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Working together for human rights – at all times and in all places

Marija Pejčinović Burić has been the Secretary General of the Council of Europe since 2019. Michael Roth has been Minister of State for Europe since 2013 and is currently the Special Representative of the Federal Government for the German Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
Published in Frankfurter Rundschau 10 December 2020
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On this Human Rights Day, we are commemorating the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 72 years ago. On 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted a catalogue of fundamental rights which apply equally to all individuals – regardless of their skin colour, gender, religion, national or social origin. This was a real milestone for the protection of human rights.

The founding states of the Council of Europe followed this example when they signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. After two world wars and the horrific crimes of the Holocaust, the Convention signalled the birth of a better Europe in which human rights would come first. We have accomplished much since then. Yet these great achievements must be defended time and again: not only on Human Rights Day but at all times and in all places.

As the guardian of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the Council of Europe has established itself as Europe’s moral compass and conscience. With its binding international conventions, it sets standards unparalleled in the world. For 835 million citizens, the European Court of Human Rights is the final court of appeal when they feel that their rights have been violated.

On 18 November, Germany assumed the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for six months. During the last few months, protecting the rule of law and human rights has also been among the priorities of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. For example, a new rule of law review mechanism was established under the German Presidency, a frank dialogue on the state of the rule of law in all member states based on the European Commission’s Rule of Law Report. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe has contributed key expertise to this.

Any successful human rights policy has to keep pace with new developments. Technological advances can have a positive impact on our future path. But they bring with them risks such as discrimination and inequality resulting from artificial intelligence. Human rights are universal. They also apply in the digital world. For the internet is not a space outside the law. We cannot allow hate and incitement to hatred to destroy the open culture of debate in our democratic, pluralistic society.

How robust a democracy is and how well it functions can be measured not least by its ability to safeguard the rights of minorities. Protecting certain groups is not clientelism but part of our shared identity. Diversity has made Europe what it is today. We should therefore never slacken our efforts to protect those who suffer most from marginalisation and discrimination, be they LGBTIQ persons, Roma, migrants or refugees. We want everyone in Europe to have the right to be different without being fearful.

That applies especially in the current pandemic, which has hit the most vulnerable and those in most need in our society hardest, and during which fundamental rights have been temporarily restricted throughout Europe. For cohesion in Europe it is important that we now act together and in a spirit of solidarity. This begins with small gestures and ends with issues such as the fair distribution of vaccines or the protection of groups at particular risk.

We are very concerned by the marked rise in violence against women and children during the pandemic. Financial hardship, fears about job security and curfews have resulted in ever more women being subjected to violence in their own homes. The Istanbul Convention provides an effective instrument for counteracting this development. However, the Convention has still not been ratified by all member states of the Council of Europe. We will seek to get these countries on board.

Today, Europe provides the highest level of human rights protection in the world – not least thanks to the Council of Europe. However, the pandemic has also highlighted the areas where we still have to enhance the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The motto of this year’s Human Rights Day is “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”. Recovery in the wake of the pandemic will offer us a great opportunity to make a fresh start with stronger human rights. Let’s tackle this together!