Reception given by the Secretary General on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day
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Friends, this Saturday, on 10 December, the international community will celebrate Human Rights Day.
As you know, it marks the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is a good opportunity to take stock of our achievements, and to reaffirm our commitment to human rights in our respective countries, and around the world.
And it is a good opportunity to reflect on the systems which were put in place to protect people’s freedom and security following the great upheavals of the 20th Century.
The creation of the United Nations – whom we have to thank for Human Rights Day – testifies to the very best of mankind. Old rivalries were set aside in the aftermath of war, in order to build peace on the twin foundations of liberty and law. The same can be said for the Council of Europe, which is founded on the European Convention of Human Rights – the translation of the UN Declaration into European law.
But such institutions cannot be taken for granted: they are only ever as strong as the commitment of their member states.
The United Nations was established to protect international peace. Yet, when we observe the situation today in many parts of the world, above all in Syria, we see how far we still are from realising this aim.
In the case of Syria, a heavy burden of responsibility falls on the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
This war, which will soon enter into its seventh year, continues to destroy the lives of millions. It is destabilising a region. And it sends shockwaves well beyond Syria’s borders, into Europe, by fuelling terrorism and in the form of the refugee crisis.
There will be no lasting solution without concerted attempts by the Russian Federation and the USA.
And there will be no end to the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Aleppo unless the Russian Federation wills it so.
The protection of the people living there must now be paramount.
The fighting must stop, without reprisals or recrimination, to let these people begin picking up their lives.
I am sure that, as Human Rights Day approaches, I will not be alone in saying that there would be no greater statement of the world’s commitment to peace and security than a sustained attempt at ending this war.
In Europe, too, we must look at how to strengthen the system by which we protect human rights.
It is now increasingly common to hear politicians of all varieties, from all corners of the continent, openly challenge international courts and international law.
But this is a dangerous political game.
The European Convention on Human Rights has served as a principled and effective basis for co-operation between Europe’s nations for 66 years.
It protects 820 million people and has facilitated a single, common, legal space, in which 47 governments seek to abide by the same standards.
In the European Court of Human Rights, we have a court to which any individual living in our territories can bring a complaint.
It is a right to individual petition which does not exist anywhere else in the world.
And, in our Committee of Ministers, we have a place where representatives from all of our nations meet each other to talk, face-to-face, every week, whatever the difficulties of the day.
These are proud achievements. And we should value them even more at a time when dividing lines are re-emerging on our continent. When many nations are turning inwards. And when the forces of xenophobia and petty nationalism are clearly on the march.
I would like to thank the Russian Federation for remaining a committed partner to the Council of Europe.
Our pan-European character, and our ability to deepen ties across the full length of the continent, is helped immeasurably by having the Russian Federation at our table – now a member for 20 years.
We do not always agree on everything. Many of you will be aware, for example, of the Council of Europe’s position on Crimea. And I would like to repeat my strong hope that the peninsula will soon be reopened to our monitoring mechanisms, on a regular basis. 2.5 million people live there, and they must enjoy the full protection of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But, even in the more difficult moments, we always appreciate the fact that we can engage constructively with our Russian partners. We never stop speaking to one and other.
And, in our twenty years together, there have been many examples of dialogue and co-operation.
The Council of Europe has supported important reforms in Russian legislation, including in the civil and penal codes.
We have assisted in establishing the Russian Federation’s Courts of Appeal.
We have helped build up the important institution of Federal and Regional Ombudspersons – to give you just a few examples.
And we in Strasbourg continue to see the Russian Federation as an extremely important member of our Organisation.
This country has strong influence and the rare power to shape events and attitudes across Europe, as well as in other parts of the world.
As we look to the next stage of our partnership, we hope that the Russian Federation will work with us for a Europe where nations remain open to each other; where the lines of communication remain open; and where Europe’s nations continue to look for shared solutions to common problems.
Only then can our continent build lasting stability on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. And let us never ever forget the profound importance of this aim.