is being restricted with the closure of media outlets, the use of Strategic Lawsuits against the media and journalists, and even in the rise of intimidation and violence against journalists –

Including murder.

We can see it in the constriction of freedom of assembly and association, with laws – including anti-terrorist laws – invented, used and misused to shut down legitimate peaceful protest and to shrink the civic space that is vital to any free and functioning society.

And we see it in the polarisation of political debate that has led to deeply divided and more extreme points of view and the rise in ugly, hateful rhetoric – both online and offline – and the targeting and scapegoating of specific groups –

Including women and girls, religious minorities and, very often, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers.

If you really want to see it – to see all of it in one place – look at the sad developments in the Russian Federation over the last two decades.

For years, Russia has been eroding democratic norms and human rights standards, in plain sight.

Then we had the appalling 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine –

And the return to war in Europe not seen on this scale since 1945.

Today we might ask ourselves, was not Russia’s sudden break with democracy – and respect for human rights – part of a process whose consequences we should have foreseen?

Look back and reflect on the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 –

The illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 –

And the Russian involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine –

Where 14 000 people lost their lives during the period 2014-2022.

Were the signs not clear enough?

Maybe we were too slow to recognise and address what was really happening in Russia over those years –

Perhaps the Council of Europe itself was not as clear-sighted and robust in its response as it should have been.

Certainly, our member states and governments were right to respond swiftly to the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago by immediately expelling the Russian Federation from our Organisation.

What Russia did was completely unacceptable and an affront to all that we have built in Europe over the last seven decades.

Its actions were a blatant and a fundamental violation of our values and standards.

Since then, we have done everything we can to support Ukraine – but we cannot afford any talk of fatigue now.

At the same time, we must learn from what has happened.

What is causing all of this –

The widespread and fundamental decline in the democratic standards and lack of respect for human rights.

Here in this university, I believe that many of you have reflected on why this happened –

And what we can do to help sustain and support democracy.

To do that we also need to understand the cause of the backsliding of democracy.

There are many reasons, and I have already pointed to some of them, including the attacks on free media and journalists, certainly of civil society, corruption, courts not being independent, disinformation. But also lack of economic opportunities, and an enormous widening of income, wealth and opportunity gaps in many democracies and to which few effective solutions have been found.

We have also experienced a successive wave of shocks – financial crashes, global health crises, the mass movement of people – to which again, democratic governments often seem unable to adapt and respond as effectively as people would want.

It may of course be a combination of all these and other factors –

With differing degrees of influence between countries, communities and individuals.

I do not pretend that I can make a perfect and precise diagnosis.

But I do believe that this drift away from democracy and towards authoritarian government must be stopped and reversed –

And that doing so is in all our best interests.

But to do this we need leaders who see and understand what is happening.

For governments, and indeed for politicians more widely, this is also a question of political will.

Rather than taking the easy way forward –

The path of least resistance –

Or doing only what might be in their short-term political interests –

They should instead take the longer-term, and often harder, approach and in the long-term interests of their citizens.

This absolutely can be done – and there are reasons to be optimistic.

We have seen it in the mobilisation of political forces that have united in opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in combating disinformation, cyberattacks and authoritarian rule.

I would like here to commend the leadership of the EU –

The robust response of the US, Japan and many European countries.

Also, in the Council of Europe, we have taken steps, and in many refocused and taken tough decisions.

The Reykjavík Declaration, adopted at our Summit last year, sets out our marching orders and concrete actions.

Crucially, it lays out our strong support for Ukraine when it is under the severest of pressure.

This includes the creation of a new Register of Damage –

That will record all the loss and harm suffered by Ukrainians on the ground – caused by Russian aggression.

And serve as the first and necessary step towards a future international compensation mechanism –

Recognising, as President Zelenskyy has done in his Peace Plan, that this measure for accountability is central to ensuring a just and sustainable peace.

The Register of Damage now has 44 members, not only from Europe, but far beyond Europe as well –

Including, most importantly, the United States.

The Register’s Kyiv office was officially opened just last week –

And will very soon receive its first of thousands, if not millions, of claims.

But it is important to acknowledge that this is also part of a broader set of actions.

Among these, we have taken steps to identify and protect Ukrainian children who have fled to other European countries and sometimes become separated from their parents and guardians –

Thousands of Ukrainian children have also been abducted.

And we have also worked with European governments to help meet the physical and psychological needs of the millions of refugees and internally-displaced persons who have sought safety inside Ukraine and elsewhere.

More than this, our Development Bank is investing heavily in Ukraine, including in the reconstruction of health facilities that have been damaged or destroyed by the violence –

And our Action Plan for Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction is helping the Ukrainian Government to take the measures needed to reinforce citizens’ rights and help uphold the functioning of the state and state institutions in times of war –

With actions that include everything from supporting the work of the Prosecutor General in the investigation of mass human rights violations –

Through to undertaking reforms that counter corruption.

These reforms will also help Ukraine towards meeting the standards required as it progresses towards membership of the European Union –

And pursues the European future that I believe it wants and fully deserves.

Of course, our leaders at last year’s Summit agreed other initiatives as well.

The Reykjavík Declaration included a clear recommitment to the Organisation’s values and standards, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights –

And it issued a set of 10 Reykjavík Principles of Democracy by which to measure the health of European democracies and identify problems to address.

On each one of these principles, there has already been follow-up action through the work of our institutions, various monitoring mechanisms and our steering groups and experts.

Let me give you some concrete examples.

On the need to ensure independent, impartial and effective judiciaries –

Which we know is so crucial to the effective separation of powers –

We are drafting a new convention on the protection of the profession of the lawyer, recognising the need to prevent undue interference.

On achieving full, equal and meaningful participation in public life, we have adopted a range of recommendations and other steps to counter hate speech and hate crime, including against specific groups –

And we continue to give the highest priority to the work on implementing our Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence –

Recognising that where women fear for their safety and security, it cannot be said that they are free to participate in public life on equal terms with men.

And on building a democratic future, European education ministers have adopted a new Council of Europe Education Strategy, Learners First –

Which seeks to renew education’s democratic and civic mission in our member states, enhance its social responsibility, and advance digital transformation grounded in human rights.

And of course, we must not forget our youth.

That is why our Joint Council on Youth has adopted a roadmap that will strengthen the implementation of our Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education throughout Europe.

These measures recognise that the democratic legacy that we pass down from one generation to the next cannot simply be taken for granted.

Rather, we need to explain and to teach the unique value that comes with that legacy –

And we need to defend it from attack –

So that youth has the knowledge and understanding to help protect our democratic future.

Dear friends,

At the same time, we must move forward with confidence and apply our longstanding values and standards to the new challenges that define our times.

On the trafficking and smuggling of migrants –

A crime that has grown in many parts of Europe, with lives ruined and lost as a result –

We are considering a specific new treaty designed to counter this fundamental problem.

On the environment, our member states have recognised the triple planetary crisis caused by pollution, climate change and the loss of biodiversity –

And the need to expand our range of tools to address this.

That is why we are drafting a new, legally-binding convention on protecting the environment through criminal law that will address environmental crime.

But that is not enough, so we are actively considering the possibility of a new treaty on the environment and human rights –

Or even adding a new protocol to the European Convention itself.

Well, we will see, as the best way forward is currently being discussed by our experts.

Finally, on Artificial Intelligence, we are fully aware of both the benefits this brings and the risks that it poses –

For example, in the way that algorithms can perpetuate discrimination –

Profiling us and deciding what information we can or cannot see.

So, we must act now to ensure that the rise of AI protects our rights and democracies –

And does not undermine them.

We have already put in place a range of measures on this issue –

And just last week we completed the negotiations for a new international treaty – a Framework Convention on Artificial Intelligence –

A groundbreaking and potentially global treaty that will ensure that AI upholds and respects human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

I believe that we all have an interest in that.

It is worthwhile noting that the negotiations included governments and experts and industry and civil society –

And the text is stronger for that.

Once again, the United States was among the non-European countries that contributed significantly to this process –

And I hope that it will be among the first to sign and ratify the Convention –

So that it can come into force as soon as possible –

For the greater good of people around the world.

Dear friends,

This list of actions for protecting and promoting human rights, our democracies and the rule of law is already long –

And I cannot possibly complete it here and now.

I can only reassure you that the challenges today are numerous.

I hope that taken together, the Council of Europe’s work points the way to a better, democratic future for the citizens of its member states and beyond –

But we should not be under any illusions.

We need to be alert and ready to act –

Particularly in these very challenging times.

Agreeing on the need for action is vital –

And we must be ready to create the tools that are necessary to make progress.

But having the tools is one thing –

Using and implementing them is another –

And is just as important.

We therefore need real political will and the leadership to confront nationalism and authoritarianism effectively –

To help end war, and ensure a sustainable peace based on justice, as President Zelenskyy has proposed in his 10-point Peace Plan.

Together, we need to do what we can to create the environment in which people can live in safety, security and dignity.

This requires governments to make use of the treaties and recommendations that exist –

To sign, ratify and meet the terms of the new ones –

And to abide by the principles of the UN Charter and other treaties that they have entered into freely, both at the national and international levels.

We cannot take anything for granted.

Maybe it is not even enough to rely on the goodwill of governments alone.

They must also feel pressure for that better future coming from the ground up –

From the citizens themselves.

Therefore, you and I as individuals must take the responsibility to vote, to be active in our communities and in civil society, and to voice our opinion and protest wherever we see that our hard-won rights are at risk.

We must be active in our democracies.

And I urge you to play your part.

Thank you for your attention – and I look forward to your thoughts, observations and questions.

Syracuse 26 March 2024
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