Youth Peace Camp 2016

Strasbourg , 

As delivered

It is a pleasure to welcome you all to the Council of Europe and to the European Youth Centre.

The Council of Europe brings together nearly every European country. It was founded after the Second World War, by leaders who understood that Europe’s nations needed somewhere where they could, together, build a new peace out of the ravages of war. A new peace, grounded in human rights, international co-operation, democracy and the rule of law.

65 years later and this mission remains as important as ever. Many of you know from your own experiences that we do not yet live in a Europe – or indeed world – free from violence, conflict or upheaval. Tolerance, inclusion and freedom must be fiercely defended and fought for, every single day.

This European Youth Centre is part of this project. It was founded in 1972 to give young people a place to be heard; a place to meet and communicate, as Europeans; to understand each other’s histories; to congregate around common values; and to foster the sense of shared purpose that can unite people from sometimes very different walks of life. 

The colleagues working with you will know that the Youth Centre carries a very special place in my heart. It is an incubator for the ideas and philosophies of our next generation – including some of Europe’s future leaders, I’m sure.

And, just as importantly, it is a place where friendships are forged. I have seen it many times: young people turning up on the first day, shy, staying in their familiar groups, but by the end having found new friends who they often stay in touch with for many years; perhaps a lifetime.

In a Europe where there are still people and groups who seek division, hatred, xenophobia and nationalism, and where peace can never be taken for granted, such bonds are invaluable.

So I invite you all to feel at home here.

I am very pleased to see the participants of the Youth Peace Camp together with those attending the seminar on the Social Inclusion of Refugees.

Fuelled in large part by the ongoing civil war in Syria, the refugee crisis poses great challenges for Europe, testing our solidarity as well as our commitment to our values. Here in Strasbourg we are clear that we cannot, as a continent, be indifferent to the plight of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution. We have a responsibility to them, as human beings. And we have been encouraged and inspired by the millions of European citizens who have given their time and support to these efforts. Their generosity of spirit should be a lesson to all governments.

I would like to express my thanks to the Global Platform for Syrian Students, Kiron and Voice of Young Refugees in Europe, and also my hope that we will continue to work closely as we follow up on the seminar.

My special greetings also to Marko Grdošić, Chair of the Advisory Council on Youth. All of us appreciate the Advisory Council’s constructive input to our work, not least on the social inclusion of refugees. And all of us appreciate their efforts to give young people a voice in the Council of Europe.

Because we need this. We will learn as much from you in the coming days as I hope you will take away from us.

The Council of Europe’s approach to conflict is built on a number of enduring principles. These include, among others, the need for active peace-building, respect for human rights and youth participation. They are tried and tested ingredients for moving a society beyond conflict and sustaining lasting stability. 

But it is your experiences and views which enrich and modernise these principles, and which bring otherwise theoretical debates to life.

And I want to challenge you to challenge us.

For each of these principles, help us – and help each other – better understand what they mean in practice, and how we can pursue them more effectively, making a real difference on the ground.

On peace building:

I don’t need to tell you that too many young people in Europe are affected by armed conflict today. Their safety and security must be a priority for all of us.

What are the lessons which can be drawn from the experiences of different member states? And, in these areas, how can we build peace on firm foundations?

Furthermore, are there other aspects to peace-building in modern Europe? 

Armed conflict is not the only form of violence young people face. Increasingly we are seeing extreme and populist movements making gains across the continent. They inflict violence through hate speech and prejudice. They identify others based on their religion, ethnicity or beliefs and advocate discrimination and segregation. Migrants, refugees, displaced persons and ethnic minorities are easy targets. And, perhaps most worryingly of all, we increasingly see mainstream politicians feeling under pressure to mimic these extremists – because they believe it will shore up their public support.

So what should this mean for our understanding of peace, and of creating peaceful societies? I know that both the peace camp and the seminar on refugees will pay particular attention to the role of hate speech, and I very much look forward to the outcome of those discussions.

On human rights, we know that lasting stability depends on all members of a society, irrespective of their backgrounds, being guaranteed the same fundamental freedoms. This is the lesson of history and we see it across the world.

In Europe, what these freedoms look like is set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, of which we are the guardian. It is known as the mother convention and has been elaborated in a series of other treaties. The Istanbul Convention, for example, which outlaws all types of violence against women. The Lanzarote Convention, which criminalises all forms of sexual violence and exploitation against children. And so on.

These set out, in law, the legal obligations on states. When governments fail to meet them, some 820 million European citizens have the opportunity to lodge a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights, which I am pleased you will have the chance to visit.

Why are such liberties essential for stability? Because they give people a means to resolve conflict without resorting to violence – through dialogue, debate and democracy. And because rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to fair trial, protections against discrimination and so on prevent the abuses of power that can create anger, frustration and ultimately upheaval. This is what we mean when we talk about ‘democratic security’.

We also have our Charter for Social Rights – for example employment rights, the right to healthcare, education, housing and welfare. The Charter has not yet been signed by all of our member states, (two are still missing) and yet it is extremely important for stability. Because, ultimately, if you want a society to choose peace, you need to give people opportunities; hope for their future and their family’s future. These rights are especially relevant to the refugee crisis, because if we want newcomers to integrate successfully into our societies, they must be given these opportunities too.

The reality, however, is that in too many places human rights, including social rights, are not being systematically upheld. And, while the situation varies from country to country, there are also some worrying trends across Europe. A backtracking on social rights, blamed on the economic crisis. In addition, in many places, media freedom is under serious threat. Corruption is a major concern in a number of member states.

How do we get Europe’s pursuit of these rights back on track? In my view it is one of the great challenges of our time. I want to know what that means for you, in your own lives.

Finally, youth participation.

As I said, we see this as essential for building inclusive and stable societies – which is why you are here.

Our mandate is to support member states and youth organisations in developing equal opportunities for every young person to play a full part in all aspects of society. Participation is a right that all young people should be able to enjoy and it helps ensure that the values of democracy and human rights are passed on from one generation to the next.

Youth participation is about taking young people seriously, not as “future citizens” but as actual members of society today, with entitlements and duties regardless of their age or legal status.

So, as activists, as youth leaders, as students, as refugee students, help us ensure that we are creating and advocating the right methods and policies for engaging young people.

And, in your own lives, see what you can do to become even stronger champions for youth participation.

The European Youth Centre and the Peace Camp are a safe space to test the principles I have raised, and to confront challenging and difficult issues. But most important will be what you take away from here, and what you do with it upon returning home.

I encourage you to see yourselves as multipliers and peer leaders in peace-building activities, as well as agents for dialogue and inclusion in your countries and communities.

I hope that you will be messengers for the peace you want, and advocates and pioneers for the projects and initiatives that can make a difference. You can count on the Council of Europe to support you in that.

And never, ever forget: you are always welcome here.

With that, I wish you a fantastic stay and I thank you for being with us.

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