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6th Summer University for Democracy

Strasbourg , 

Opening session of the Summer University for Democracy

Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Strasbourg, 27 June 2011

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Dear friends,

Outside my office I have a memorable picture of Winston Churchill speaking to 100, 000 people at the Place Kléber here in Strasbourg in 1949 saying: "Be aware, I'm going to speak in French"!

I do not have Churchill's linguistic skills, but I would like to thank the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie together with the City of Strasbourg, the Conseil Régional of Alsace, the French Government and the University of Strasbourg for their commitment to the Summer University of Strasbourg.

Let me also warmly welcome the many participants from Tunisia, Western Africa and Kazakhstan, representatives of the cities, members of the Club de Strasbourg, and honored experts from Europe, the US and Japan to the 6th Summer University for Democracy!

And be aware, one day I'll speak in French!

When Churchill spoke – in French – at Place Kléber in 1949 he did so as an advocate of the European Movement celebrating the establishment of the Council of Europe.

The European Movement wanted a united Europe based on peace, democracy, liberty, solidarity, and respect for basic human rights. Before their aspiration became a reality, Europe had to endure decades of ideological division. It was reconciled through a sudden and sweeping change, a historic moment in which realpolitik was defeated by moralpolitik.

The new Europe was built on the politics of ethics. It is now a reality. We have a continent united around common values, but does this mean we no longer need to talk about ethics and politics today? The answer is that we must, more than ever. Let me point out two reasons why:

In Europe we find the forces of globalisation rapidly changing our societies. Citizens are requesting new ways to run society in order to bring the right answers. But as part of this, commonly accepted ideas and values are being questioned as pillars of society.

In North Africa and the Middle East we see citizens bravely struggling to establish free societies based on the same principles and values upon which we once built Europe, but this is now being challenged more and more.

The people of Europe and the people of our neighbourhoods have different points of departure, but all of us cherish freedom and most of us cherish the values that make freedom possible: Democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

We should remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – of which the European Convention on Human Rights is a direct consequence – states that human rights are innate and unchangeable because they come from our human dignity and not as a result of political decisions. These rights are natural rights.

Freedom of speech is a timeless right because human dignity means that we can speak and write freely. We have freedom of speech because we are people.

That is also why human rights should not be subject to political power or pressure. Human rights are a safeguard against political power. They are a right of the minority to be protected by – and from – the majority.

Human rights have been the most transformative forces in changing the world. When people scaled the Berlin wall they wanted freedom. When people in North Africa recently took to the streets they did the same. They wanted freedom.

But freedom cannot exist without high ethical standards by those in power. Where there are no ethics in politics, there will most certainly be corruption, misuse of power and violence which defy basic human rights. Without ethics, human rights become empty phrases.

Globalisation is a another transformative force changing our times. But globalisation has no aim of it's own, it has no leader and it has no ethics. It is a raw non-human force that the politicians, the media, and you must seek to steer in the right direction to make it a tool for prosperity of and solidarity between citizens.

This is important because globalisation is exposing us to diversity with an unprecedented speed and scope. The increasingly free movement of ideas, cultures and individuals is now confronting our identity with different, sometimes conflicting ideas, views, habits and customs.

Recently, a report to the Council of Europe, prepared by a high-level Group led by former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, looked into the challenges arising from the ever increasing multicultural composition of Europe. The report found that discrimination and intolerance were widespread.

The report recommends that European societies should embrace diversity. We must all obey the law, but no one should not be "expected to renounce their faith, culture or identity". This is a basic right. But we must also embrace our common values. This is a basic responsibility.

Public statements which tend to build or reinforce public prejudice against members of any group – and particularly members of minorities, immigrants or people of recent migrant origin – should not be left unanswered.

That is why ethics should always guide politicians when governing their countries and communities. We have too often seen that political leaders follow their people instead of leading them.

And we have also seen politicians misuse their authority and power with the result that they loose the trust of those who brought them to power in the first place.

So I say that we need courageous political leaders who hold high ethical standards to balance and give direction in the public debate.

And we need a courageous press with equally high standards which can provide checks and balance, can report on mismanagement, analyse the public debate and provide understanding to the reader of the changes within the society he or she lives in.

Let us therefore remember that for the citizens where democracy has been in place for years, for the citizens where democracy is still in its youth, and for the citizens struggling to achieve democracy, we have all one single thing in common: that democracy must be won, it must be maintained and it must be developed.

Dear participants of the Summer University for Democracy,

The British statesman Benjamin Disraeli used to say that "almost everything that is great has been done by youth". Looking back at my own actions during my younger years, I feel tempted to say he was right J.

But I believe even more that Disraeli pointed to a crucial fact: that youth has the ability to regard the rules of society differently from the established norms. Everyone who has fought for freedom of speech – and most of these people have been or are among the youth – have regarded society differently than existing authorities.

Therefore, in a time of continuing change, bringing together the aspiring youth here in Strasbourg, I hope the theme of this year's Summer University will give grounds for solid discussions.

Facing the challenges of today's world, each and everyone of us are responsible for the future of our democracies. Human rights are the single most important common ground for Europeans to take on the ongoing changes of our societies. But to do so we must all place ethics at the centre of our acts.

Mesdames et Messieurs, chers étudiants,

Je vous remercie pour votre attention. Je vous souhaite la bienvenue à Strasbourg et à cette édition de l'Université d'été pour la démocratie.